A friend of mine recently lost his father. Why do we shy away from saying someone died? Why do we have so many imprecise euphemisms for death? Why? I’ll come back to that some other time, to our fear of death, our feeling that by not mentioning its name it won’t come for us. With this and the next post, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on grieving for the benefit of those with grief and those who have friends they want to help with their grieving.
I know grief. My former wife died in my arms after a stormy course with brain cancer. My 6 years as coroner, 17 years in the ER, and 9 years in HIV Primary Care introduced me to too many individuals who were dealing with grief. Their grief arising from being told what they have or how long they likely have to live and that grief that arises from the death of others that they love.
Let me begin by pointing out that Ms Kubler-Ross, whose 5 stages of grieving are so often quoted, never intended her stages to be applied to individuals grieving the death of a loved one. She developed her stages based on working with folks who were diagnosed with a terminal disease and they are the stages you go through with such a diagnosis. They are not really applicable to someone grieving the death of a loved one.
Grief is work, really hard work.
As I told my friend, the grief he feels will not go away. It will ease, at least some, but it will be his companion for the rest of his life. The grief will be something he will need to work with so that it doesn’t consume him. The feelings will wax and wane through his life. His first task is to accept the death, and that it is a death, not a passing or some other sugary version of the events. He will need to allow himself to feel the pain and make it his own. This is lonely work, others may support his efforts, but it is his task to do the work. Once he has accepted that the death has happened (not really as easy as it sounds) and accepted that he has pain from death that will be with him always, he can move on the the next phase of the grief work.
He will need to adjust his life around the gap that is now there. His father is dead and he must develop a new relationship with his now dead father. This is indeed life altering work. This goes beyond merely accepting the death. He must change how he relates to his father and his father’s memory. He must readjust how he relates to others with connections to his father. By doing this phase of the grief work he can make available the emotional energy previously invested in his father and reinvest it elsewhere in his life. Leaving that emotional energy tied up in his father weakens his emotional energy overall.
None of this is easy work and it takes time. He will not be able to just “get over it.” It is work he will have to do on his own, but, hopefully, with the support of those that care for him.
In the next post I’ll cover how you can support someone else’s grief working.