PEOPLE GRIEVE DIFFERENTLY

Posted by on May 7, 2016 in Blog, Grieving

Fam grief

In listening to other men who had gone through the loss of their wives, I realized that people go through the grieving process differently. I even saw this in myself. I discovered there were differences in how I worked through my mourning time after Ruth died in contrast to the way I experienced grief after Judith died. As I reviewed what was different and why, it became apparent that many factors were not the same: I was older, I no longer had kids at home, I had done it before, and I talked to more people about it the second time. Many things can affect how a person goes through the grieving process. A few include:

  • The personality type of the person mourning
  • The definition of the relationship between the bereaved and the loss/person lost
  • The way the loss took place, whether over time or suddenly
  • The coping skills of the griever and the stability of their mental health
  • The support team available
  • The culture and religious perspective of the one who experienced loss
  • The social and financial situation they are in, or come into, based on the loss
  • The age of the grieving person

A Process not an Event

Another important realization for me was to accept that grieving is a process and not an event. My personality wanted to experience it as an event, fix it and get on with life. Not so! As waves of emotion continued to well up month after month, I realized that, little by little, I was letting go of my losses with each “first” life event after my wife’s death. The first holiday, the first time her birthday came up, the first time seeing mutual friends without her, and the first wedding anniversary. These were all events in the process that required time to happen and heal.

Beware of implying that a mourner should “snap out of it” too quickly. “This is behind you now,” and “It’s time to get on with your life,” are both comments that imply just that. Prematurely stated comments to that effect can do more harm than good. Listening closely to the bereaved within the first year of a loss can reveal what comments will help them most. Beware of making comments that begin with “you should” or even “you will.” Better would be statements like, “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care.”

I experienced the re-establishment of a new identity after the loss of my job and position. I had to rebuild a new set of friends and lifestyle after we moved across country as a family. It is all a process and not an event.

A Natural Emotional Response

I came to see grief as an emotional condition that’s as natural as bleeding when my arm gets cut. As a man, that was hard to acknowledge at first. I remember thinking when I was younger that if my wife’s parents died, she would really cry a lot. I refused to think my emotions would be “reduced” to sobbing.

But the moment I watched Ruth take her last breath, I was suddenly overwhelmed with an emotion I didn’t know was possible. It completely controlled me for a time. My heart was broken and it was as real as any other human hurt.

Mental logic such as, “Look what you have to be thankful for,” or “She is in a better place” did nothing for my hurting heart. I found more solace in comments like, “I really miss her too.”

Feeling of Hopelessness

Hopelessness is a word that accurately describes the hurt of the grieving. The inability to reverse the loss can be devastating. I could not bring my wife back from the dead. I could not get my position and job back. I could not recover the money I lost in a business deal. I could not bring my friends back into my life after they moved away. Things were out of control and it was scary.

Knowing what to say when helping the bereaved with the sense of hopelessness depends on the circumstances and timing. In many cases reassurances that times will be better in the future and that this hardship will pass are in order. Other times the best thing to say would be, “It must really hurt for you to be going through this now.”

Comments that minimize or gloss over the loss are of little help to the griever, especially near the time of the loss. “Things will be better,” “You can always have another child,” “You’ll get another job,” or “You will find another wife” are comments that do nothing to relieve the broken heart. A simple, “I’m sorry for your loss” is better than attempting to predict the future.

Grief is about the Griever

The grieving process is about the pain of the griever and not the one lost. Try to identify with the hurt the mourner is going through instead of logically dealing with the one (or thing) lost. No one really knows how any other person feels or what it is like for them. We can be the most help by focusing on helping them identify and often express their feelings with the goal of healing and victory.

A comment that can actually enrage a mourner is “I know how you must feel.” WRONG. Even if you have experienced a similar loss, you really don’t know exactly how someone else is feeling. There will be unknown variables that can affect the way loss grips another person. Beware of comparisons in an effort to minimize their pain. Acknowledgement of their pain is more helpful than trying to redefine yours.

It Takes Time

Grieving takes time to process. Both the bereaved and those who help them must allow for the time factor. However, the amount of time required varies greatly from person to person. Many people advised me to not make any major decisions for 12 months. That may be a generalized statement, but it can be very inappropriate to demand of all grievers. Some people intently work through their grieving process in months where others require years. When seeking to aid someone who has experienced a loss, beware of predetermining a time frame for them.

Instead of saying, “So, are you doing better now?” or “You look like you are on the mend,” ask your mourning friend, “How is today going for you?” This will give more room for the ups and downs of the process without making them feel wrong if they are having a bad day.

True, time does heal the mourner. When processed well, grieving does come to a conclusion. There can be a certain amount of comfort from knowing that the hurt felt today will not be forever. It is also true that time does not completely erase memories or even a bit of sadness.

That truth was shared with me from a total stranger a few weeks after Ruth’s death. The shop keeper/owner was obviously approaching retirement. His friendly demeanor made it easy to share my recent experience of loss. Upon hearing my story he simply stared out the window and recalled his wife’s death ten years before. “Yes,” he continued, “you never really get over the loss. It is just that the pain and difficult memories fade in time.”

It is interesting to note that the Bible even connects mourning with time. “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. … A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” New King James Version, Ecclesiastes 3.1, 4.

Action Required

Time alone is not enough to process one’s pain. Some steps, however, cannot be totally ignored forever. Actions are required to victoriously emerge one day from the pit of despair. Not processing grief well is like sneezing while holding your nose and shutting your mouth. You can blow something else out!

One action step I struggled with concerned experiencing all the “firsts” that followed my wife’s death. These included the first time seeing friends since my loss, the firsts of each major holiday, the first spring day, the first social event, the first time going to familiar places, the first anniversary of my loss, and even the first time having a meal with my family after my wife’s funeral. Being able to experience a one-year cycle of life, and going through all the “firsts,” could possibly be one of the reasons that twelve months is generally promoted in the grieving process.

I also had to process the scope of my loss. For many, coming to grips with the permanence of their loss becomes one of the hardest actions. Life as one knows it has stopped. Resulting changes required by one’s loss, such as help with household chores, companionship, intimacy, help with decisions, can take time and struggle. Identifying these losses and the required changes is where long conversations can aid in the dissecting of the details of one’s loss. Consequently, grief can actually be layered and needs to be peeled back like an onion.

Often, identifying with the struggles of the bereaved can only be acquired by being with them. “Call me if there is anything I can do,” only confuses the mourner. They will never call you. First, they could feel “weak” if they admitted need. Second, they often aren’t thinking as clearly as usual, making a simple call to a friend for help an impossibility. I suggest you show up at their place (or make a phone call) and say, “I’ve been thinking about you and just felt I should come by.”

With the loss of my wife, I needed to realize that I lost more than just a family member. I lost my lover. I lost my best friend. I lost all the dreams for the future we had. I lost my connection to certain friends. I lost a relationship of intimacy. Each of these losses required adjustment by me. I felt like someone had torn apart my Lincoln Log house I had built over the years and I now needed to rebuild it. But many of the core pieces were missing.

Doing Life Again

The days immediately following a loss can be a blur or even a fog, but life goes on. A friend, Michael, described it this way. “So how do you live, how do you survive? You focus on the “have-tos” first. I have to work. I have to shower. I have to eat. I have to keep up the house. I have to take care of the others in the household that are hurting just as much or more than I am. I have to hold them, comfort them. Focus on helping them get through this, while dealing with the reality that such a big part of our lives has been torn from us. That’s all there is for a while. Down times are the worst. Grief, mourning, pain, tears come. My pain, pain to my kids, pain to everyone who feels the loss seems overwhelming. Focus on things that matter; things that make a difference. Songs on the radio that you sang together bring tears again. Life will never be the same!”

Grief and Identity

People respond differently by suddenly having the stigma or identity of being the one who has experienced a loss. Taking on the title of widow vs. married, unemployed vs. having a job, homeless vs. having a secure abode, single again vs. married, or even childless vs. cuddling a baby becomes a struggle in and of itself. This new identity is required to fully find release from the pain of the event. It can be part of the process to freedom.

The pastor of the church we were attending was a great counselor for me during Ruth’s seven-year illness and death. I would often go and just tell him everything that was going on. One time, just before she died, I was in his office reviewing the events of the week. The doctors had sent her home from the hospital to die. He sensed that I was about to explode but could not. He wisely and lovingly said, “David, Ruth is dying.” His stating that stark and awful truth released my emotions. I found that acknowledgement necessary to help me process my loss after she died.

Accepting the new identity that loss demands, however, needs to be processed well. I recall observing my mother’s response to being “the poor widow” with five kids. She actually got to where she enjoyed the pity that identity offered. She actually became good at reminding people that she was widowed so they would possibly pity her. This became a hindrance to her healing.

In contrast, I recall the day about three months after Judith died when I sensed I was beginning to accept my singleness. It seems that from the time of Judith’s funeral till that day, I could not be content to let a conversation rest with someone who did not know me until I made them aware of the fact that I was recently widowed. The identity of being a recent widower held me captive. Then, one evening, I was at a concert and struck up a conversation with the gentleman sitting beside me. When I got home I realized that I did not even mention anything about my being a recent widower. I was simply me, a single man. It felt freeing.

A person is now faced with the challenge of building a new identity, starting over. This can be scary. It requires effort. Who they are now, after their loss, needs to be redefined. This can include things like making new friends, adjusting their social calendar, maybe visiting places and people they have not seen before, and it may even mean changes in wardrobe or decorating that reflect them now. Often, part of the struggle is getting past the question, “Would my loved one approve?” or “Am I being disloyal to them by changing?”

As the griever passes through this part of the process, you can help them by changing the nature of your questions. Instead of asking how they are doing with the loss of their loved one, begin asking specific questions about them. Of course, talking about their loved one is always in order for their healing. Eventually asking specific questions about them will be helpful as they establish a new identity. “What kind of music do you like these days?” or “Would you like to go out with some friends this Friday?” can be starters. One couple at my church asked me regularly what movies I was enjoying lately. It helped that they were asking about ME and who I was now.

Grief Hurts

This may seem like it should go without saying: Grief hurts. However, I didn’t really know to what extent it hurts until I experienced it firsthand. The pain of the mourner comes from deep inside them. It cannot be fixed quickly, nor should we think they “aren’t doing well” when this pain shows up.

Six months after Judith died, I was invited to have lunch with a hospice chaplain who himself had lost his wife about the same time as me. Someone who knew me and saw me weekly had told him I needed to talk because I wasn’t “handling things well.” At the end of the two-hour meal, the chaplain leaned back in his seat and admitted, “I asked to meet with you today because I heard you weren’t doing well. The truth is you have helped me beyond belief. Thanks.”

It made me wonder why this other friend who saw me more often thought I wasn’t handling things well. As I reviewed our visits, I realized what had happened. The friend who saw me weekly witnessed me tearing over easily and regularly in public. He concluded, albeit inaccurately that it must mean I was not doing well. In reality, because I had the freedom to show, my occasional painful moments, I was actually doing great in terms of working through the process.

Another important thing in understanding grief and pain is the truth in the statement that “hurting people hurt people.” As you strive to help those you know who grieve, please give room for them to express themselves. Sometimes in fits of pain they can hurt others. This may not even be intentional. An understanding heart and a polite, timely word would be much better than judgment, criticism or pulling away from them.

Not A Quick Fix

The list of helpful and not so helpful comments I heard during the viewing and funerals of both my wives is confusing. Many came from an effort to “fix” or help relieve my grief. If someone does not feel they have such a statement they feel like they “don’t know what to say.” Grief does not have a “quick fix.” Grief only needs to be heard and identified, in most cases. Listening is better than talking. Statements of the loss are better than logic for why or results of the loss.

No Prescribed List

My personality likes predictability and lists. It frustrated me when I heard others describe their journey and I noted differences. I wondered if it was just me or them that was missing something. I finally came to the realization that although grief patterns exist, there is no such thing as a definite checklist of things every mourner must go through to process their loss well.

This helps explain why some people would question whether I was really doing well if I had not experienced a certain thing (i.e. anger, guilt, blame, “WHY?”, etc.). Knowing possible feelings like this can be helpful to identify what a person is going through and accept it. However, to use any set of expectations as a checklist, much less judge a person on how well he or she is doing, can put undue stress on your relationship by adding wrong expectations.

One’s Faith Can Be Challenged

I was recently interviewed over the Internet for an online TV talk show. During the interview a viewer texted in, “How did you handle your “Why God?” question?” I realize that often times this is one of the first questions grievers ask. My answer was not as some would have expected. (See the complete response in chapter 12).

One’s worldview, especially regarding the spiritual side of man, tends to emerge during times of loss due to death. The “why” questions bring out fundamental beliefs, or the lack thereof, regarding basic human experiences from “origin” to “purpose” to “conclusions” surrounding human existence. Grievers often express their questions amidst their hurts. This topic can be a source of comfort for many but a source of distress for others. Your sensitivity to the griever in this area is crucial in helping process and move on to victory.

 

 

« Point To Ponder »

Grief is the acknowledgement of loss emotionally. It is mostly a heart problem, not a mind challenge.

 

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When Culture Shades Grieving

Posted by on Dec 12, 2015 in Blog

Cross-culture difference tips for helpers

In today’s world many of us are multi-cultural in a number of ways. You may find yourself interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds through work, church, clubs, your kids’ schools or even where you live. It would be presumptuous to conclude that all people grieve the same. All humans grieve, but how they do it can be based on teaching, religion, worldview or their own observations. Even if you disagree with their methods of grieving, the early mourning process is not the time to criticize them or to educate them to what you consider a better way. Your best plan would be to simply help them grieve well and then be open to help them if they have questions about their own perspective versus yours at a later, less emotional time.

KARAJA TRIBESMEN
I traveled to a very remote part of central Brazil visiting missionary outposts. While there, I witnessed two different approaches to grieving. The first one happened in the semi-civilized tribal village of the Karaja. One of the tribal elders had crossed the river in his six-foot, standup canoe to drink beer in the town bar. Late at night, on his return attempt to home, he fell in the river and drowned. I arrived on the village side of the river shortly after they pulled his body from the muddy water. I observed that no one was weeping. Many were whispering, but there was no deep emotional expression. They just did not do that there. The only emotion revealed seemed to be a worried look on the faces of a few women as they held a clinched fist to their mouths.
A few days later, back across the river in the small Brazilian town, I witnessed another death scene. There in the sun-drenched town a processional of kids dressed in white were accompanying a small coffin. I asked the missionaries to explain what I was seeing. They informed me that a child under the age of two had died and was being buried that day. No adults walked with the coffin. In fact, the child probably had no name. The town’s people believed that a baby did not have a “soul” till about age two so the baby was not considered a real person until then, when it was given a name. Since, in their minds, this infant was not a real person, no adults bothered to mourn for its loss, not even the parents.

DIVERSITY
The concept of grieving a loss due to death often can be affected by the cultural perception about death itself. This varies from country to country as well as from sub-cultures within those countries. Finlo Rohrer published an article in the BBC News Magazine (2010) entitled, “How Much Can You Mourn a Pet?” In it, he admits, “The UK has what is seen by many non-Britons as a slightly repressed attitude towards death.” Other European countries tend to have reputations for emphasizing death (i.e. the vampire stories).

THE GROUP EFFECT
Grief in a culture grows from a society and belief system that prizes and cultivates individual experience. Some languages have no equivalent to the term grief. In parts of Japan, the concept of emotions that are solely expressed on the part of an individual are not common. In those societies, individual identity is a function of social and communal harmony. A harmonized atmosphere as part of a family or community is sensed among the members. Personal grief is therefore more of a shared event.

In some traditional Chinese cultures, death presents the problem of pollution as understood in terms of their religious world view. One of the purposes of funeral rituals is to protect the men from that pollution, while on the other hand the women take the pollution on themselves. In turn, this practice results in purifying the deceased for the next life. Other than mourning, any other practices revolving around death would seem to be culture-specific. Death presents pollution or powerlessness in some cultural contexts as much as it presents separation, loss and sometimes trauma in the modern West.

THE INDIVIDUAL EFFECT
Western individuals, on the other hand, who successfully come to terms with a traumatic death, may change how they think about themselves, how they relate to others, and how they view life in general. As our world changes and becomes more of a worldwide community, so views on death evolve. Changes experienced by individuals in other cultures might be just as wide-ranging but cover spheres not experienced in the West.
When something important happens in individuals’ lives, they do not just think about it; they talk about it with others. Grief and mourning do not just happen inside a person; they happen in the interactions between people. In most cultures throughout human history, myth and ritual provide the intersubjective space in which one can construct the meaning of the deceased’s life, death and influence over the survivors’ lives. Understanding these concepts can give direction in how to talk to the bereaved. Conversations about the definition of the relationship lost can validate the lost life and aid the mourner in processing their own pain of loss.
One cross-cultural project sought to compare the rules about the emotional expression of grief. Anthropologist Unni Wikan, for example, compared the rules in Egypt and Bali, both Islamic cultures. She found that in Bali, women were strongly discouraged from crying, while in Egypt women were considered abnormal if they did not incapacitate themselves in demonstrative weeping.
Asking a grieving friend from another culture what their traditional methods are can be one way to show concern and empathy. This gives you a chance to at least acknowledge their hurts whether they are the same as yours or not.

PRACTICES
The traditional Jewish culture found in the Old Testament of the Bible had many practices continued in many places today. Even though their existence revolved around their God, the expression of grief in the time of severe loss revealed their human experience. Weeping, a primary indication of grief, was referred to a great deal. Time (30-70 days) was set aside to mourn deeply. The physical appearance of the mourners was altered to indicate their condition. Ashes or outer garments often symbolized a grieving heart. The realization of the gift of the presence of friends and family regularly induced comfort. (The Holman Bible Dictionary, 1991)
Judaism today calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

LIVING IN ANOTHER CULTURE
Cross-cultural effects on how one mourns also come in other packages besides historical traditions. Families living abroad, outside of their home country and culture can be very confused about the mourning process. Jonathan Trotter addresses this confusion in his article “Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised” (December 22, 2013):
Living abroad is an amazing adventure, but it comes with some baggage. And sometimes, the baggage fees are hidden, catching you by surprise, costing more than you planned. You thought you had it all weighed out, you could handle this, squeeze right under the limit.
But then it got heavy. Your new friends moved away, or your child’s new friend moved away. Far away. Like other continents away. And your kid’s broken heart breaks yours.
Someone died and you didn’t get to say that last, fully present, goodbye. Family members celebrate a birthday, or the whole family celebrates a holiday, and you’re not there because the Pacific’s really big, and you’re on the wrong side of it.
Or your child can’t remember her cousin’s name, and she doesn’t even know that’s sad.

WORLDVIEW
Facing the subject of death and life beyond often brings out the definition of one’s “worldview.” Some individuals and cultures see death as final with no existence beyond. Others think that following death one is simply in a spirit world quite different than our own, which interacts with ours. Still others view life after death as a paradise existence that is very similar to our own, but unimaginablys better. Many hold to the concept that a judgment or evaluation of one’s life follows death and that either reward or condemnation awaits each person who dies. A large number of the world’s cultures and religions hold that a person immediately faces God in some way upon their death.
I have noticed that it is not uncommon for the bereaved to default to what their worldview is only to have questions about it. If they request it at this point, you can take the opportunity to help them answer and adjust their worldview where they have confusion. However, unless asked, you will be the most help to them by addressing their pain of loss.
But being aware of one’s worldview can help you choose what to say. If they believe that death is the end of existence comments like, “Your loved one is in a better place.” will be of no comfort. However, a comment such as, “Your loved one has no more pain.” may help more.

RELIGION
Worldview is often influenced by religion. Understanding a griever’s religious views can be a big help in your knowing what to say, or not. The beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, for example, hold that the state or even future of a departed soul can be affected by intercessory prayers. Comforting folks who cling to this hope for their lost friend or relative can be more effective by you emphasizing the bereaved person’s current pain and not saying things about the state of the departed.
Other religions such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, view the state of the deceased to be in a form of unconsciousness until some future resurrection. Many Judeo-Christians believe the departed is instantly transported to the presence of God in a “heavenly” state of paradise. In making comments to these folks about their one lost, you should be politely aware of these beliefs. Again, remember that your role is to aid them in processing their grief and not to change their religious beliefs unless they specifically ask for your opinions on the subject of life after death.
Members of Islam believe that any form of suffering, including grieving, is a result of the griever’s sins in some way. Their Prophet Muhammad declared: “By the One in whose hand is my soul (i.e. God), no believer is stricken with fatigue, exhaustion, worry, or grief, but God will forgive him for some of his sins thereby — even a thorn which pricks him.” (Musnad Ahmad, You-Tube) So, you may aid such a person with words of assurance that will help them deal with guilt that may be unjustified. Physically showing grief with the bereaved would be in order, however, Islam discourages very loud crying and wailing at funerals. During the mourning time after a death, mourners expect to have visitors. Be sure to pay a physical visit to your Muslim friend within days following their loss.
In the case of Buddhism and Hinduism, the deceased is believed to be on a path to being re-born again in another physical life. Helping such a one cope with their grief could revolve around assisting them celebrate their loved one’s life. Emphasizing the accomplishments and good traits in the form of scrapbooks and photo displays can bring inner comfort to the griever.

Genuine concern goes a long way in helping the bereaved. Sensing your authentic caring is more help to them than a long prepared speech. Polite awareness of their worldview or religious persuasion will be helpful in aiding their grief.

« Point to Ponder »
Comments that imply a judgmental nature are of no comfort to the bereaved.

(Copied from the book I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY: Being a Better Friend to those Who Experience Loss. www.ididntknowwhattosay.com/book)

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Looking to a Higher Power

Posted by on Feb 7, 2014 in Blog, Comfort, Grief Relief

Sometimes the best way a person is helped when going through a loss is to look to a higher Power.  This means that NOTHING you or I say can help the same way.

Harold S. Kushner, upon revising messages from the 23rd Psalm in his book, The Lord is My Shepherd expresses it in practical terms. ‘When something bad happened to me, I turned to my friends for support, for the reassurance that I did not deserve this fate? Some were wonderful, caring, supportive friends. But some people on whom I counted turned out to be false friends. They were not, or maybe could not be, there for me. They could not nourish me emotionally as I needed to be…I needed them to bring light into my darkness, to banish the gloom that enveloped me, but they did not know how to do that. Some were so intimidated by what had happened to me that they couldn’t look at me without worrying that something similar might happen to them. Some stayed away because they felt inadequate. They didn’t know what to say. It bothered them to see me suffer…They all had their reasons for what they did, but I felt alone and rejected in the valley of the shadow. The only thing that kept me going, the only thing…was my faith in God, my faith that when I cried out, God heard me…When I felt alone and abandoned, I prayed and I had this astonishing feeling that I was no longer alone…The Psalmist concluded, ‘God, thank You for being there…Thank You for nourishing me with Your presence when so many others could not help me.”

It is possible that our feeble attempts to help those who have lost something or someone dear to them can never really reach the deepest part of their need.

In Reflection

DAVID KNAPP

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