Will I Ever Be Whole Again? Surviving the death of someone you love
By Sandra P. Aldrich
Published by Bold Vision Books
Table of Contents
Excerpt from Chapter Four: Moving Through the Grief
At a Michigan grief seminar, a pastor interrupted my outlining of the stages of grief to bluntly ask, "How can I get my people over their grief?"
That poor man was carrying an unrealistic burden. "Your job isn't to get them over it," I answered. "Your job is to help them through it."
He visibly relaxed and settled in for the rest of my presentation in which I explained the four basic stages of grief-numbness, searching, disorientation, and resolution. I further explained that I wasn't using the stages to pigeonhole people but to help them through a confusing, frightening time. We don't move through those stages in precise order, however. Not only does grief come in waves, but it's influenced by feelings of abandonment, guilt, and emotional struggles with other family members. Often, just when we think we can handle the situation, we are reminded of our loss, and the emotional pain swells again. And we don't move from one point to another in a straight line. At times we'll move back and forth from one stage to another - especially in the latter stages.
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross found that the dying work through five basic stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We now know that the families of the terminally ill go through these stages too.
But after the death, the griever faces additional challenges through numbness, searching, disorientation, and resolution. I'm aware that some researchers have further divided these categories into nine groups, but that gets too complicated for me. I prefer the following four.
Numbness can last from just a few hours to several weeks. Everything seems to move in slow motion, causing the grievers to feel as though they are in a bad dream or walking through a fog.
As the numbness begins to fade, the intense grief of this early stage may produce chest pains or feelings of suffocation. My husband Don had trouble breathing the morning before he died, so after his death my mind translated his suffering into my own shortness of breath. I checked with my doctor, who ran the usual medical checks then assured me that my heart and lungs were fine. I wore V-neck blouses instead of the bow ones that were popular at the time and waited for the smothering sensation to pass. Within a couple of weeks, my breathing was back to normal.
Drastic weight gains or losses can occur during the early stages of grief. Since grieving takes enormous physical strength, it isn't unusual to lose weight even without trying. When the body has worked through the initial trauma and is getting ready to rejoin life, the weight often is regained without a change in eating habits.
Massive weight gains can also occur. Often people stuff their emotions by overdosing on high calories. One woman complained that she had gained twenty pounds the first month after her husband's death. They had always taken a walk together after dinner. Now she had not only lost the motivation to take the walk, but she was trying to soothe her pain by eating childhood comfort foods of chocolate cake and cream puffs.
Searching - the next stage - can be an intense time as the grievers come out of the fog and ask, "What exactly happened?" In the early part of this stage, the survivors will want to see the autopsy report or police account. Not only is it normal, it is healthy. Getting our questions answered, painful though the process may be, gives us some emotional control.
The latter part of this stage often produces a literal searching. After Don's death, I caught myself scanning the mall crowds for him. That's even after I had seen him die. How much worse the searching must be for those who don't have their questions answered.
During the searching stage, that awful question "Why?" surfaces. Often it's accompanied by "What else could I have done?" or "Should he have stayed on the chemotherapy?" or "Maybe he should have gotten off the chemotherapy." Of course this is a painful time for those listening to the griever's questions too. No quick answers exist. After Peter Marshall's funeral, his anguished widow, Catherine, asked her mother why this had happened. Her mother, also a widow, answered quietly, "In God's time, He will give you His answers."
Guilt can be a major problem during the searching stage. The best way to dispel it is by expressing it. Before I worked as part of a funeral-home counseling team, I thought guilt was the plain old vanilla type that makes me visit relatives when I'm already up to my eyebrows in work. But I've since learned that three types of guilt exist: true, false, and misplaced.
True Guilt. This guilt shows up when we've done something wrong and we need to say, "I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?"
But what if the person is dead, and you can't ask forgiveness? Two simple things will help: Write a letter or send a message through a prayer. Of course the letter can't be sent (although some people "mail" them by putting them into a special notebook or burning them in the fireplace), but it's therapeutic just to express all those things you wish you could say.
"I'm sorry. Please forgive me" are five of the most cleansing words in our language. Every counselor knows that having the griever express all those searing thoughts on paper or to an empty chair is an effective tactic to relieve guilt.
False guilt. False guilt is exactly that - false. It's expressed most often through phrases such as "I should have." "I should have insisted he have the surgery." Or "I should have insisted he not have the surgery."
Misplaced Guilt. Guilt of this nature occurs when a normal situation explodes out of proportion. Years ago, before Easter corsages were sold in the local variety stores, Carl always ordered a corsage from the florist for his wife. But one Easter they had been so busy with parenting a new baby and purchasing their first home that he forgot - until Easter morning. Slapping his forehead in frustration, he apologized repeatedly. His wife had laughed and heartily hugged him, saying she already had everything she wanted and that flowers didn't matter. Two weeks later, when she was killed in an automobile accident, it mattered very much. The forgotten flowers tormented Carl, and no amount of bouquets at the funeral could make up for that unpurchased corsage.
Disorientation can be scary because, while we come to grips with the idea we must go on with our lives, the only way we can hang on to the one we lost is by looking backward. Trying to move in two directions at once can result in great emotional distress.
During the disorientation stage, closets are cleaned out, clothes given to the Salvation Army, and tools and golf clubs presented to sons or best friends. To do that before the griever is ready can complicate the letting-go process.
When the survivors are ready to let go of the deceased's personal items, they often wonder which ones they should discard and which ones they should keep. Many counselors divide the items into two categories: linking objects and mementos.
Linking objects are personal items, such as toothbrushes, and should be discarded as quickly as the griever is comfortable with throwing them away.
Mementos include family pictures and heirlooms that are an important part of the family's memories. Mementos should be kept.
Resolution signals the beginning of rejoining life. Joy and even laughter returns. I felt guilty the first time I laughed after Don died even though a relative was telling a zany story about a cousin. How could I laugh when Don was lying in Oak Grove Cemetery?
Resolution also comes when the griever says to himself, "Life goes on." One of our neighbors had taught with Don for sixteen years, so he often stopped over with reports of the school's continuing activity. Then before he'd leave, he'd add that I had to get on with my life, too. More than once I thought, If he says, "Life goes on," one more time today, I'll smack him. Life does go on, but I needed to wade through all of the emotions until I could say it to myself.
During resolution a creative surge often appears, and the griever will often look for ways to bring good out of her pain...
But it is only when we offer ourselves back to the One who gave Himself for us that we finally find peace - and the determination to go on with our lives, stronger and ready to help others through their eventual suffering.
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