Bereavement

"Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted."  Matthew 5:4

 

Leaning into the Pain of Grief

 

The pain that follows the death of a loved one can be excruciating. It manifests itself physically and emotionally. You may feel physically numb or exhausted, a tightness in your throat, chest, or stomach, light-headed or shaky inside, dizzy, nauseous, constipated or prone to diarrhea. Emotions such as fear, anxiety, nervousness, rage, anger, depression, guilt, helplessness, desperation and hopelessness may emerge in combinations at varying intervals like an overwhelming force, coming in great intensity like an unexpected powerful jab. Yielding to this pain runs against the grain. Our instincts move us to avoid the pain with all its unpleasantness. Leaning with the pain seems foolish, even masochistic. Who wants to be in such a miserable place as grief? Surely few people choose such pain, but many find themselves victims because of the death of a loved one.

 

The pain of grief affects each of us differently. Like a snowflake, each person’s journey with grief will vary somewhat. But there is one universal truth; one cannot go around, under or over grief. One must go through grief by leaning into the pain to resolve it. It sounds terrible! It feels dreadful! But unless one goes through its torments, one has difficulty in future relationships. The unfinished business — those thoughts, feelings, actions that were never transacted or broached with the deceased clog us up. If this blockage remains, one tends to get sick. For many the blockage doesn't totally interfere in one’s relationships, but it seriously affects them. The dammed up reservoirs of grief need to be opened up. Thus the term "grief work" is most apropos. Work it is! It’s terribly difficult and personally draining, but only by attending to this pain can we move on to future close relationships healthily and place the deceased loved one in proper perspective.

 

After losing an arm or a leg for whatever reason, the time for emotional and physical rehabilitation is extensive. Sadly, little time, thought and energy is given to our rehabilitation after a loss. People simply move on, avoiding, escaping, and denying. Ultimately this prolongs one's grief even though its intensity seems to diminish. It renders one less effective interpersonally because of what is locked in our inner reservoirs of pain. Some argue that at least they are not conscious of hurting, but they are nonetheless limited because they have denied an essential reality — their pain from the loss of a loved one. Our fears of dying, and by extension the deaths closest to us, are so difficult to comprehend and digest we put them out of our conscious awareness. Such is the human instinct to recoil from life's pain.

 

But how is one to lean into the pain, to honestly address one's grief? Grief work is essentially a thorough and on-going review process. It is very reflective. It takes a very long time. It is never totally resolved but the intensity of the pain does lessen, and the frequency of the pain becomes more intermittent.

 

Certain dates, occasions, seasons, songs, people or places may trigger our grief anew, but with time and effort, our fears turn into nods and even smiles as we recall our loved ones.

 

Keeping a daily or at least regular journal expressing one's thoughts, feelings, pain and dreams is an excellent way of addressing one's grief; writing works when it's simply too painful to talk. It slows down one's feelings, enabling one to focus and define the pain. Another helpful method of working on grief is to write a letter to the deceased. In it express your feelings, whatever was not said or done that may be of concern.

 

Two other important ways of working through the grief are affirmation and visualization. Self-esteem tends to lessen considerably during one's grief. Frequently, he/she will say to her or himself, "I can't” or "I'll never be able." This is negative self-talk which can limit one and eventually become self-fulfilling. "I can't" becomes "I won't" evolving into "I don't." Negative vicious circles confirm such self-talk which keeps one's self-esteem low and counterproductive to grief resolution. Self-talk needs to become positive. Rather than focusing on one's liabilities, center on possibilities — what one "can do." But how? Begin to visualize. Get relaxed; breathe deeply for a few minutes. As you exhale, let go of your conscious thoughts and problems. Feel lighter and more relaxed. Begin to visualize doing those things you can do or want to do, or being the way you wish to be. Let your visualizing serve as your game plan. Work at actualizing your visualized way of doing and being. As you do this, your self-esteem will begin to increase and you will be working most effectively on your grief.

 

A final suggestion for coping with the pain of grief is to very clearly come to terms with what you miss and do not miss concerning your loved one. In acute grief, we tend to be obsessed with what we no longer have with the loved one — the good memories. Later on in the grief process, one is more able to realistically acknowledge what one does not miss. Coming to terms with ambivalent feelings is essential in grief. Until we can acknowledge both the positive and the negative aspects of our relationship with the deceased, we are not dealing with our grief and the mix of feelings one experiences; love, disappointment, respect, resentment, anger, appreciation, guilt, etc. Recognizing, accepting and acting upon these emotions appropriately are vital tasks in one's grief work.

 

Leaning into one's grief is a lousy place to be. But not to be there, to avoid or deny one's pain invalidates one's reality. Not to grieve the loss of a loved one prevents one from getting on with life. Only by leaning into the pain can we then move along life's way.

 

Dr. Terry O'Brien is Director of Programming at Family Life Education. He is a marriage and family therapist in private practice and special consultant to HOPE FOR BEREAVED.
Stein Hospice Bereavement Services, 1200 Sycamore Line, Sandusky, OH, 44870, 419/625-5269