Death, loss, and grief are normal parts of life and living. Yet, we make every effort to avoid them. We view death as the enemy, and we recoil from the pain of grief, attempting to avoid or curtail it at all costs. In our society, there is barely any place we can turn to learn the value of being touched by the strong and loving hand of sorrow.
By entering grief fully and allowing it to shape us as an artist shapes a masterpiece, we are transformed into something more magnificent than before. As the intensity of the pain dissipates, we resume our lives with new understanding, greater wisdom, and deeper compassion for all living things, including ourselves. These are unexpected treasures.
We commonly associate grieving with loss through death, but grief can spring from the ending of any meaningful relationship. A divorce, the loss or change of a job, home or lifestyle, illness and disability are some of the many events that can leave us mourning our losses. Even changes for the better often involve releasing something cherished to make space for the new. And, often, people do not understand the depth of anguish that springs from certain types of death such as suicide, miscarriage, or the death of a pet.
Throughout life, our losses accumulate. It is important to meet and experience each of these losses. Like a physical wound, a psychic or emotional wound left unattended, will not heal or will heal in a way that interferes with functioning.
Grief naturally ebbs and flows. We may be surprised months or even years later by a sudden, intense “grief reaction.” These are natural feelings that seem to accompany an emotional experience of closeness with the lost loved one. With that understanding, we might savor, rather than avoid these feelings.
Every loss is different, every mourner unique. Short term and moderate alterations in appetite, sleep, level of energy, mood and concentration are natural effects of this life event. Sadness, anger, fear and disorientation are common. Sometimes people feel they are actually “going crazy.” The bereft may experience guilt, believing they did not do enough in the life of the deceased or that they could have averted the death. For others, the death can feel like a release. Our response to significant loss will depend on a variety of factors, such as personality, family beliefs about death and emotions–especially the darker ones–our relationship with the deceased, our history of loss, and the cause of death.
In fact, it is not the presence or expression of emotions that is problematic. Rather, it is the effort to freeze them. It is only when sadness is frozen in us that it congeals into the diagnosable problem we label depression. When we allow our sadness to have its full voice, it flows through us and leaves us feeling more refreshed and free. If there are significant unremitting changes in mood and behavior, or if the mourner is still in acute mourning after six months or a year, professional intervention may be appropriate.
Having a ritual in which to express feelings and engage with family, friends, and community is very helpful in connecting with our grief. Funerals, memorial services and practices such as wakes or sitting shiva are designed to acknowledge and support the mourner’s path. Support should not be confused with distraction. Mourners will benefit by having friends and family who are available and not afraid to help them experience and express their feelings.
Children also need opportunities to talk about or play out their thoughts, ideas, and feelings about the death. We should try to answer all their questions as simply and honestly as possible. They need reassurance that death comes when someone is “very, very sick, old, or hurt.” Children need to know that they are not at risk.
Death, loss and grief, when allowed to have their rightful and honored places in our lives, are great teachers and guides to our inner selves. They help us to remember that life is a treasure, which is loaned to us. Through awareness we can enjoy it, and when the time comes, we should relinquish it with grace. The extent to which we accomplish this is the extent to which we open our hearts and experience joy, meaning and success in our lives.
Dr. Turin holds a doctorate is a licensed psychologist with offices in Lawrenceville. She was a facilitator of the Grief Support Group at the Princeton YWCA.
Kate O’Neill collaborated with Dr. Turin on this article.