The Healing Power of Grief
THE JOURNEY THROUGH LOSS TO LIFE AND LAUGHTER
By Gloria Lintermans & Marilyn Stolzman, Ph.D., L.M.F.T.
Beginning to Mourn
The earliest feelings of mourning include the initial shock (this can't be happening), the denial of the reality, and feeling overwhelmed and numb. It is not uncommon to feel some loss of self-esteem and extreme vulnerable. Symptoms usually include a variety of internal complaints, a great deal of crying, insomnia, waking from sleep or not being able to fall asleep, feeling anxious, loss of appetite, possible sweaty hands and heart palpitations. You may also experience irritability, lack of patience, forgetfulness, distractibility and loss of concentration. Feelings of sadness and loneliness accompany feeling bewildered.
Disassociation of feeling is common. “I feel split off and distracted; I'm not there.” “Or, I feel like I'm on “automatic pilot'”. These feelings are normal. It is important to develop the ability to self-nurture during this most stressful time. On the Homes and Rahe Social Readjustment Scale, death of a spouse ranks at 100 percent as a stressor.
Concentrate on self-care and physical check-ups, appropriate nutrition, rest and exercise. Talk honestly of what you are feeling to friends and family. Feelings are not right or wrong; whatever you are feeling is appropriate. Acknowledge that there is no “script” to follow and know that talking about your feelings to understanding family and friends is good, yet being aware that no one understands grieving until it is their experience.
Living through the Pain
The temptation now is to go to denial. Your loss will be with you 24 hours a day as you traverse this bewildering early time sequence. You may feel “frozen,” “locked up,” emotionally numb, scared and more capable of crying than talking. You may find it hard to be coherent or put two sentences together. You may want to go into some dark corner and scream. You are searching for tools while feeling half crazy. You want gentleness and support but are often quick to anger and anger often spills out everywhere. Being able to focus is impossible. Feeling scattered and out of sorts is your new norm.
With your loss, you feel as if you are on the wrong road or out of your familiar community, or as one mourner expressed, “I’m living in the wrong neighborhood.” Vaguely, the house looks familiar, but the world is strange and un-kempt. Nothing feels right. Anything and everything your friends and family say can feel irritating. There is no place to go that is comfortable. You are not at home in your body; there is no good place to be, anywhere.
Grieving is exhausting. Feeling tired emotionally is draining. If you are lucky enough to be able to exercise, this can be some outlet for your inner tension.
Sleeping can be uncomfortable. You might fall asleep and wake up or want to sleep all the time. Internally, you can feel very empty and want to fill up, often by overeating. On the other hand, there may be loss of appetite and you can’t eat at all. Either way, there may be extremes of mood. Emotional stability can feel transitory. There may be good moments in a day but they may be overshadowed by, moodiness, despair, internal pain and great sadness.
Hal has this to say: “Well, quite obviously, the first few months were beyond description. There were just horrible moments of despair and loneliness. I was only able to get relief after the first few weeks when the meds that I was taking kicked in, and, after the therapy started to ease some of my feelings of guilt and a bunch of random other feelings that my wife’s death brought forth.”
As the months progressed, Hal’s pain eased, but the loneliness persisted. “I think that was probably the most debilitating aspect of mourning, the absence of my mate. She had been there since, really, childhood because we’d known each other since we were 14 years old.”
Early bereavement is a slow process. You might expect to make greater progress along these strange roads than you do. Inner patience is important, as is allowing yourself to feel whatever you feel. At first it feels as if nothing will ever change or get better, but the intensity diminishes in time. The raw and open wound slowly begins to heal. Bad feelings are less frequent and linger for a shorter time.
How do you change a “rotten place” to a place of optimism and hope? How do you move from despair to a lighter meadow? How do you learn to dream again? How do you move to wholeness?
What is the inner process of achieving wisdom? What does the heart advise? How does the heart heal? The following exercise can be helpful:
Envision each chamber of your heart as a separate room.
Envision each chamber filled with sunlight and air,
Envision breezes blowing through.
This room is different from a room with no light. When you are sad you can love the dark and hate the sunlight, but when you allow sunlight in, you can again breathe in that room. Learn to breathe again.
Have you begun to think of your late spouse in terms of perfect? Or that the relationship was perfect, or as if the achievement of “sainthood” validates your pain? What is gained or meant by this thinking? It enables you to stay emotionally stuck. “Look what I lost.” The enormity of the loss can become your sad lament. When the human characteristics of him/her emerge once more, it is often a strong indication that you are getting better. This is one way that the psyche is protected until you are ready to mourn. On the other hand, you may feel sheepish about admitting, even to yourself, that your marriage was less than perfect. Give yourself permission to feel these feelings, knowing you are far from alone.
Often the bereaved, at this stage, attribute sainthood status to their lost loved one. It is a measure of your healing when you are able to remove your deceased spouse’s sainthood status.
The use of humor transcends all the stages of healing and needs to be used and recognized as a wonderful tool for self-balance. Humor keeps our head above water at a time when we think our logic is going to float away and drown us. It offers leverage, relief and distance from pain. There are moments when we think we will never laugh again and then, in the most unexpected moment, there is a smile and it is so welcome. At first, you may feel uncomfortable with laughter, but participating in a bereavement support group will help you to acknowledge not only how good it feels, but how wonderful it is to witness and participate in.
Healing from Within
Your search for your inner guide requires an inner quietness – a place where the brook of energy runs freely – the water flows. The currents swirl, life is not stagnant. Ask yourself the question, What do I want? What feels right and true to me at this moment? When one is overwhelmed by anxiety, natural intuition is blocked – the flow is interrupted.
How can you learn to relax the body when you feel tense? How can you be grounded when you don’t feel grounded? One technique is to use breath as an energizing source. Visualize your breath and let go of body tension. Imagine moving into a deep quiet inner space where there is an innate wisdom that spills forward as if it were a waterfall. The water soothes and comforts. Ask God, or the Universe, for guidance and trust the reply that comes from that inner place.
Beginning to Find Answers
Q: Why are holidays so hard?
A: Holidays are reminders of family occasions and have, often painful, associations to events and people. They evoke memories, feelings and nostalgia for what was. It is helpful to do things in a different way at holiday time and to make plans to be with family or friends rather than being alone.
Q: My husband and I had a troubled relationship. Why am I still grieving so much?
A: Even in a difficult relationship, people grieve. We often grieve the loss of a relationship that didn’t have resolution. Any chance to redeem the relationship is gone, and that is another type of loss. We have many feelings about lost opportunities, regrets and what might have been. It is normal to be sad, even if the relationship was a troubled one.
Q: I’m frightened of being alone. How do I deal with that as I grieve?
A: There are two aspects to this question. First, there is a difference between being “lonely” and “alone”. Most people have trouble tolerating their own “aloneness” in the bereavement experience. And so, they attend one activity after another just to “keep busy.” Rest assured that, after a while, it becomes easier to be alone and to tolerate being in the house by yourself. On of the indications of healing is when you can do this again.
The other aspect relates to one’s aging process. As we are aware of our own aging, it is normal to be concerned about who will take care of us as we get older. We don’t want to be overly dependent on our adult children. This issue particularly comes up when you are ill and most acutely aware of your “aloneness.” The buddy-system is a good idea. As you make friends in a bereavement support group and bond, call each other during the week and socialize. Just be aware that this is normal concern.
Q: Do you think it helps to keep a journal?
A: There is a saying that “paper is more patient and … I don’t intend to show this cardboard covered notebook to anyone.” (Anne Frank)
Often, when we record our feelings on paper, they make more sense. Some of us are able to cry and express our grief, while others are more private. A personal journal is a good place to explore, in quiet moments, feelings we are struggling with. Many people find relief and calmness after writing, just pouring out their hearts and then being able to walk away for awhile. Sometimes, putting thoughts and questions on paper allows you to open your heart in a way that hasn’t been expressed out loud. Allow yourself to write, without judgment, whatever you’re feeling. It is a useful, healing tool.
Q: Why are some people able to form a close relationship with another soon after their loss while others have such a problem with dating?
A: Most people do want to connect again—some for friendship, other for companionship, and still others for love. Some people cannot tolerate being alone. Everyone, however, is different in their readiness and desires. Some may lack the opportunity. But, as a general rule, when we are frantic and needy, we make bad choices in our search to stop our pain.
As you begin to heal, you are not only more emotionally available to yourself, but you become available to others again. Also, the stage of your life is relevant to how you might go about searching for another relationship. Regardless of age, people often meet others in bereavement support groups because that common bond of grief offers a “comfort zone” with others in the same position. Sometimes these relationships begin with friendship and move on to love.
Q: If you lose more than one person within six months or a year, can the grief overlap and how do you separate your feeling so that you can go through the process in the most beneficial way?
A: When there are several losses in a brief time span, because the losses overlap the grieving may be confusing. It is not always clear who you are grieving for at any given time. In a way, it doesn’t matter. The psyche when overwhelmed can shut down and that is not, necessarily, a bad thing.
We use our defenses to protect ourselves. We can’t always separate out our feelings. There are also different kinds of losses which may overlap, such as the loss of someone we love and the loss of status, home, job, or several relatives dying within a year. Regardless, the emphasis needs to be on healing and your feelings. When loses overlap, wondering which stage of grief you are in may be less relevant as the focus is on developing strategies to love life again. Healing slowly day by day, discussing the various losses with those you love … crying, calling friends … striving with humor to be yourself and acknowledging a very difficult time in your life is the best strategy.
Q: How am I supposed to feel when I have something to share and my spouse is not there? There is no one next to me in bed to wake up with and the emptiness comes over me physically as well as emotionally.
A: We experience loneliness on several levels. There is the loss of the physical presence of your spouse. You miss being hugged and touched. There is also the emotional bond of sharing, the desire to share thoughts and feelings with someone you are close to and feel emotionally connected to. Part of the sadness of grieving is recognizing that the one you most want to share with is gone.
Gradually you will be able to tolerate your own “aloneness” and will be able to reach out for companionship and friendship.
Q: After my husband passed away, I became very fearful of being ill and having no one to take care of me. How can I deal with that fear?
A: It is scary and anxiety-provoking because it reminds you that you are now alone and potentially dependent on others. Besides missing the support of your spouse, you may question your ability to take adequate care of yourself. Often, there is resistance to being dependent on friends and family. When you are in need of support, love, caring and attention, it is a painful reminder of the fragility of life and it is important that you work through those feelings and accept help.
Helpful Do's and Don'ts for the Bereaved
Do call a friend when you are blue.
Do water the flowers and take time to smell them; work in the garden, pull out weeds.
Do something positive for yourself every day.
Do get enough sleep.
Do exercise daily.
Do remember to take time to eat.
Do think positive thoughts every day.
Do spend time with family and friends.
Do get as much support as you can.
Do open the mail.
Do treasure your loved ones.
Do resist the temptation to run away from your pain by keeping yourself frantically busy every waking moment.
Do journal in a notebook about your feelings.
Do see a therapist if you feel constantly overwhelmed.
Do allow people to help you.
Do be patient with yourself.
Do take your own car to an event, so you can leave when you want to.
Do be grateful for what you have.
Do allow enough time for healing.
Do watch funny movies.
Do listen to quiet music.
Do create positive affirmations about yourself.
Do pursue a satisfying creative outlet.
Do stay focused on specifics to help you get through the day.
Don’t stay in bed the entire day.
Don’t do things you don’t want to do if you feel pushed into them by well meaning friends.
Don’t stay too isolated.
Don’t turn invitations away.
Don’t overindulge in alcohol or sweets.
Don’t be disappointed in yourself, grief takes more energy than you would ever have imagined.
Don‘t throw out or give away the clothes until you are ready.
Don’t write thank you notes until you feel up to it.
Don’t, if possible, make any major lifestyle changes or decisions … for now.
Helpful Don’ts for Friends and Family of the Bereaved
The bereaved often feel upset by the things people say to them. Of course, they often feel that nothing is a comfort and anything that is said is offensive. If we are feeling terribly wounded, words don’t comfort, comforting hugs or an arm around your shoulder feels much better. Statements and questions such as, “How are you doing?” Or, “Are you doing better?” or “It’s hard for me, it must be terrible for you,” do not feel good when we are in the shock of mourning.
Don’t say you understand when you don’t understand how someone else feels. Say, “I’m sorry for your loss and your pain;” instead of “I understand how you feel.”
Don’t patronize the bereaved.
Don’t forget to call several weeks after the funeral.
Don’t walk away from friends because they have lost their spouse.
Excerpted from The Healing Power of Grief: The Journey Through Loss to Life and Laughter by Gloria Lintermans & Marilyn Stolzman, Ph.D., L.M.F.T. Copyright © 2006 by Gloria Lintermans and Dr. Marilyn Stolzman. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from Gloria Lintermans. $16.00. Available in local bookstores or click here.