From Dr. Jane's Notebook

Oh, the difference between life and death

Last month, my Father did the inevitable. He died. Sadly, I am not alone in my loss. I have attended more funerals during the past couple of months than ever before.  Friends of mine have lost parents, spouses, siblings, and children.  In each case, we are called survivors. And while it’s true that we will survive these losses, it is never easy to cope with the changes that take place for those who must pick up the pieces and carry on with life. Here are a few more thoughts on the matter.

·        Time out for grief. When a loved one is terminally ill, sometimes it feels like you are living in a space between life and death with them. This is a unique space where your loved one will fight against death until they lose their grasp on life. When at last, they lose the battle and are gone from this place, it is up to us to find our way back to the land of the living. This is no small task. It takes weeks, sometimes months, to get back in the swing of things. Time to complete the grieving process varies greatly and should not be rushed.

·        Re-establishing equilibrium. As we fight to re-find and re-join our lives which have been temporarily suspended, many people experience an exhaustion which is profound. Small tasks which were easily completed in the past, may now feel enormous. Our inner thoughts may cause us to feel disconnected with others. There is no doubt that we have been through something big. It will take time before we really feel like ourselves again.

·        Adjustment to changing roles. During our time away from normal routines, priorities have changed, we’ve let some things go, and we may have developed new perspectives on what is important. We need those around us to understand, be sensitive, and supportive. There are new holes in our lives where the roles once played by the person who has died will need to be filled. This is not easy because we will resist change and long for earlier days when our loved one was present.

                One way to pay respect to those who we’ve lost is fill the roles ourselves left empty by their leaving.  For example, maybe no one can make soup the way Grandma did, but it is important that someone carry on the family tradition and make soup for the family like Grandma always did.

·        New Ways of Feeling. Each time we are reminded of our mortality, we change. Each time we lose someone or something that was precious to us, we change. These earth-shaking times of loss can make us feel angry, frightened, or they can help us to become better people. We are all unique and there is no typical road to recovery. For this reason, people who are in mourning often scoff at those who say “I know how you feel”.  A better way to approach someone who has lost a loved one is simply to ask, “I’m sorry, how are you doing?” in a way that invites sharing and offers time to really listen without an agenda to make the person feel better. Amazingly, people heal a little bit each time they tell their story to an unrushed listener who is genuinely interested.

Shortly after my Father passed away, my Mother was scheduled for a yearly check-up with her Primary Care Physician. While our first thought was to reschedule the appointment in view of all the stress, we soon realized that the appointment was perfectly timed. When she arrived back home, she related how the doctor had asked her millions of questions to determine whether she had any aches or pains, to which she replied, “nothing hurts; I would tell you if it did”. Then the doctor asked my Mother if she was depressed, to which she responded, “Look doctor, I just lost my husband and I am very sad… but I am not depressed”.  While I truly commend the doctor for asking these questions, my Mother’s response conveys how unique we all are. Just goes to show, it is always good to ask, but never good to assume, how people are coping with grief and loss.

©Copyright, 2010, Jane R. Rosen-Grandon. All rights reserved.            

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