From Dr. Jane's Notebook

When others are grieving: What to say and how to say it

One of the most difficult quandaries that human beings face is the age-old problem of life and death. Existential philosophy describes the frustrating knowledge that all of us will eventually die, but we don’t know how, when or where. Without this critical information, human beings can decide to go about the business of life, making commitments and expecting to live, or they can sit back in the corner of life and refuse to participate. One way or the other, each of us must eventually face the painful, uncomfortable, and uncontrollable reality of death. Here are a few more thoughts on the matter.

·         Some people worry prematurely. All aspects of death are very traumatic. Anticipation of a loved one’s death is terrifying. And no matter how much time we’ve had to prepare, losing a loved one is brutal. Years ago, a mentor of mine suffered from cancer, yet she refused to let it interfere with training her Gestalt Therapy students. For years, I worried about her and felt a great deal of emotional pain over her illness. After her death, I was saddened not only from the reality of her loss, but even more that I had grieved her death prematurely. By grieving while she was still alive, I felt like I had wasted precious time with her.

·         Some people live in the land of denial. Thanks largely to the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D. and the Hospice movement, we’ve come a long way from the time when doctors and families kept patients in the dark about their diseases. These days, the mention of a possible diagnosis or prescription sends many people to the internet or their local bookstore to learn all that they can about getting well. Logically we can practice preventive health, but emotionally, many of us still avoid doctors and medical tests until our symptoms can no longer be ignored.  

·         Some people deny the pain of emotional loss.  Grieving is a normal, natural and essential emotional experience, but the grieving process is highly individualized. Sometimes it is difficult to know what to say, so we say nothing. Even when we know that a difficult loss has taken place, we may think its better not to dwell on it for too long. But how long is too long? Even within couples, spouses may hesitate to share their feelings about miscarriages for fear of upsetting one another. Unfortunately, this breakdown in communication may cause two individuals to suffer in silence; each feeling alone and emotionally abandoned.

·         Don’t tip-toe around people who are grieving. Mourning is a lengthy process. It does not end with the funeral, it does not end when one returns to work, and it isn’t over the minute we see someone’s smile return to their face. Many people hesitate to speak of a deceased person for fear it will intensify the mourner’s pain when actually, the opposite is true. If anything, mourners are uncomfortable when the people around them act as though their loved one never existed. In the effort not to depress others, the mourner often waits and even craves the mention of their loved one. But when we talk around grief instead of acknowledging it, we create greater distance and more stilted conversations.

As human beings, we hate to lose anything, but the loss of a loved one seems to carry the highest price. Gifts of food, flowers, and donations are always appreciated, but in terms of healing power, the best gifts usually come in the form of words and validation. People usually don’t want to forget their loved ones. Most appreciate when kind words, a photo, or memories are shared. Take time to ask how someone is doing….your kindness and thoughtfulness will go a long way.

©Copyright, 2011, Jane R. Rosen-Grandon. All rights reserved.            

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