By Dr. Alan Wolfelt
Though you should reach out to others as you do the work of mourning, you should not feel obligated to accept the unhelpful responses you may receive from some people. You are the one who is grieving, and as such, you have certain “rights” no one should try to take away from you.
The following list is intended both to empower you to heal and to decide how others can and cannot help. This is not to discourage you from reaching out to others for help, but rather to assist you in distinguishing useful responses from hurtful ones.
1. You have the right to experience your own unique grief.
No one else will grieve in exactly the same way you do. So, when you turn to others for help, don’t allow them to tell what you should or should not be feeling.
2. You have the right to talk about your grief.
Talking about your grief will help you heal. Seek out others who will allow you to talk as much as you want, as often as you want, about your grief. If at times you don’t feel like talking, you also have the right to be silent.
3. You have the right to feel a multitude of emotions.
Confusion, disorientation, fear, guilt and relief are just a few of the emotions you might feel as part of your grief journey. Others may try to tell you that feeling angry, for example, is wrong. Don’t take these judgmental responses to heart. Instead, find listeners who will accept your feelings without condition.
4. You have the right to be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits.
Your feelings of loss and sadness will probably leave you feeling fatigued. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. Get daily rest. Eat balanced meals. And don’t allow others to push you into doing things you don’t feel ready to do.
5. You have the right to experience “griefbursts.”
Sometimes, out of nowhere, a powerful surge of grief may overcome you. This can be frightening, but is normal and natural. Find someone who understands and will let you talk it out.
6. You have the right to make use of ritual.
The funeral ritual does more than acknowledge the death of someone loved. It helps provide you with the support of caring people. More importantly, the funeral is a way for you to mourn. If others tell you the funeral or other healing rituals such as these are silly or unnecessary, don’t listen.
7. You have the right to embrace your spirituality.
If faith is a part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs. If you feel angry at God, find someone to talk with who won’t be critical of your feelings of hurt and abandonment.
8. You have the right to search for meaning.
You may find yourself asking, “Why did he or she die? Why this way? Why now?” Some of your questions may have answers, but some may not. And watch out for the clichéd responses some people may give you. Comments like, “It was God’s will” or “Think of what you have to be thankful for” are not helpful and you do not have to accept them.
9. You have the right to treasure your memories.
Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after the death of someone loved. You will always remember. Instead of ignoring your memories, find others with whom you can share them.
10. You have the right to move toward your grief and heal.
Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Remember, grief is a process, not an event. Be patient and tolerant with yourself and avoid people who are impatient and intolerant with you. Neither you nor those around you must forget that the death of someone loved changes your life forever.
(Some days I play the role of advice mallard. So, hang with me as I dish.)
I want to give you permission to pursue your doubts about your faith.
In some faith communities and religious families, the doubters are ostracized. Doubting isn’t just seen as questioning; it’s viewed as something that’s underpinned by rebellion, by sin. The prevailing idea is that, “You’re doubting the faith, so you can leave the faith; and by leaving the faith, you are leaving our family.”
To stave off being ostracized by family and friends, many doubters keep their questions about God to themselves. And, to a degree, it’s okay, except when that doubt is part of your grief.
Doubt and grief are directly correlated. Kenneth Doka suggests that “one of the most significant tasks in grief is to reconstruct faith or philosophical systems, now challenged by the loss” (Loss of the Assumptive World; 49). All forms of grief, normal, complicated and especially traumatic grief produce doubts about one’s faith.
Goodness is sucked away in grief; and many of us base our faith off the presumed goodness of God. When that goodness is sucked into the darkness of grief, the foundation of God’s goodness begins to shake; our faith trembles and sometimes it shatters.
The dilemma that results is this: we need our family and friends during grief … to share our grief with, to remember and to receive acceptance; yet, we’re afraid we will be ostracized by our family and friends if we express our doubt. Do we: 1. Pursue our grief induced doubts at the expense of our community and at the expense of experiencing the grief within the community; or, 2. Do we pursue our community at the expense of our personal faith searching?
We do both. You need both. You need to accept your doubts and find acceptance in community. And it might be nearly impossibility.
If you are experiencing doubt in a faith community during your grief, tell someone you trust something like this:
“I need to talk and I need you to just hear me and accept me right now. I know your faith is strong and I respect you for your faith, but my faith has taken a hit since ____’s death. Instead of forcing my faith, I’m processing my doubt. _____’s death is changing me.”
If they can listen, you need to talk it through with them. It’s healthy to express your grief within the community of grievers; and if your grief includes doubt, sharing will only help diminish your pain and clarify your outlook.
On the other hand, I want to give you permission to pursue the faith you’ve never had.
Grief can also enliven a newfound belief in God. All of a sudden your darkness sees a light and now – in your community of “unbelievers” – you’re the religious nut.
And you need to say the same thing to your community:
“I need to talk and I need you to just hear me and accept me. I know we aren’t very religious and I respect you and how you live life. But, I’m pursing faith since _____‘s death. I don’t want to convert you, but I want you to know I’m changing.”
The grief that can produce doubt can also enliven faith. And both are okay. And both need to be done in our communities.
Accept your grief. Accept your enlivened faith. And, to the best you can, do so in your community.
In Kubler-Ross’ model of grief process, she listed five stages of grief:
In this process of grief, Kubler-Ross assumed that throughout the whole grief process, the bereaved should be experiencing what Freud called “decathexis”, which is a removal of emotional energy from the deceased; a detachment. Freud then suggested that during and after “decathexis” we will take those emotional energies and reinvest them into another object or person in a process called “recathexis.” Essentially, we find other people to love … and use them to fill the “love hole” left by the deceased.
The assumption to both Freud and Kubler-Ross’ model is that the end of the grief process (healing, acceptance) is a form of detachment from the deceased.
But, I think they’re wrong.
Anna Lamott writes,
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
Instead of saying that the end of the grief process is detachment and healing, I think we should say that the healthy end of the grief process is adjustment. It’s adjusting to the fact that your loved one is no longer here to share life experiences with you. It’s adjusting to the loss of the future, but there’s never a detachment from the past.
We simply have on-going bonds with the deceased. They will forever be apart of us and instead of trying to “heal” and find “decathexis” (although I don’t think Freud’s idea is categorically wrong), we must learn to adjust and dance with our limp.
Over time, you will learn to adjust to the death of a loved one. A part of you has been lost and you will never find it again, so you must learn to live without it. But, don’t confuse your adjustment for healing. You may never heal.
This from Jandy Nelson over the loss of her sister, Bailey:
“My sister will die over and over again for the rest of my life. Grief is forever. It doesn’t go away; it becomes a part of you, step for step, breath for breath. I will never stop grieving Bailey because I will never stop loving her. That’s just how it is. Grief and love are conjoined, you don’t get one without the other. All I can do is love her, and love the world, emulate her by living with daring and spirit and joy.”
Maybe the reason we never heal is because our love never dies.
Four months after Newtown, People magazine has published a series called, “Life After Newtown Shootings” where the parents describe their grief and how they are coping. It’s a beautiful series and well-worth your time and the three dollar Kleenex box that you’ll go through.
One of the parents mentions that she still sleeps with her son’s pajamas so that she can be soothed by “his smell.” Certainly, considering the tragedy of Newtown, there is nothing abnormal about her practice. In fact, it’s healthy and I can’t help but feel the heaviness of her grief as I think about it.
Here’s a question: A what point has her son’s smell disappeared and what she thinks is her son’s smell is actually her own smell. At what point in sleeping with his pajamas have they stopped smelling like her son and started to smell like her?
At funerals, you’ll often hear people say, “Cathy lives on in all of our memories” or, “Cathy will never die as longs as we remember her.”
There’s a difficulty that comes with remembering our loved one.
I remember an old man, who was married to his late wife for over 50 years, stopped into funeral home to pay his bill and he said, “I both grieve the loss of my wife and the distortion of my memories of her. Even now, when I remember her, I ask myself, “Is this memory real or is it my mind’s adaptation of her? I only want to remember the good, but I miss the bad and messy nearly as much because it’s who she was.”
There’s a time when the smell on the pajamas becomes our own. There’s a time when memories are distorted by our desires for comfort. But, this is why we must grieve in community … so that community can help us piece together the real.
Grief must take place in community! We have to share, we have to be vulnerable with our friends and family.
Share at your family dinners … over the holidays.
Be brave an ask your parents old friends about mom/dad. Ask your child’s friends … your spouse’s co-workers.
Have people write down their memories.
Talk. Talk. Talk. Talk about your deceased loved one. Don’t let the memories die. Don’t let them become distorted.
I have some problems with the idea of heaven. I know, you might hate me for saying that.
The Barna Group says 81% of Americans believe in the afterlife.
The Washington Post quotes 75%.
The Council of Secular Humanism states 55% definitely believe in life after.
Anyway you look at, the majority of us believe in life after death. My problem has less to do with the idea of the afterlife and more to do with how we use it. The afterlife is powerful; and like most powerful things, its easily abused. The easiest abuse that arises is that we can pay more attention to the life after than the life here and now. As the saying goes, we become so heavenly focused that we become no earthly good.
This plays out especially during death and dying.
The “Don’t grieve, deary, your husband is with Jesus” cliché, death-related responses hit right at the heart of what I’m trying to communicate.
To start with, religious believers have a very difficult time accepting their grief as legitimate because many worship a god who is impassible … who is without emotion. We emulate what we worship and nothing is unhealthier than humanity trying to act like their unemotive deity during times of distress, pain and death.
Compound that with the belief that death isn’t really real … that death is the pathway to another life … that we shouldn’t grieve because “your husband is with Jesus” and we have a recipe for disastrous dishonesty about our pain in death.
Religious people tend to downplay tragedy with clichés like:
“It’s God’s will”
“God meant it for good.”
“We don’t always understand God’s mysterious plans.”
And in the same way, we use the powerful antidote of the afterlife to downplay our grief and pain during times of death:
“At least you know he’s in a better place.”
“You can be happy to know she’s in the arms of Jesus.”
And this is why I think it’s unhealthy. It’s unhealthy because it can too easily take away your grief work. It’s a “get out of pain for free” card that all too many play to the detriment of their personal growth. In the same way that I disdain a person buying a fake online PhD, so do I distain this attempt to skip the labor of grief, the growth of grief and the personal evaluation that inevitably comes with death.
Heaven’s the trump card.
The “Easy Button”.
We become so heavenly minded that we’re no good at grief. We can become so heavenly focused, that we forget the here and now. We see death as unreal, as almost fake; and we become just like our view of it.
(Either this week or the next, I’ll post a follow-up called, “How Heaven Can Help Grief Work.”)