Grief is a Part of Life by Rev. Teresa Stuefloten (text)
Grief is a Part of Life, by Rev. Teresa Stuefloten
For my talk today I am using information from the book The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James & Russell Friedman, the 20th Anniversary Expanded Edition.
Grief is a part of all of our lives.
“Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind.”
“Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern. “
“We grieve for the loss of all relationships we deem significant.”
“Grief is the most neglected and misunderstood experience.”
Other people are uncomfortable with our grief and often say things intended to make us feel better, that end up shutting down our emotions. Things like:
“Don’t feel bad, he or she is not in pain anymore.” The listener has just changed the subject from the speaker’s pain to the talking about the person who died. “The implication is that if your loved one is no longer suffering, then you shouldn’t be, either.”
Statistics say that we will experience the death of a loved one every 9 - 13 years, so it’s generally so infrequent that we never really get familiar with the experience. “An average of 4 out of 5 reactions that grievers hear following the loss of a loved one imply that they should not deal with the feelings they are experiencing.” Things like:
“Be thankful you have another child.”
“The living must go on.”
“He or she is in a better place now.”
“All things must pass.”
“He or she led a full life.”
“You’ll find somebody else.”
“God will never give you more than you can handle.”
“Be grateful that you had him or her so long.”
“Since the griever is experiencing intense emotional suffering, these statements, which all have to do with the intellect, are quite inappropriate. Divorce and other significant emotional losses generate similar unhelpful comments from well-meaning friends.”
Death is probably the first thing we think of when we hear the word grief: death of a parent, a spouse, a child, a sibling, a grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, a close friend. We know that we are Spirit and the body is not permanent, but when we lose someone significant to us through death, we grieve the loss of the physical presence of the one we love. We want to be able to touch them & talk to them. The authors describe the loss like this, “The death of a loved one produces emotions that can be described as the feeling of reaching out for someone who has always been there, only to find that when we need them one more time, they are not there.”
Divorce is another one of the most obvious sources of grief. Divorce is common in our society and many people know the grief comes with the end of the marriage relationship, or the end of a long-term romantic relationship. Everyone involved in a divorce is a griever, including children, parents, siblings & friends of the couple. The grief can be intense and needs to be dealt with and processed in order to heal and move on in a healthy way. My own nephew became so despondent with grief when the relationship with the girlfriend he had throughout his college years ended, that he became suicidal. Fortunately, this meant that he got therapy that allowed him to deal with his grief, accept that the relationship had ended, and move on, and he has now been happily married for almost 2 years. The authors say that “Incomplete grief over a former spouse or significant other will dictate fearful choices, will create hyper-vigilant self-protection from further emotional pain. Sadly, this excess of caution limits the ability to be open, trusting, & loving, dooming the next relationship to failure…Divorce does not complete emotional ties…Without successful recovery it is common for divorcees (male & female) to repeat their mistakes in ensuing relationships.”
Some griefs & losses may not be recognized by us or by others as grief experiences:
Death of a pet
The death of a former spouse
End of addictions
Major health changes
Financial changes - positive or negative
Why would these be grief experiences? Well, remember that grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior. Even though there may be positive aspects to a situation of change, the fact remains that there is the grief of loss of the familiar, the known, the patterns that make our life feel predictable and secure. Children are particularly vulnerable and affected by changes in their familiar pattern of life. Many of us have incomplete grief from changes in our childhood that we were not able to process. Moving is difficult for children. Though the adults talk with excitement about the benefits of the new home, the child feels the loss of the home they are familiar with and the familiar patterns of life there. And sometimes the move is downward, connected with financial loss, divorce, death, or other situations that compound the grief of the move.
Starting school, especially going off to college, requires a major change in a persons’ familiar pattern of behavior. Even though a young person may be excited about going off to school and having independence from parental control, the fact is that there will be grief in losing the familiar pattern of home & adopting a new pattern at school, without the support that parents provided. Similarly, with graduation comes the end of the familiar pattern of college and the need to go out into the larger world, find a job, and create a whole new pattern of working & having an adult life.
Death of a pet is quite significant to many of us, and yet it can be minimized by others. A child may be told “Don’t cry, we’ll get you another pet”, as if the relationship with the pet that died is easily replaceable. There is a story in the book by one of the authors about his childhood experience with the loss of a beloved dog. He still missed the beloved dog that died and was unable to form the same kind of bond with the new dog because he was not complete with his grief over the old dog.
Death of a former spouse may be significant, even though the marriage may have ended long ago. That physical link to the past is gone.
The end of addictions, while it is a positive step for a person’s physical and mental health, is a change from former patterns of behavior and often includes loss of friends who are still engaged in the former lifestyle.
Major health changes involve letting go of former physical abilities and coming to terms with the present condition & abilities. “Losing the ability to be physically active can be a tremendous loss & should not be overlooked or minimized. It is also common that when our health diminishes we lose a sense of independence that is part of being physically healthy.” The authors feel it is important to thank your body for all of the pleasure you had using it to do the activities that pleased you. “saying good bye to what we were once able to do, so we can focus on what we can do now.”
It is important that we stay open to our feelings of grief so that we can process our grief and be complete with it. But we usually don’t get much support for this from others. What grieving people need most is to be able to talk about their grief, but most often other people are uncomfortable with our grief. They don’t know what to do with our grief. They don’t know how to help us, so they say things that can easily shut us down emotionally. People give us “space” to grieve and feeling that we need to be alone to grieve, at a time when what we really need is to have a connection with people who care about us and are willing to listen.
We are told to keep busy, as if that will make the pain of the loss go away, but that just distracts us from processing our grief.
We learn that we need to be strong for others, which means that we can’t process our own grief. Rev Mark felt he had to be strong for me when my Mother died. This prevented him from crying and processing the loss of the mother-in-law he had had for 46 years. Attending the cremation helped him to allow his grief to come to the surface so he could express it. It was a healing experience for both of us. The finality of the death of the physical body is so evident when you see that the spirit is quite obviously no longer there. The transformation in just a few hours of the lovely physical body, to a small container of ashes tells the transitory nature of the physical form. Her skin was still so soft, and she had a little smile on her lips, yet now that form is reduced to ashes. It would be no different if she were buried. The physical form that smiled, hugged, kissed, comforted, and cared for us is gone. Only the spiritual connection remains. We need to be able to express our grief about this and remaining strong for others shuts down our own emotional process.
We are told that time heals all pain, but this is not true if we have not processed out loss. Time alone does not heal grief.
Compounding the problem is the confusion of the stages of dying with the stages of grief. There are no stages of grief! Many people are familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s emotional stages that a dying person goes through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression & acceptance. These stages do not apply to the grief that follows death, divorce, and other losses. There are no stages of grief! We might feel angry, especially if the death happened in a violent way, but this is not a stage. We might be angry that circumstances prevented us from saying good-bye to the person, but again, this is not a stage of grief. When people apply these stages to grief, they may be judgmental about the grieving person, feeling that their grief process is taking too long and they should have moved on by now. There is no time period for grief. Everyone grieves in their own way in their own time.
“Anger at God is a typical response to an untimely death… When we can’t find a reason we assign blame to God. This anger will pass if we’re allowed to express the feeling. We have to be allowed to tell someone we’re angry with God & not be judged for it or told we’re bad for it. If not , this anger may persist forever and block spiritual growth.”
Common responses to grief are:
• Reduced Concentration
• Sense of Numbness, physical, emotional, or both
• Disrupted Sleep Pattern - not being able to sleep or sleeping too much, or both.
• Changed Eating Habits - no appetite, or eating too much, or both
• Roller Coaster of Emotional Energy - highs and lows, emotionally & physically drained
Society encourages us to act recovered. “I’m fine.” “Put on your happy face.” The attempt to look recovered leads to focusing on only happy memories of the person who died. When this prevents us from processing the grief it is known as “enshrinement” and may include keeping large number of things that represent the person. The authors suggest that it is almost impossible to completely process the pain caused by death, divorce, or other significant emotional loss without looking at everything about the relationship, not just the positive.
The opposite is “bedevilment” where the person has a litany of companies about mistreatment and is unwilling to let go of disappointments and anger.
When we do not process our grief we experience a loss of energy, and a loss of aliveness & spontaneity. “Many people fall into a life of quiet desperation, …never being able to return to a full state of happiness and joy.”
If we desire to recover from unresolved grief, this book lays out a process in steps that can be completed alone, or preferably in sessions with a partner who agrees to total honesty and total confidentiality. In this process we look at who is responsible for our feelings - us!, and what ideas we were taught or observed in connection with loss events.
We look at what short-term energy relievers we have used to deal with the pain caused by loss, such as food, alcohol or drugs, anger, exercise, fantasy (movies, TV, books), isolation, sex, shopping (humorously called retail therapy), and workaholism.
We make our own personal loss history graph highlighting the significant losses in our life. This commonly brings up thoughts of what we wish we had done different, better, or more. We never know which interaction with a person will be our last.
Out of the many relationships represented on our graph, we choose a relationship to work on first. “What we are completing is our pain caused by the loss. We are completing anything that was left unfinished at the time of the loss… The three aspects of relationships that we focus on are physical, emotional, and spiritual… Death is never a singular event. In addition to the actual death, there is the death of all of the hopes, dreams, and expectations about the future. Divorce and other relationship breakups conform to the same idea.”
The next step is converting the relationship graph into recovery components. We have an opportunity for apologies and forgivenesses. “Forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person.” It is for ourself. “Forgiveness is giving up the resentment you hold against another person.” We do not forgive anyone directly to their face because they may perceive it as an attack.
We also come up with significant emotional statements that are undelivered emotional communication: “I loved you, I hated you, I was very proud of you, I was very ashamed of you, Thank you for the sacrifices you made for me, Thank you for the time you spent with me.” We do not deliver any of these statements that are negative to living people. We read them to listening partner in our sessions.
The final step is writing a Grief Recovery Completion Letter that will help us become complete with everything that has has been unfinished for us in this relationship until now. We are able to say good-bye to anything that is incomplete, say good-bye to any pain, say good-bye to the unrealistic expectation of getting something from someone who could not or would not give it. We read this letter to our listening partner, who hears it in silence without comment. Our partner is our witness in completing our grief.
When we have completed our grief process with this person we are free in this relationship and can progress to working on another relationship.
Incomplete grief holds up back from living the joyful life of freedom that God intends for us. Healing our grief is part of our spiritual journey. It is about having an authentic life!
Rev Mark and I are going to work the process in this book together as partners. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to have healing in their life.