Grief and Bereavement
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the psychiatrist who in 1969 transformed how we look at death and dying by identifying the five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) that occur, wrote a subsequent book called, Grief and Grieving in 2005 as she wrestled with her own terminal illness. She answers the question “Why grieve?” with an explanation that resonates not only with reality, but understanding the premise of thinking of ourselves as whole people, no matter what stage of patient-hood we find ourselves. She tells us we need to grieve for two reasons, “First, those who grieve well, live well. Second, and most important, grief is the healing process of the heart, soul and mind; it is the path that returns us to wholeness.” (Suddenly she sounds more new wave channeling Deepak Chopra, than a staid Swiss psychiatrist practicing in the Midwest.) Kubler-Ross realizes that grief is not optional, not a question of if, it’s just a question of when; for “until we do [grieve], we suffer from the effects of unfinished business.” She finds wonder in the healing power of grief as it, “Transforms the broken, wounded soul, a soul that no longer wants to get up in the morning, a soul that can find no reason for living, a soul that has suffered an unbelievable loss…when we do not work through our grief, we lose an opportunity to heal our soul, psyche, and heart.”
The words of Archbishop Tutu in The Book of Joy describes grief as the “expression of the depth of love we feel for someone who is no longer with us.” He reminds us that there is comfort and joy encompassed in the sadness that grief holds. Patients as well as family and friends all have to deal with the issues surrounding grief in any major illness or injury. As each of us travels this journey through the five stages that Kubler-Ross applies to grief, the way in which we face this process is very individual and will depend upon our system of beliefs, perspectives and personal preferences.
“I want to choose life and meaning.”
This was Sheryl Sandberg’s response to the devastation of her husband’s sudden death. In acknowledging that the road to meaning is not a simple one, a group of individuals in Los Angeles started The Dinner Party to help discover that meaning. The Dinner Party’s goal of finding meaning comes by facilitating grief and surrender among one’s peers who share an experience of bereavement. It is geared to 20-30 year-olds who have lost a loved one at a young age and who know that the “loss had a major role in shaping who they are.” It was inspired by the acknowledgement of the prolonged effect of this death and knowing that peace lies at the center of the pain. According to The Dinner Party’s website, conversations have resulted in realizing the “big lessons being taken away from the loss of a loved one are not so much about death, but really about how best to live. Through loss, participants all received the memo, in a really visceral way, that life is temporary, and that living well is a choice we can all make…The experience of death is a jumping off point for a conversation about how we’re living - with people who understand our frame of reference.” Through the sharing of experiences this powerful message comes through and offers assistance and support while there is time to learn how to live well. Learning to live well shouldn’t be constrained only to the young. As we age and our cohort of contemporaries are suddenly diagnosed with terminal or chronic disease, we all get a wakeup call that life is capricious and it is our duty to live fully.
Differences between sudden and expected death
Yale University sponsored a bereavement study in 2007 looking at the manifestations of grief. The study found that at every six-month interval following the death of a loved one from natural causes, the leading symptom of grief was acceptance, followed by yearning. On the other hand, those who survived a family member’s traumatic death were more likely to experience disbelief and anger at those same intervals.The study explained this distinction in terms of the time where our usual anticipation of death from natural causes, is stripped away in cases of sudden death. Dr. Kubler-Ross explains this phenomenon knowing, “Grief is not just a series of events, stages or timelines.” She understands that we may think we want to avoid grief, but she wisely encourages us to be open to the process recognizing, “Really it is the pain of the loss we want to avoid. Grief is the healing process that ultimately brings us comfort in our pain.” Understanding that you are not alone in your feelings of sadness, anger and uncertainly helps many of us find the strength to cope and survive.
Transition back to life/work
Once death has occurred, the realities of life seep back in and for most of us that includes getting back to our jobs. Whether we work in a large office, on the road or from home, numerous trigger points will assail us often when we least expect it. Business executive Jason Garner shares the following five tools to help cope with work under the strain of grief:
- Be Real. Dealing with death is devastatingly hard. When we lose someone we love it wounds us and brings up emotions that most of us are unfamiliar with. Allow yourself the space to experience this, to let your feelings take their course, to really cry, and to let it all out. Pretending everything is okay when it’s not, does not honor your experience… or the memory of your loved one.
- Breathe. When we’re grieving we’re afraid to breathe for fear that all the emotions we have locked inside will come spilling out. The breath is a powerful message to the body that we’re safe, loved, and that everything is okay. Give yourself breathing room by creating regular breaks to get up from your desk, stretch, walk around, and just breathe.
- Connect. You are not alone. Coworkers, bosses, friends, and family — even the person sitting across from you in a meeting — all around you are people who’ve experienced the same pain you’re going through. Allow yourself to experience this community by being honest and sharing your experience. After writing my book and sharing my experience, I was surprised to discover the community that exists — it’s just a matter of allowing ourselves to be supported as we grieve.
- Nurture. Your feelings matter, too. So often the time prior to the passing of a loved one is spent caring for them. After a death, we’re expected to rush back to work or to our busy lives. This often leaves us feeling abandoned and uncared for. Take time to nurture yourself — practice yoga, meditate, sleep as much as you can, and fill your body with nutrient-dense foods that tell it that you care. I find it helpful to remember that our loved ones would want us to be healthy, cared for, and loved as we remember them.
- Be Patient. The grieving process is a slow one, filled with ups and downs and many phases. Be tender and gentle with yourself. Give yourself permission to heal slowly. Use the emotions as an invitation to sit quietly, with hands on your heart, and connect with the memory of your loved one. In this way they never really leave… and are always just a breath away.