Friday, October 2, 2009

NYT article: "After a Death, the Pain That Doesn't Go Away"

The New York Times had a good article about complicated grieving last week. Grief is a complex emotion, of course -- no two people will grieve the same way, even when they're both grieving for the same person. One person may grieve the death of one person one way, and another person another way. We often don't know just how we're going to react until we are in the middle of the experience.

As always, the comments are at least as interesting as the article. (Unfortunately, new comments are no longer being accepted.) I braced myself for the "get it over it" jerks, & yes, there were a few of them -- but I was pleasantly surprised by how few -- perhaps because the discussion was about complicated grief generally, & not grief over a miscarriage or stillbirth ("but you never got to know them...")?? There were some heartfelt stories about the effect that grief has had on their families, and sympathetic words of comfort & advice. Here are some of my favourites:
  • Comment #11 (from a woman whose husband committed suicide): "I received no professional assistance, but I was expected to wipe the slate clean and move on (by well-meaning and supportive family members), but I never recovered from that loss. It colors my every waking hour."
  • Comment #14 (from a hospice nurse): "Death is not something our society embraces. It is really odd that we pretend that it could never happen to us. But it does and it will. I think that much of the problem lies in the fact that people, including family members, simply do not know what to say. So they are silent or try to change the subject. Here is some advice. Talk about the deceased. Don't worry that bringing them up will cause the bereaved more pain. The pain is always simmering. Talking about a loved one is a comfort many times. It proves they were important, that they have not been forgotten. Call a friend or family member on the anniversary of a death. Send flowers. Take them to a movie. Don't let them be alone. That is a tough day, even 10 years later. Hug them a lot. Try to understand that many times letting go of the grief feels like you are abandoning the deceased. Do not advise them to "move on". That is simply cruel... Grief is not that complicated. It hurts a lot, and it does goes on and on, some just simply cope better than others and some have learned how to hide it very well. Allowing people to grieve is the most important thing we can do. For however longs it takes."
  • Comment #26: "For me cyberspace has become the collective unconscious. After starting a blog I connected with other elder bloggers and could suggest that since writing is considered good therapy for grief doing it as a blog could be even more therapeutic."
  • Comment #28 (a widow): "While on the surface all appears well, underneath the public mask is great sadness and doubt. I don't like the term "moving on", to me it means leaving behind. I prefer "moving forward", taking the best of what memories I have with me."
  • Comment #29: "It took many years of therapy and support by a few steadfast and wonderful friends before I finally came to the realization that bad things happen to good people. It was as simple as that."
  • Comment #40: "as grieving and "closure" -- for get that - you will always at some level grieve for someone you loved.... it's just that way... at the best you can grieve and remember happy times concurrently."
  • Comment #49: "Western culture tries so very hard to control the uncontrollable in life, but grieving is hands-off. And grief needs to be encouraged. The only way out of grief is through it. With or without the help of others. I believe more damage is done by hiding or 'stuffing' grief because our society doesnt want to have to share in the really painful emotions of others, and so it is frowned upon to wail or weep incessantly where others are present... The person(s) suffering from deepest loss find themselves with a load of pain and nowhere to vent it. So yes, it turns into depression. Yes it turns into addiction. We are trying to kill this pain!"
  • Comment #51: "Of the many hideous and stupid things people said to me during that period, the most thoughtless one was something I saw in this article: "You've got to get on with your life."As every widow and widower knows, I couldn't "get on with" my life. My life -- the life my husband and I had planned together, the names of the children we wanted to have, the work we wanted to do, etc. -- had ended. So I couldn't get on with something that was over. I had to find a new one... I just hope people don’t feel there is something wrong with them because it’s taking longer than their non-grieving friends think it should. Grieving is normal and natural. Most people don't need professional help. They just need time and friends. There aren't enough good listeners in the world. Just listen."
  • Comment #56: "If death were treated as part of life, which it is, then these conversations would be a natural topic of discussion with our doctors or healthcare providers always, not when we're suddenly faced with grace illness. It wouldn't strike as much panic in our hearts if we dealt with this sooner and more completely."
  • Comment #77: "The death of a spouse renders us no longer a couple; the death of a child deprives us of being a parent; the death of our parents makes us no longer anyone’s child. We cannot “recover” from this; our task is to create a new identity."
  • Comment #90: "I can't help but think part of the problem with bereavement in general is that our whole culture is structured around the denial of death. I have often seen situations where those grieving are almost treated like pariahs, specially if they don't quickly "get over" their loss. We should look at other cultures where there are extensive rituals around death and mourning, where friends and relatives gather around to allow one to grieve and to grieve with them, where it is OK to grieve deeply and for much longer than a few days, weeks, and even months. I wonder of "complicated grief" exists to the same extent in those societies."
  • Comment #126: "Eventually I arrived at the realization that you never "get over" a major loss like this. Rather, you incorporate the loss into the totality of your person, you eventually grow around the void, but the void remains an integral part of who you are. In time -- sometimes a very LONG time -- that void ceases to define you or dominate your life the way it once did, and you do begin living once again. But it is always, always with you."
Many people found the article interesting, but weren't sure whether complicated grief needed to be classified as a psychiatric disorder. They debated whether psychiatrists can help. A few people took exception to the idea that "grief, like the tape, can be picked up or put away." I didn't particularly like that idea myself. Eleven years after the loss of my daughter, I don't walk around crying all day. I carry my grief with me, as part of me. It's not put away on a shelf, to be brought out & dusted off on special occasions.

Still, from what I've been told in training seminars for my pregnancy loss support group, and from what I've witnessed in my own experience, there is a certain value to telling one's story, over & over again. That's why we ask everyone at every meeting to tell their story, or at least some version of it -- even if we've all attended meetings together for a long time & could practically recite each other's personal histories.

We had a guest speaker at one of our training sessions once, who spoke about about complicated grief. She likened it to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a comparison the article also makes. If I remember correctly, she said we need to tell our stories something like 50 times over before it can get "unstuck" in our minds & we can really begin to process what has happened to us. And each time we tell our story, we process another piece of it in our minds and absorb it, until it becomes not just something awful that has happened to us, but part of who we are now. And as we tell the story, it changes -- new bits & pieces may emerge that we hadn't thought about or discussed before, or new insights. I've known our co-facilitator since she started coming to group as a client 7 years ago, and every now & then, even today, she will come up with some new little detail about the awful night she lost her daughter that I've never heard before. She's said the same thing about me!

Of course, the problem is that far too many of our family members & friends -- even the most patient & sympathetic among them -- don't want to listen to us recount the details of our losses, over & over again. That's where support groups play such a valuable role in helping bereaved parents integrate their losses into their new lives, by allowing them to talk (& talk, & talk, & talk...) about their losses, and providing a listening ear.

Have a read & let me know what you think!


  1. I'm all teary (I'd be totally crying, but I skimmed the last few comments). I'm so glad that people left such wonderful comments. I just kept saying, "Yes," "Oh, this is my favorite," "Absolutely" over and over and over again.

    Thank you for sharing this, and thank you for your kind comments on my blog. I appreciate them and I appreciate you!

  2. I think the wording about the tape is a bit clumsy, but I think I see where they might be going.

    Time and space in normal grief allows us to tell the story without reliving the story. The problem with PTSD is simply that instead of telling the story, it happens to you over and over. In some sense, the metaphor of the tape is a great one, because we become removed form the crippling effects of immediate grief.

    When we hear things on tape, as it were, we can incorporate them into our lives, our personalities, our families. Thus, one of the things I am is Gabe's mother, a woman who had pre-eclampsia, and a woman whose child died.

    It's a big thing, but it's not the only thing, if that makes sense.

    It was a really interesting article!

  3. I saw this too and wrote a quick post about it:

    thanks for sifting through those comments ans sharing them here!

  4. Comment #77 - spot on.

    You always find some of the most interesting articles! I'm glad that you share them. :0)

  5. I had read this too and thought I bet Loribeth posts about this! It's very interesting. I could see how easy it is to fall into complicated grief. I guess what amazes me is that so many people in the comments acknowledge that our cultures tries to deny death, yet I don't every encounter anyone like this IRL. I have had one friend who has asked me about Hannah in the 6 months since Denis was born. It brought me to tears because I was so happy to be able to talk about her and have someone listen. I know that other friends don't mean to ignore, I am sure they probably just don't want to bring it up for fear of upsetting me. But what they don't realize is that by not bringing it up ever upsets me more. I get it, but I don't have to like it.