“Stuck in grief”-it’s a theme of blog posts, psychology papers and magazine articles. The author usually lists either a variety of “symptoms” or relates anecdotes of people who do truly odd things after a loved one dies. “Complicated grief” is a legitimate psychiatric diagnosis.
But who gets to decide?
What objective criteria can be applied to every situation, every person, every death to determine whether someone is truly stuck in grief?
I have used the term for years and only recently has someone asked me to define it.
I guess I never realized that in all the writing about it, I’d never really explained what it meant.
So here goes.
The term was coined by psychiatrist Erich Lindemann in the 1940s. He worked with survivors of the Cocoanut Grove tragedy and observed that grievers experienced common symptoms, feelings and faced similar challenges. Through his work, he developed a theory of grief incorporating his observations and his technique for walking grievers through these common issues.
Today the term has been expanded and is used widely to describe almost any approach to grief that includes specific techniques for helping someone walk the path of loss.
I use “grief work” to mean all the ways I (and others) must actively seek to identify, face, process, and ultimately incorporate the feelings, trauma and changes loss force upon us.
Grief work (in no particular order) can include but is not limited to:
Attending sessions with a professional, spiritual or lay counselor. Some people find it helpful to have a safe person outside the immediate grief circle to discuss feelings, concerns and relationship challenges that are generated by loss or exacerbated by loss. It’s best to find a counselor who specializes in grief, preferably child loss and/or traumatic loss (all child loss can be classed as traumatic loss). Other counselors may be too quick to label a bereaved parent’s grief as “abnormal” or “too lengthy” or “complicated” when it is, in fact, closely following observed timelines for dealing with child loss. If the first counselor you find isn’t a fit, try another. It’s OK to insist that you are heard, your feelings respected and your loss recognized for the life-shattering event that it is.
Finding, joining and participating in online or in person support groups. There are literally dozens of online support groups for bereaved parents. Some are designed to meet the needs surrounding specific types of loss such as sudden death, suicide, drug overdoses or loss to cancer or another disease or condition. Some are organized around certain faiths. Others may be rooted in geographic proximity and the online group might have a monthly or quarterly face-to-face meeting in the area. While it can sometimes be overwhelming to see the number of parents in such a group, it’s also extremely helpful to have a safe space to share things only another bereaved parent can understand.
Setting aside quiet time to think, process and possibly journal feelings. So much grief work must be done alone. Counselors can equip me with tools, support groups can give me real-life examples and encouragement but only I can do the nitty-gritty labor of teasing apart all the feelings and change grief brings with it. Journaling has been very helpful for me in putting words to what can sometimes be rather nebulous thoughts swirling around in my head. When I name what I’m feeling or experiencing, I can better construct a strategy for processing and living with it.
Walking back through memories, noting regrets, forgiving yourself and making peace with the past. We ALL have things we would have done differently. Death, being final, forces a heart to face that there is no chance to atone for past behavior. Words unsaid, things undone, opportunities missed are carved in the stone of yesterday. I spent many nights recounting my shortcomings as a mother, berating myself for what I didn’t do. Eventually I was able to rest on the simple fact that one thing I DID do was make sure Dominic knew he was loved.
Setting boundaries to give yourself and your family space and time to do grief work as well as to conserve emotional, relational and physical energy that’s in limited supply after child loss. So many of us live with few or no boundaries-responding to every request with a “yes”, adding things to the calendar without a thought to how exhausted we might be at the end of a day or week. Some of us are overtaxed at work or school. Some of us are hyper-involved in our churches, civic organizations or local politics. There are dozens of ways to be extended and just as many ways to live with that constant drain. Child loss forced me to recognize that I could no longer BE that person. I couldn’t afford the time, energy, mental space and emotional burden of saying “yes” anymore. I learned that “NO” is a complete sentence and began using it.
Practical considerations regarding your child’s belongings and other personal property. Many people might not consider this part of grief but it is. So many details to take care of, so many times I had to repeat the words, “My son was killed in an accident. I need to close this account.” So many copies of his death certificate mailed out to different agencies or companies, documenting the awful reality that he was never coming home again. Then there are questions of what to keep, what to store, what to give away. Should a room remain untouched if your child still lived at home? We had to clean out Dominic’s apartment only a few days after his funeral. It felt like I was boxing up everything beautiful about my boy.
Learning how to do holidays, birthdays, family gatherings, vacations and other gatherings. The empty chair looms larger when all the others are filled. If you have been the primary organizer of such events, it might surprise you to find the rest of the family still expecting you to be that person. Even if you aren’t the host for holidays, you will need to communicate to others if or how you feel comfortable participating.
Maintaining or regaining health after loss. Stress is one of the greatest contributors to so many health issues. Child loss is an unbelievably stressful experience. So it’s no wonder that many parents find themselves post loss with new or aggravated health problems. I had an appointment with my rheumatologist just one month after Dominic ran ahead to Heaven. It was critical that I tell her of my loss because in addition to whatever medical interventions she was prepared to prescribe, she needed to know I would be experiencing an extended period of intense stress that might necessitate closer observation and follow-up. As difficult as it may be to talk about, it’s important to inform your healthcare providers of your loss and to be absolutely honest about changes you’ve noticed in your body as a result.
There are probably a dozen or more subcategories of grief work I could list and some of you might think of ones I wouldn’t.
Grief IS work.
It is important, necessary and exhaustingWORK.
It requires time, resources, effort and energy and cannot be hurried along.
But it is the only way a heart can begin to put the pieces back together.
It’s the subject of everything from romantic comedies tohundreds of books.
“Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” and all that.
So it shouldn’t surprise those of us walking this Valley that our spouse may be grieving very differently than we do. But it often does. Because everything is amplified when it echoes off the high mountains on either side.
And just when we need it most-for ourselves and for extending to others-grace is often in short supply.
So differences become offenses and offenses stack like bricks to build a wall between us and the one person as intimately connected to our missing child as we are.
Instead of holding each other up, we sometimes tear each other down. Instead of leaning in, we pull away. Instead of talking, we tune out.
Instead of crying together, we cry alone.
Even when we open up and try to address these differences it often ends in disagreement or is met with silence.
I firmly believe that grief doesn’t really change the fundamentals in a relationship but it magnifies them. We all have cracks in our marriages. Two imperfect people do not make a perfect couple regardless of how lovely the photos might be.
Child loss makes the cracks more evident. What might be ignored otherwise, becomes unavoidable. Add gender differences to the load of grief and it’s no wonder many of us struggle.
So how can a marriage survive?
Here are a few pointers:
Admit that you and your spouse are different people. Your life experiences, gender and personality affect how each of you grieve. Different isn’t better or worse, it’s just different.
Purpose to assume the best and not the worst of your spouse. When he or she makes a comment or shoots you a “look” don’t immediately ascribe dark motives. It may be she’s having an especially bad day or he is tired or distracted.
Look for common ground. When you are both in a neutral environment and rested, ask your spouse what they need from you. Then listen without being defensive. It could be that seeing you cry upsets him so that’s why he tries to shut you down. She might long to hear him say their child’s name aloud. Even if nothing changes, sometimes being heard makes a difference.
Consider couples’ counseling. Having someone outside your immediate grief circle listen to and guide you through feelings, concerns and problems is almost always helpful. It might only take a few sessions to give you both the tools necessary to walk yourselves through the rough patches.
Talk TO your spouse instead of ABOUT him or her. This can be a hard one! I think we all need a safe friend or two who will let us vent. That’s healthy. But it’s not healthy to talk about our spouse to others in what amounts to a bid for support of our own opinions and prejudices. Gathering wood for the fire of offense is easy. Putting out the blaze (even if you want to) is hard.
Remember that when feelings fluctuate, commitment carries you through. Grief isn’t just one emotion, it’s a tangled ball of emotions. On a given day you might feel sad, disoriented, angry, anxious and despondent. All that emotional weight is added to whatever else you may be feeling about your spouse. Sometimes it’s just too much to bear and running away seems like the most logical answer. But it’s not. We can never run far enough or fast enough to get away.
There’s no magic to marriage before or after child loss.
It’s mostly work.
We can choose to do that work together in spite of our differences.
We can choose to grow stronger instead of growing apart.
My husband and I do not do this perfectly or even close to perfectly. But we are still trying. At different points in this long (almost) six years, we’ve been better or worse at all of it. So don’t think if you are struggling it means you can’t get hang on. Sometimes it’s by the tips of your fingernails, but if you refuse to let go, you can make it.