Monday, June 4, 2018

A High School Student Asks How to Deal with Grief

[Reviewed and updated December 27, 2020]

The healing power of even the most microscopic exchange with someone who knows in a flash precisely what you're talking about because she experienced that thing too cannot be overestimated.  ~ Cheryl Strayed

A reader writes: I am a sophomore in high school and I am doing a big project on Grief and how to deal with it for my class in health. I was looking on the Internet and I came across your Grief Healing website. I really like it and all the information in it. I would really like to interview you if that is OK. I am sending a list of the 10 questions I would like to ask you.
Could you please email me back when you get this and say yes or no? Thank you so much for your time I really appreciate it.

My response: I am so impressed with your interest in this topic, my friend, and I am happy to say yes to your request. I wish you all the best with your project! Your questions are listed below, along with my answers:

1. If you had to name one thing that changed your life what would it be?
At my age, it’s difficult to name just one thing that had a life-changing effect upon me because there have been so many of them, but certainly the event that set me on the path of wanting to work with the bereaved as a grief counselor was the death of our infant son, David, in 1967.

2. If so, how old were you when this happened to you?
This happened when my husband and I were quite young; I was only 24 years old and we had been married only two years at the time. We both learned very quickly how devastating such a loss can be, and we both felt quite isolated and alone in our grief. We “grew up” very quickly as a result, and it brought us much closer together as a couple.

3. Has anybody close to you died?
Shortly after our son David’s death, one of our dearest friends died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. I was only 36 years old when my father died suddenly of heart failure; my mother died of a stroke a few years later. Both my husband’s parents have died, as well as his older sister. Over the years, I’ve also lost a number of cherished companion animals.

4. If so, how close?
I was very close to my father; he was my biggest fan, proudest supporter and wisest counsel. He died too soon, in 1978, and I still miss him every single day. Losing my precious dog Muffin in 1986 was absolutely devastating to me; I was astounded at the depth of my pain at losing him ~ and it was my overwhelming reaction to his death that led me into the field of pet loss counseling, which I’ve been doing as a volunteer ever since (in addition to my work as a grief counselor).

5. If I were to lose something what should be my first step to cope with this?
Talk to somebody about it! You can deal with anything as long as you can talk about it openly with someone you trust – someone who understands your attachment to the one who died, who respects your relationship with that person (or animal companion) and will listen to you without judging you.

6. Is it OK to be sad and angry?
Anger, sorrow and guilt are the most common reactions in loss. Feelings are neither right or wrong, good or bad ~ they just are, and we cannot always control what we are feeling. What matters is what we do with what we are feeling. Feelings that are denied, suppressed or shoved under the rug don’t really go anywhere ~ they just sit there and fester, waiting for us to deal with them. And sooner or later, out they will come, either directly or indirectly. Far better to acknowledge them, examine them, expose them to the light of day, talk them over with someone we trust, process them and come to terms with them.

7. What are the steps most people go through when dealing with a sadness?
There are no steps or stages or phases as such ~ there are certain reactions (physical, emotional, social, spiritual) that are common and normal in grief, and most people who’ve suffered a loss will experience most of them at one time or another. Researchers who’ve studied grieving people often write about steps, stages and phases, but these are theoretical models that are meant to help us better understand the process of mourning, and to learn who is best helped by what intervention and when. We now know that everyone grieves differently according to their age, gender, personality, culture, value system, past experience with loss, and available support. We also know that, when people know what “normal” is, when they know what to expect when they’ve lost a loved one, they are much better prepared to manage their own reactions and they tend to do better with their grief.

8. Do you have a statistic that is interesting that you could share with me?
I think it’s interesting that most people who have lost loved ones do not come to a professional bereavement counselor for grief counseling. Some manage their grief, some simply swallow it, and some naturally access their deeper selves and find a way to re-connect: they muster their faith, their hope and their courage to put their world back together and return to re-build their lives, even in the absence of their loved ones. They find ways to make their losses meaningful and they grow as a result. We need to remember that grief is a normal response to losing a loved one, and people have been dealing with the most devastating of losses since the dawn of time.

9. What is your favorite part about helping people with problems?
Grief changes people. When we lose someone we love, we will never be the same as we were before. But within every sorrowful situation, growth is possible. And because I work with grieving people, I see folks suffer the most devastating of losses, but over time I also see them grow. I see them learn that although a part of them has died, another part is being reborn, making them stronger and more capable. As their energy is renewed and their strength is restored, they move from withdrawal into healing. It is more than survival; it’s a willingness to grow because of what they have lost. It is choosing to become more than they were before. I feel blessed to witness such miracles, and I always gain far more than I give to these people.

10. Do you still deal with grief even though you are a professional?
Grief hurts, and I have learned that life is an ongoing series of necessary losses ~ some greater than others, but losses nonetheless. I am first a human being, and when I am hurt I bleed, just like everyone else. We can have all the education, training and experience in the world, but that will not shield us from the pain of loss. The most important thing I’ve learned is that there is help available, and when loss happens to me, I know I don’t have to go through it alone. I've also learned that with every loss I've had, I've become more compassionate and understanding toward others who are grieving. For me, that is a gift.

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