Melissa Paulsen, MA, LMFT, RPT-S
Growth Through Grieving
“I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen
On November 14th, I attended the yearly Hospite 2016 training put on by Cedar Memorial. This year the speaker was David Kessler and the topic was, “The Death Shapes the Grief”. In November of 2014, I wrote an article about the five stages of grief and loss, created by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. David Kessler worked with Elisabeth and they even wrote a few books together including: “On Grief & Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss” and “Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death & Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life & Living”. I would like to spend this article summarizing what I learned and got out of that training.
First, we often have a win-loss mentality when it comes to death. How can we have a great life but still lose at the end? We often say, “You beat the cancer!” which implies that if you do not beat the cancer, you have lost. We also say someone failed chemotherapy, failed radiation, or failed treatments as if it were a math test that we could have studied harder for. We need to acknowledge the chemotherapy, radiation, or treatments failed the person instead. Be mindful with how you talk about treatments, illnesses, and death.
Second, death is not a competition. Those who say their grief is worse, likely didn’t feel their grief was heard, viewed, or witnessed enough when it happened. We often compare grief, thinking someone who got several years with their mother should be grateful for the time rather than acknowledging the grief they are currently experiencing. We talk about how the death of a child is so much worse than the death of a parent. Or we say that someone who had a miscarriage or stillbirth cannot be grieving much since they did not actually meet their child. We discount how someone could truly grieve the loss of their pet because, after all, it’s just an animal! Yes, your grief is the worst, to you, but all grief is unique and should be treated as such.
Third, we shield children from death. As a play therapist who primarily works with children, I am often asked by parents how to handle talking to a child about a death. It is important to be honest with kids. What they imagine is often far worse than the truth. Kessler also stated we should name the disease, cancer, or cause of death. He also advised us to tell the child if they will experience any changes as a result of the death. For example, if mom is dying from cancer, you might be moving to a smaller, more affordable house or apartment, but their school could remain the same. They need to know this. It is important we do not avoid answering a child’s questions because it makes us uncomfortable. On the other hand, we should not force a child to talk about it. I often advise parents to answer questions when a child asks and talk about it for as long as they wish but when they are ready to drop the subject, you should too. Children who are assisted and taught how to accept their grief and loss, will become adults who can do the same.
Fourth, we grieve in character. Often times who we are as people before someone close to us dies is simply amplified after their death. Someone who appears very depressed long after someone close to them dies, will often have a history of appearing sad or depressed prior to the death. A kid who struggles with grades after mom’s death likely was not a straight A student prior to the death. A person who is very resilient and optimistic in life, will be resilient and optimistic after the death of a loved one too. Who we are does not change, it is only magnified.
Fifth, nothing is promised. What is supposed to happen is we live to be 80 or 90, as does our spouse, and we die in bed holding hands like in the movie, “The Notebook”. Our spouse is not supposed to have a heart attack at 50. Our kid is not supposed to get in a car accident at 18. Our best friend is not supposed to commit suicide at 21. None of these things are supposed to happen. But they do.
Lastly, try creating meaning and acceptance from death. Whether you read my article two years ago, or not, you have probably heard about the five stages of grief and loss: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What if there was something beyond acceptance though? What if we could create meaning out of someone’s death? Or what if we knew we had limited time ourselves and could create meaning for our own life before we die? We can have post-traumatic growth that creates meaning out of death and reminds us how to live.
We have the power to change a lot of things, but death is not one of them. The goal of grief work is always to remember someone with more love than pain. There will never be closure, there will never be a moment when you are “over it”. Accept this. Kessler said it best, “Pain from loss is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”