Am I Right?

How to live ethically

The Pain of Grief

There is no one right way to grieve

As a humanist minister I have seen much sorrow and grief. I have been with children after their father was killed in an auto accident, a young couple when their month-old infant died, a wife in a hospital waiting room when the doctor had shut down all life-support systems for her husband. I have officiated at funerals for the very old and for children and I have counseled families during their bereavement.

Most often the grief seems overwhelming and unbearable. Few believe that their lives will ever return to anything resembling normality. But at some point most people do find a way through their sorrow and become, once again, part of the on-goingness of life.

Yet no two people are alike. Some recover quickly, some more slowly and some are changed forever. During the period of intense grief, people often think they are going crazy. Some people hear voices or see visions; others find themselves attached to odd objects.

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I have seen long-term friendships disintegrate because of misunderstand- ings and I have known people who were once emotionally strong sud- denly weep at unexpected times, in unexpected places. People feel embar- rassed, ashamed, guilty, edgy, withdrawn, anti-social and angry. They sometimes act in ways totally uncharacteristic and this is why they feel they must be going mad. They are no longer themselves.

I have also learned that there is no such thing as a timetable for grieving nor is there such a thing as the proper way to grieve. The most that can be said is that there is a general pattern, a broad outline, but within these contours each person finds his or her own way. What is true is that for many the amount of time grief takes to work itself through is far longer than outsiders realize.

People tend to get impatient with the bereaved. But when there has been a profound loss, patience and understanding are often the most important things to be had.

I think there are two ultimate sources of comfort for the bereaved. The first is the recognition that the great mystery is not death but birth, not that someone loved is now gone but that the person was here at all. The great gift is life and loving and being loved in return. In this way love is stronger than death.

The second source of comfort comes from other people, from those who can sit quietly and simply be with the bereaved. Their love, kindness, tenderness and caring is what gives us the strength to go on.

The pain felt at a death seems too much to bear, yet people go on because the beauty of life remains despite the loss. But what do people do while the pain persists?

As a way of coping with the pain many people form attachments to par- ticular objects. A widow may keep her husband’s clothes. It is not uncom- mon for parents to keep a child’s room intact for several years. It is as though by keeping things as they were the person is really still here with them.

While those who stand outside may think the behavior is abnormal, form- ing attachments to objects is often a healthy thing to do. Psychologists call this ‘transitional relationships.’ Children form them all the time as a way of coping with the fear of leaving the safety of the home and having to face the frightening world without mother or father. Being on one’s own is a frightening prospect and one way a child deals with that anxiety is by playing with teddy bears or forming a fantasy world in which the child is totally in control.

Transitional objects give children a mean of mitigating the terrors of inner turmoil in a seemingly hostile and indifferent world. So too when someone dies the universe becomes frightening and hostile. Holding on to those things which remind us of a time when the person we loved was with us gives comfort. There is nothing wrong with that. The possession of these objects can provide bereaved people with a bridge from the time loved ones were alive to the present.

Arthur Dobrin, D.S.W., teaches applied ethics at Hofstra University. He is the author, coauthor, and editor of more than twenty books.

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