How to Grieve

For the families of all the recent tragedies

Posted Apr 11, 2014

Whether it’s the families of the passengers of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 or of those killed at Ft. Hood or of the children who died in a fiery bus crash near Sacramento, not to mention the families of soldiers continuing to die on active duty or by suicide back home, there is no shortage of grieving people left behind.

Being grief stricken is the feeling that something has been taken or even ripped away from your being after a tragedy or death or some other horrendous situation.  Grieving is the process where that wound no matter how deep or devastating begins to heal.

The stages of grief can be remembered by the term PDR.  In this case, it doesn’t stand for Physician’s Desk Reference that you will see in nearly every doctor’s office.  It stands for – Protest, Depression, Resolution.

Protest – When something tragic and unexpected and that you are not prepared for happens, the first reaction is one of Protest.  That is when you’re thinking or saying, “It didn’t happen,” “No, that’s just a rumor,” “It’s impossible, I just saw them yesterday,” etc.  This is the stage where your mind and understanding of the world cannot and will not conceive that a tragedy has taken place.  Imagine that your thinking (human), feeling (mammalian), and actional (reptile) brains are all lined up and unable to shift from what they believe to what really is.

Depression – This starts to occur when the truth settles in that this was not a rumor or a bad dream.  It really happened.  And the thought of going on or getting past it is inconceivable.  That stuckness often coincides with depression, because it is as if a broken record keeps playing your head and heart saying over and over again, “They’re dead, they’re dead, they’re dead.”  And each time you think and have to feel that message is like a sledgehammer slamming into you stomach, which may explain the nausea people feel (and you might even be feeling as you read this and remember such times in your life).

Resolution – This is when you know you’ll realize it is not the beginning of the end and that you’ll get past it.  Prolonged grief is when you remain stuck not getting past it or a milder version is that you get past it, but you don’t get over it. 

What are some of the ways to make it through grief and past it and hopefully even over it?

  1. Cry - Tears are the vehicle that grief – and maybe God -- gives us to take someone who is gone from your life and transport them into your heart where they live forever.  It’s okay to cry and to cry with others.  It’s not falling apart, it more like the way your thoughts, feeling and actions are rearranging themselves to be able to accept a new reality.
  2. Talk with others – And if and where possible share what you’re feeling and thinking with others going through it.  Why?  Because no matter what anyone who isn’t going through it says, you will discount it by thinking, “That’s easy for you to say, it’s not happening to you.” This is why groups such as Reach to Recovery for breast cancer survivors or Mothers of Murdered Children (started by Sharon  Tate’s mother) have been so helpful to survivors.  There is something about going through your deep sadness with others that lessens the deeper pain of doing without something or someone.
  3. Keep up your routines – It’s amazing how many simple routines such as exercise, reading, etc. work to not just keep us healthy, but help us deal with stress on a daily basis.  Sometimes just stopping your routines for no reason can by itself add to stress or anxiety, so even thought it may be difficult to push yourself to do them… keep doing them.
  4. Turn to your faith – If you are fortunate to have a deeply held faith, turning to that can greatly help you through this period.
  5. Living With Without – Someone I saw years ago whose larger than life father died was having a horrendous time getting past it until one day she came in and calmly said, “I’m better.”  When I asked her what happened she replied with an ironic smile, “It’s learning to live with life never being the same again.”  When I asked her to explain, she added: “Just because life will forever be different, doesn’t mean that it will be less than, doesn’t mean that I won’t be able laugh, love and live.”
  6. What to tell the children – It’s less important what you tell children than what you enable them to tell you.  Be careful not to talk to children about what you think they’re worried about, when it’s what you’re worried about and not necessarily what’s on their mind.  What’s usually on their mind is what’s going to happen to them and what happening to you as their parent.  If they see you’re handling things they feel safer, if they see you’re not, it adds to their upset.
  7. What to say to others who don’t know what to say to you – It is very common for your friends to not know what to say to you, and many don’t know that simply saying, “I’m sorry, “ and then offering to help or just helping you with details of your everyday life is more than sufficient. In such cases don’t think of them as cold and uncaring.  They are just stunned and feel that anything they say is insufficient.  If that is the case, you might do well when you’re with them to touch them on the shoulder and say, “That’s okay.  If I were you, I wouldn’t know what to say either.”

Just because you don’t think you’ll get past or over it doesn’t mean you won’t. If you just let time pass and don’t do anything to make it worse, your mind and brain and life will usually find a way to get back on track.

About the Author

Mark Goulston, M.D., the author of the book Just Listen, is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute.

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