It is impossible to comprehend the experience of grief with mere words. And yet what else do we have to help each other understand it? There are no "tricks" or pat solutions or foolproof techniques that enable one to comfort a grieving person. This is because, like our faces and our personalities, our individual responses to terrible loss are various. While there are things you should not say, there are no words that are guaranteed to soothe. It is our presence with the grieving person that provides the best hope of comfort, our willingness to be with them, to listen to their pain, to share their sense of helplessness.

It is not good to go through grief alone. And often those close to us who seem the logical candidates to be with us are so wounded and caught up in their own experience of loss that they can think only of themselves. This is why children who have lost a sibling often feel abandoned by their grieving parents. And it is at least part of the reason why parents who have lost a child divorce with such frequency.

No one teaches us how to grieve or how to be with those who are grieving. Some people seem more able to comfort those who mourn, but then some people are better than others at all sorts of human interactions. Perhaps we can all get better at it by understanding the process and what we bring to it from our own life experience.

Grief and mourning are surrounded by myth. First of all, people use the terms synonymously though they are actually different experiences. Grief is the thoughts and feelings experienced within oneself upon the death of someone loved. It is the internal experience of bereavement. Mourning is the taking of the internal experience of grief and expressing it outside of ourselves. This is a very culture-bound process. Contemporary American culture is focused on one imperative: get over it.

The section on bereavement in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association contains the following sentence: "The diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder is generally not given unless the symptoms are still present two months after the loss." In other words, you have two months to grieve, and after that if you're not back to your old self, you have a mental illness.

Another common myth is that there is an orderly progression through the experience of mourning. This is based on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's characterization of how people respond to catastrophically bad news, starting with denial and ending with acceptance. In fact, bereaved people find themselves assaulted by a variety of conflicting emotions in a completely unpredictable sequence. And there are some losses that we are forced to live with but can never truly "accept."

A further false belief is that grief is something to avoid. In fact, it is unavoidable; it cannot be overcome, only experienced. The only "treatment" is to teach people to tolerate some extremely distressing emotions, including anxiety, confusion, and a wish to be dead. Commonly, those in the early stages of grief believe that they are "going crazy."

Bereaved people want to know, "How long will I be this way? What is the goal of this awful process?" The fact is that the loss of a loved one changes us permanently. There is no "closure," (a word hated by grieving parents) only softening. Dean Koontz said this in his book, Sole Survivor:

The few times he had gone to meetings of The Compassionate Friends, he had heard other grieving parents speak of the Zero Point. The Zero Point was the instant of the child's death, from which every future event would be dated, the eye blink during which crushing loss reset your internal gauges to zero. It was the moment at which your shabby box of hopes and wants--which had once seemed to be such a fabulous chest of bright dreams--was turned on end and emptied into an abyss, leaving you with zero expectations. In a clock tick, the future was no longer a kingdom of possibility and wonder, but a yoke of obligation--and only the unattainable past offered a hospitable place to live. He had existed at Zero Point for more than a year, with time receding from him in both directions, belonging to neither the days ahead nor those behind. It was as though he had been suspended in a tank of liquid nitrogen and lay deep in cryogenic slumber.

Loss is an inevitable consequence of the human condition. If we survive long enough we encounter many losses. The natural response to loss is grief—which looks much like depression: sadness, tears, diminished energy, changes in sleep and appetite, problems with concentration. A diminished self-esteem is more characteristic of depression. If we are grieving the loss of a loved one, we are sad, but we generally retain our sense of ourselves as worthwhile people.

What we are trying to offer any person experiencing extended or recurrent sadness is hope. Our own experiences of loss and discouragement are what we have to inform our ability to console others. The bereaved are especially sensitive to the bromides with which the uninitiated, those untouched by personal devastation, attempt to offer comfort. The grief bulletin boards of the Internet are full of the anger of people who, confronting the worst moments of their lives, are offered well-meant but ineffective attempts at consolation. Some of them—and the thoughts they evoke in grieving people - are:

He's in a better place. (But I'm not there with him.)
You're lucky to have other children. (I don't feel lucky.)
I know how you feel. (Have you had a child die?)
What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. (Why don't I feel stronger?)
God doesn't give us more than we can bear. (How easy that must be to say.)
You're so strong; I couldn't do what you have done. (What choice do I have?)
You can get pregnant again. (So this child was disposable?)

How each of us confronts loss, in ourselves and in those we would help, defines us as few other attributes can. What we reveal in our attitudes toward grief and mourning determines whether we have anything to teach others. If we have not distilled from our own lives a sense of purpose in the face of implacable fate, how can we transmit hope to those who feel crushed by feelings of powerlessness and despair? All of us inevitably employ whatever beliefs we have, religious or philosophical, that help us to confront our mortality. Whether those we seek to help have similar convictions determines whether or not they will be useful. One need not partake of any particular doctrine, but it helps to believe in something—if only in the nobility of the human spirit in the face of the unknown.

To be mortal is to bear the awful weight of time and fate. It is in a sharing this burden that we help ourselves no less than those whom we would help. We do this in an atmosphere of both pain and hope in an attempt, finally, to enable the pleasure that is also life's gift.

About the Author

Gordon Livingston

Gordon Livingston, M.D., writes and practices psychiatry in Columbia, MD.

You are reading


Children and Guns

A true story of a boy and his rifle.

Frequently Asked Questions

Things you need to know about psychotherapy.

When the Old Instruct the Young

We speak in cliches. When we think and write in cliches, we are in trouble.