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Phyllis R. Silverman Ph.D.
Phyllis R. Silverman Ph.D.

Helping a Community Understand the Complexity of Grief

Grief is not an illness.Mourners need the support of their community.

In my last blog I wrote about the need to help the larger population in our communities learn the language of grief. I was commenting on what I see as a lack of understanding of what it means to deal personally with a death, and what being bereaved means to a mourner. We, who live in a world in which a large part of our reactions to what are in fact universal human experiences are treated as an illness from which, with the proper expert guidance, we wiil be cured. What we feel and how we behave when we are bereaved are called symptoms, just as we talk of symptoms of the flu, for example. We then talk of the bereaved recovering and getting back to normal as soon as possible . This is what I complained about when I heard these words directed at the families in Newtown, Conn. What do we need to know to have a useful language of grief, not only for the bereaved, but for those who are trying to help them? In this atmosphere we don’t often consider our own experience as useful in trying to understand others. In fact we may be our own best teachers. Before we use our own experience, should we wait for approbation from the professionals? I think not. What do I think we should all know about grief? If you have experienced the death of someone close to you, does what you experience coincide with what you hear from professionals or from the people you are reaching out to? I am reminded of an earlier blog in which I talked about a book called “MiIO” that was written and illustrated by Alan Silberger. This is a book about Silberger’s mother’s death when he was in grade school, and how it affected him.

Taking together what I have learned from my research, from talking to many bereaved parents and children, and from my own experience what follows are ways I see of understanding grief. I hope that it will help in making our communities more responsive to the fact that people die and to the grief that follows.

-Grief is not an illness and we do not recover from it, that is, there is no cure. It is a natural life cycle event that all of us will experience when someone we are close to, care about, or simply know, dies. We learn to accommodate to this loss, to accommodate to our feelings, and to cope with the many changes a death can bring to our lives. Death is not primarily the result of medical failure, nor it is a respector of age . It is sometimes the result of an illness. Death is sometimes unanticipated, sometimes the results of an accident or worse, when communities are touched by murder. it is often the result of the inevitable end of life in old age. We will all die. Unfortunately this is part of the human life cycle, for which we are often not prepared. We talk of death resulting in a trauma. This would be expected in what happened in Newtown, but often any death , even those, that were unanticipated can be experienced as traumatic by the bereaved.. While occasionally people have suggested a universal, fixed trajectory for how we grieve, that is not correct. There may be common aspects to each persons grief but no one way of experiencing it. Each of us finds our own way to an accommodation, to our new feelings, and to the changes in our lives.

-Most of the focus when we talk about grief is on the emotional feelings the bereaved experience shortly after the death. People feel sad, they long for the deceased, and often they cannot accept the finality of the death. They think of the deceased, they try to make this loss real, but in the beginning it is difficult to take this in. Mourners can be restless, angry, not able to sleep,and very preoccupied with their own sadness. Depending on their relationship to the deceased, with the death the bereaved have lost a way of life, and a sense of self as it was framed by the lost relationship. Their whole way of living may have been lost. They also have to find a way of honoring the life of the deceased. Each of us finds our own way of dealing with our feelings and the changes in our lives that this death creates, and that in some form lasts a life time. We tend to overlook these changes. For example, a new widow with children now becomes head of a single parent household. The reorganizing of her life is also part of the bereavement process. Some people are quiet about what they are experiencing, others want to talk. We need to learn to listen and learn about what the bereaved want and how they see their needs.

But can the bereaved really do it alone? This is not easy when we live in a world that has difficulty with the expression of feelings over time or feelings that disturb our wish for an orderly view of the world. Often the bereaved are referred for therapy or counseling; often with the intention of helping them find a cure. This approach can often be Improperly used by friends and family. For example, a young widow who I met at a support group told of a day when she felt low and called her sister to go out for a cup of coffee. The sister immediately wondered why she didn’t call her therapist, implying that having a bad day meant that something was wrong; that like an illness requiring medical attention . The woman said she hung up called a friend from their group, who went out for coffee with her, and they both felt better. I am asking what do people need to know to be there for that cup of coffee? I have also heard people say, “I cannot help, I am not trained”. The purpose of this blog is to remind the reader that we all must be helpers. We must know how to listen, to not recite platitudes, or be fearful of other people’s pain. We need to be able to say “ I am sorry” that this person died. We need to be able to ask about the person wo died and to learn something about what was lost.

- Depending on our age and our relationship to the deceased our grief will also be different. We need to keep in mind that we do not protect children when we do not acknowledge their grief, pain and confusion about what is happening. I am reminded of a mother who at her husband’s funeral admonished a friend who told her young grieving adolescent son that it was up to him to care for his mother. His mother scolded her friend by reminding her that he still had a mother who could take care of him, and who would grieve with him. It was not his job to take care of her. This is a big issue for children whose parent died. They need to know who will take care of them.

A favorite story of mine is about 5 year olds whose mother/aunt had recently died. The story illustrates how young children understand death and how they test their own magical powers. At the wake they kept running up to the coffin and kissing the body. The children then ran away looking back to see if the kiss had made any difference. The family left them alone realizing that they were reproducing the Snow White story, and the children soon realized that the dead do not come back to life. Young children don’t automatically know that, nor do they understand the sadness they feel, or their fear of who will take care of them, when a parent dies. When they go to play it is not because they are not grieving. They go to a place where they feel safe in a world they know and understand. Friends become very important as children struggle to understand what has happened. We can see how by letting children, in an age appropriate way, to be involved in deaths around them, of friends, of friends’ parents and others; they learn the value of friendship and are introduced to the impact of death on a family.

-This is a longer blog than I have ever written. Can it be a stimulus to thinking about how to begin educating our own communities?

About the Author
Phyllis R. Silverman Ph.D.

Phyllis R. Silverman, Ph.D., is a Scholar-in-Residence at Brandeis University Women's Studies Research Center.

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