Grief and Loss
Grief, we all go through it at some point in our lives but still it is one of the most misunderstood and neglected processes in life. Responding to loss of relationship in the form of death or break up/divorce is both awkward, uncomfortable even scary for the griever and those around them. To avoid this awkwardness some people may prefer avoid dealing with grief or more so not acknowledge the loss it self. This makes the experience more lonely, unhappy and confusing than it might be.
There are so many misconceptions regarding grief that may actually hamper the process of recovery and growth following loss. Well-wishers often try to change how the grieving person is feeling, most commonly known statements they make are: “ I know how you feel” (no, you don’t, so don’t claim it), “You must stay strong” (no, I don’t want to I am feeling bad and low), “You have to get on with your life, one follows the dead” or “Aren’t you relieved that his/her suffering is over; if it were a break up or divorce some would say “good riddance.” Such clichés may help the one who says them but rarely help the griever. If you ask the griever he/she might want to scream, “no, you don’t know what I am going through so don’t even claim it,” “no, I don’t want to be strong I want to mourn and cry,” “I am not planning to die, all I want is for this pain to stop,” “sure, his/hers suffering ended but mine is here and now” or if it were a divorce or break up “how can you say good riddance, it was all I had.” Break up and divorce are just like death; death of a relationship. You mourn the loss of a relationship. If you are helping some one going through grief after loss avoid these ways of minimizing a person’s grief. The griever needs encouragement to recover in their own ways; there is no set timetable for recovery. To be able to help someone recover from their loss it is important to understand what is grief and its process.
Grief is natural and normal deeply painful response to loss. Commonly associated loss to grief is that of death of a loved one but there are many significant changes in one’s life that can involve loss and demand grief. Like, break up of an intimate relationship, divorce, sudden dislocation or relocation due to calamities or other unforeseeable reasons. The more significant the loss the more intense is the grief.
Every person experiences and expresses their grief in unique ways. Some people may feel angry and destructive others may just withdraw from life and yet few others may feel confused and not know what to do. No matter what their reaction is every griever needs support from others. Those helping the grievers need to anticipate a wide range of emotions and behaviors and accept them as normal and act accordingly. In order to be able to help effectively it is useful to know about the grieving process.
The Process of Grieving
Grief is a normal response to any significant loss that requires time, patience, courage and support. The griever may experience many changes throughout the process. Initially the person feels the shock, followed by a long road of suffering and finally moving towards recovery.
Shock is the initial reaction to loss. It is our body’s first defense to emotionally protect us from being overwhelmed by the loss. Example, it is normal for a person to lose memory of a traumatic accident, it is also normal for another person to go totally blank on discovering their intimate relationship is over or their intimate partner has physically assaulted them for the first time. In shock people may not be able to make even simple decisions, what to wear, what to eat, manage time etc. Family and friends need to just be there for the griever, simply sit and listen and assist the person’s daily basic needs. When I discovered I was divorced I went into sudden shock (I was in the hospital recovering from accident when he filed divorce so I had no clue). I lost short term memory. I had difficulty remembering what I was doing and what I was suppose to do. I would turn on the stove and not know why I turned it on. I would not be able to pick clothes for work. I would go without eating for hours and not realize that I had to feed my self. I was lucky I was living as roommates with a very spiritual host family; the lady, Ms A would help me get going with my day. She would help me make a list of what I’ll be doing throughout the day. That really helped, it kept me safe and helped me focus on myself instead of being distracted by the stress of managing cooking, cleaning etc. When my friend Atiya’s relationship ended she moved around like a zombie, it was good that she went abroad or else she would have lost her mind. As I was married I had the social sanction to cry maybe I was even expected to mourn but she was not married and her relationship was not known to her family so she could not grieve openly; same was Shanu’s situation. In my work with survivors of intimate partner abuse I have seen when women report abuse and take shelter in the domestic violence shelters they cry non-stop for hours and days. For the first twenty four hours they just cry and go to sleep the shock of becoming homeless and leaving the familiar is overwhelming. Shock may last for minutes, days or months depending on the significance of loss.
It is a long period of grief during which a person comes to terms with the reality of the loss. A wide range of emotions, thoughts and behaviors manifest, every thing appears to be chaotic and disorganized. The nature of loss decides the duration of suffering. The common features of suffering are:
In grief sadness is most commonly felt emotion. Person need not cry sadness is triggered by the reminders of the loss and its permanence. It can become quite intense and be experienced as emptiness and despair. A person may feel they have lost the purpose of life and not know what to do. Being married was a big part of my identity in the past decade and all of a sudden it was ripped off me and all there was left was a scar and stigma. I wanted out but I did not want the marriage to end. Marriage even if it was a bad one to me was a shield against the social censure. I felt us women all our lives dream to get married and when that marriage turns bad and ends abruptly the dream is shattered. Now there is not even an illusion of a happily ever afters. One time I told him “I wish we were not married it would have kept the illusion of what the life could have been with you…” Now it was just like Sahir’s verses from Kabhi Kabhi, tu nahin tera gham, teri justzu bhi nahin…
Once past sadness person feels angry and is confused by this anger. Anger is a frequent response to feeling powerless, frustrated or even abandoned. It is also a common response to feeling threatened; a significant loss can threaten a person’s basic beliefs about self and about life in general. I was very angry at the courts that would pass the judgment on an order that was never served. I was angry at all those people at my church that helped him through this. Consequently, anger may be directed at self, at God, at Universe, at life in general for the injustice of the loss, at others involved or, in the case of death, at the deceased for dying. I was angry at myself for letting him abuse me. I was angry at spending so much time and effort saving that marriage. I was angry at the universe and God for letting him abuse me and I was angry at him for getting away with it. Shanu was angry at him for breaking his promises and her heart. She was angry at letting him touch her in romantic ways, she felt used and dirty for days and months.
Guilt and self reproach are common reactions to things the griever did or failed to do before the loss. A griever may reproach themselves for hurtful things they said, loving things that remained unsaid, missing a chance to make up and prevent the loss. I felt guilty for bringing a bad name to my family as divorce is not tolerated in my culture. I felt guilty about letting him get away with it. I wanted him to get hurt by some divine intervention or karmic law of actions. At least I was dealing with social rejection Atiya and Shanu were dealing with the judge within them. Their relationships were not even existent to the world so the nature of their guilt was more detrimental, they felt guilty of letting their guard down and offending their personal boundaries.
Can range from mild insecurity to strong panic attacks both fleeting and persistent in nature. Often, grievers become anxious about their ability to take care of themselves following loss and they also become concerned about the well being of their other loved ones. I rather became anxiety free. I felt as if nothing worse could happen. Here I was in a foreign land with broken bones and a shirt on my back. I felt if I was still alive then my folks would be okay too. Shanu dealt with panic attacks for quite some time, she feared he would sully her honor and mar the chances of her siblings’ marriage.
Physical, Behavioral and Cognitive Symptoms:
Periods of fatigue, loss of interest in things that were once enjoyable, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, confusion, preoccupation and loss of concentration often accompany grief. My sleep became erratic. After initial bad news I slept for almost 18 hours and there after I would not be able to sleep more than a couple of hours a night. I would stay awake in bed for hours. I would wake up as if I had run a marathon. My short term memory was last two words of the sentence I read or the sentence spoken to me. I would wander away in my thoughts while I was in company. I remember one time Atiya told me how wanted to jump in front of the Amtrack because she wanted the pain to stop. She would dress up every day and roam the town aimlessly not knowing where to seek help in a foreign country. Shanu did not stop bleeding for two months, she literally turned into a skeleton.
Suffering is most painful and lingering but necessary stage for any griever. It is observed these emotional and physical reactions are common symptoms that will stabilize and diminish with time as the person moves through the grieving process. If these symptoms persist or get worse it is important to seek professional help.
Recovery does not mean all pain will eliminate and all the memories of loss will fade away. The purpose of recovery is to reorganize one’s life. Accepting the loss and decentralizing it to allocate it an important space in life but on the sides. In the process person starts to accept the loss, resumes more familiar routine and starts investing time, attention and energy to other parts of their life. Loss is still felt, but it has becomes a part of my more typical feelings and experiences. As I started coming to terms with the fact I am now divorced and there is nothing more I can do about it. I gave myself permission to start enjoying life again. I missed marriage (not the man I was married to) when I went to desi gatherings but gradually even that changed. Now I love being single again. Recovery to me means reclaiming my choices. Atiya has moved on and so has Shanu, their concealed pasts only come out when we are together and mine stays on the wall like a dated poster.
How to Help Someone
Make a contact
Reach out to the person who has suffered a loss. Yes, it is awkward. You may even experience fear or uncertainty. It is normal; don’t let that stop you from being a friend. Make a call; send a greeting card or email, if you can then be there.
Provide Practical Help
People often ask “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” That is not enough and it is no good. I was in the hospital and desi’s would call me to say “let me know if you need any thing.” I needed six people to change my sides every couple of hours. I needed every thing. It would have helped if someone had offered to sit next to me through my physical therapy or had brought me home cooked food or done my laundry. Decide on a task you can help with and make the offer.
Be Available and Accepting
Accept the words and feelings expressed by the griever; avoid being judgmental or taking their feelings personally. Refrain from telling them how they should feel or what they should do. I could not have survived this had I not had my roommate, Atiya, Rinky, Nisha and other close friends.
Be a Good Listener
A person in grief needs to talk about their loss about the person, related events and their reactions. Allow grievers to tell their stories and expressing their feelings. Be patient and accepting of their expressions. My natal family was sympathetic but did not know how to react so they turned their backs on my reality; they acted as if last ten years of my life never happened. They were hurt too, it was also their loss but they did not know how to handle it. They treated me as if I was never married and nothing happened, so I could never open up. It was my friends and my faith that allowed me to grieve.
There are no short cuts in grieving; a griever needs his/her time to mourn their loss. Often friends and family start loosing patience, they want the person to move on. Rushing a person or cutting short the story they are telling not only hurts them but make them feel unimportant too. When ever I would reminisce something from my marriage another friend would say it is over and get over it. I use to hurt my feelings and one day I had to shut her off that she was hindering my right to mourn my loss.
Encourage Self Care
Encourage the grieving person to attend their physical needs, postpone any major decisions, allow themselves to grieve and recover. It was my roommate, Ms A who encouraged me to attend to my physical needs (reminding me to eat, take my vitamins, go for exercise etc), some days she would let me lie on the couch watching TV for hours and on other days she would turn off the TV and ask me to come with her for walk. She provided me support in getting back into activities and making decisions.
Modeling Good Self Care
Often those helping the grievers become overwhelmed with responsibilities and emotional burdens. It is your responsibility to care for your self. Make your self a priority only then you’ll be able to help others. Stay positive and maintain a realistic perspective if it gets too much take a break. Help yourself so that you can help others.