Monday, February 28, 2011

Learning about grief

As I muddle along through this lifelong, lifewide learning journey, I find that the toughest lessons are the ones about being human. About human experience.

A friend of mine recently lost her sister to cancer. She had been doing very well, and then suddenly she was gone. My friend and her family are grieving. This is the normal way of things. Hard as it is to deal with, this is how we more or less expect it to happen. Which is not to say that it's neat and tidy. Far from it. But it's more or less 'the norm'.

Another friend miscarried twins and then, just as she was coming to terms with that loss, lost her father. Once again, her sense of loss was in step with the loss itself (although some of her friends considered the extent and duration of her grief over the twins to be self-indulgent, and broke contact with her). On Facebook and Twitter, she started discussions about the different models of loss and grief, and the stages one goes through.

But that got me to thinking about the times when the grief is out of step with the loss.

I recently learned that a friend of mine from college days died of drug abuse (I haven't had all the details) about 15 years ago. The fact that I only learned about it now is an indication of the fact that we had lost contact. But we were friends, once. So I found myself... 'grieving' is perhaps too strong a word, but I did experience sorrow, about 15 years after the event. It felt odd being out of step with the people who shared the news with me. They had been there at the time. They had grieved when it happened. For them it is a healed wound. For me, the process is just beginning.

It made me think of the experiences of one woman I knew whose (widowed) mother had dementia. Whenever she visited the nursing home, she found her mother anxious to get home to prepare her husband's dinner. Initially, she would gently remind her mother that her father had died many years previously. But the staff at the home advised her against this approach. They explained that, because of the dementia, every time she heard the news was like the first time, and the grief was sharp and present, rather than a memory. Instead, they suggested that she simply reassure her mother about her late father's dinner requirements and move on to other topics.

On Friday, I learned that another friend has terminal lung cancer (note the ubiquitous cigarette in the photo in the link) and lymphoma . Although we are Facebook friends, it has been many years since we were the sort of friends who spent easy hours in each other's company, and who performed musical revues together. I will probably never see him again. So, although he is still alive, I find that my grieving process has already begun.

Grief is a slippery thing. It doesn't colour inside the lines, and it doesn't progress as it should. Just when you think you have a handle on things, something happens to open that Tupperware cupboard, and it all comes tumbling out. It was fully ten years after my maternal grandmother's death before I stopped thinking, "I must ask Granny..." She was the person to whom I turned with all my questions about cookery and needlecraft. Even twenty years after she was gone, I made a mess trying out her Christmas cake recipe and was in floods of tears because I couldn't ask her what I had done wrong.

Being human is very complicated, very messy and somewhat unpredictable. But we insist on coming up with models to try to tidy it up.

If you're grieving today, whether it is in step or out of step, whether it is appropriate or not, and even if your friends have utterly lost patience with your inability to 'pull yourself together', consider yourself hugged.


John Iscream said...

Consider yourself hugged my precious person

V Yonkers said...

Often those who have gone through a prolonged illness with a close friend or family are in a different state of grief. They have had time to accept it while those that have not been there now must start the grieving process.

I can never understand how others can judge someone's grief as inappropriate. A colleague and good friend of mine lost her younger 17-year old sister to a car accident. After 6 months, our bosses were saying, "buck up, you should be over this by now." In other words, we don't want to hear about it any more. I think your friends that unfriended the woman who miscarried did the right thing in unfriending her on facebook as it is obvious they didn't know how to help her through her grief. I'm not saying they were bad friends, but rather they were not able to provide her with what she needed (probably a space to vent).

When my father died, the hardest thing was that many did not want me to talk about it. It was difficult as they had not lost a parent and could not relate to what I was going through. I remember finally speaking to a classmate who was going through the same thing. WE made the others uncomfortable (since they did not have to face the grief) and so we didn't speak about it. But the feelings were still there until we could let them out, usually with someone who could relate to it.

My husband's aunt is a nun who was responsible for training grief counsels of all denominations and professions. I don't think I could do that as a profession, but I give her and those she trained credit for helping people through their grief.

The upsycho said...

@Virginia I totally understand the hurt that comes with not being able to discuss your loss. That has been the experience of everyone I've ever known who has experienced loss, including me.

And yet, I assume that I must be part of the 'everyone else' that people feel they can't speak to when they experience loss in their turn. So perhaps it's just a perception that we have...? Perhaps we feel some sort of guilt for overstepping boundaries, for taking up more 'space' than we think is our due. I'm just thinking aloud, now.

What do you reckon?

niallgavinuk said...

Karyn, your post prompted me to consider and then look up 'Grief' and 'Mourning' as I feel there's a difference. Grief - a profound, deep sadness caused by death (amongst other things), and Mourning - deep sadness felt specifically because someone has died.

I have felt both, due to death of both parents - my Father when he was 56 (me 27) and my Mother more recently at 82 (me 52). I mourned both within a kind of formal, structured and socially-acceptable period of time, but I lived with the grief for far longer.

My mother slipped away over a number of years of ill-health, increasing senile dementia, home care, nursing home and eventual running down to empty. My brother and I and our respective families mourned her fading away over that period, and whilst sad that she eventually left us, the grief thereafter felt shorter-lived.

However, in personal development work and counselling I have revisited and owned that grief again. But I have also learned that we can grieve about other things which are causing us deep sadness but which we may not recognise as such - and which can lead us to other darker places - our Shadow, if you like. My recent study of the four Jungian Archetypes of the Sovereign (King/Queen), Warrior, Magician and Lover have been a revelation.

Grief is a gateway, one which we need to own and go through to survive ourselves.

V Yonkers said...

It's interesting. I think that the expression of grief has a strong cultural aspect to it. My father's family is Irish-American Catholic. As a result, the wake and the "party" after the funeral is very important. That's when you are able to relieve your burden of grief.

My husband's family are 2nd generation American on their Mother's side. The way in which grief is expressed is just as passionate, but with a lot more crying. It is much more somber and to me a lot harder to handle.

My mother's family and many in the midwestern US (where I was going to school when my father died) do not speak of their grief. It is a very personal matter and the expression of grief is considered awkward at best (my friend that I spoke with was from Hawaii where the culture was more open to a public display of grief).

As I grow older and am exposed to the various ways people express grief, I feel more comfortable with others grief, as well as my own. Each culture has their own "rules" and I think it is a matter of understanding that, especially when you know of others who are going through the grieving process. It's important to know when to ask questions, when to offer condolences (and leave it at that), know when to say nothing, and when to just listen.

The upsycho said...

@John Namasi Somehow I seem to have missed your comment initially, and only to have published it after all the others. Nevertheless, it appears in its chronological order before them, looking as if I have ignored it.

Sorry. And thanks.

@Niall I'm not much of a fan of Jung whose quadratic models must carry a lot of blame for the various 'typing' abominations that abound (learning styles, personality styles, management styles, etc.).

However, I recognise the distinction between the loss of your Mom and the loss of your Dad. Your Mom had what I call a 'small death' in the end: so much of her was already gone, that the actual finality was a much smaller thing than when the whole person is snatched away in a single moment. I hope you don't take my distinction amiss. I don't mean that to imply that she had any less value as a person. My precious Gran mentioned in this post also died such a death, and the mourning, as you say, started long before she was 'officially' gone.

I guess that's what's happening in the case of Syd, whose enormous number of friends and even larger fan base have begun to mourn already.

Unknown said...

I've had the same thing happen - being out of step. A college friend I was close to,but had lost touch with died of AIDS. I found out two years after the fact and only because I wound up working with another college friend who had kept in touch better. Not only was it hard for me, but it was hard for her to break the news.

The upsycho said...

@Pam So sorry to hear that. Not to trivialise it, but when I heard about Garth's death so many years later, I was reminded of Schrödinger's cat. As long as we aren't given any news to the contrary, everyone lives on in our minds. I wondered briefly how many other people from my past were in fact no longer alive.

One of my close friends died a few years ago. On that occasion, I was in the loop and knew as soon as it had happened. But because I was so far away from the 'centre of grief', and didn't get to go to the funeral and share my grief with my friends, I found it very hard to accept that she was gone.