When Will I Be Okay?: Getting Grief Wrong
I worked as a grief counselor for hospice for three years, during which I completed the requirements to become a certified Thanatologist, or death education and counseling provider. I learned many things through my work with hospice patients and their families, but the thing that has stuck with me the most had to do not with the "hows" or "whys" of grief, but with the "whens." My job was to have some kind of contact with every family we had served following the death of their loved one. I always made an initial phone call, then mailings were sent at defined times during the first year describing what could be expected in the experience of grief. These mailings provided a sort of schedule for grief even as they stated that grief was different for every person who went through it. The sheer number of families I served made it impossible for me to stay in contact with them all. I had a procedure for assessing the risk for grief complications and typically followed up more closely on those cases. I relied on others to let me know if they needed my services.
On Grief's Schedule
What I discovered from the low risk people who called me, was the disconnect between what our society expects and what really occurs in the "schedule" of grief. While it is true that grief is different for everyone, I found, almost to a person, that there was one thing that was usually a surprise. The truth was that no one expected to fall apart later, after the initial shock and reality of the death wore off. Most people believed that grief was a linear process, that it would begin very painfully and then would diminish slowly over time. The way that we tend to offer solace to those who are grieving shows this societal belief as well. People flock to the funeral services, and to the family, bearing food, flowers, and sympathy. This is usually within the first week after the loved one's death. The next time that some of us are likely to pay attention again is at a year, the anniversary of the death, or at the holidays. The disconnect is also heard whenever we are surprised at how "well" someone seems to be doing when we see them at the funeral.
"I measure every grief I meet with narrow, probing eyes - I wonder if it weighs like mine - or has an easier size.” ~ Emily Dickinson
Grieving Alone Together
At the heart of our experience of grief is our constant checking to find out if what we're feeling is normal. This makes it all the stranger that we have continued to have a sort of cognitive dissonance as a culture when it comes to the reality of grief's trajectory. The people who called me did so because they thought there was something terribly wrong with them. It was typically three to six months after the death. Many thought they were going crazy because all of a sudden they felt worse and they didn't expect it. If they told anyone, they were usually met with concern that "things should be better by now." Many didn't tell anyone else before calling me. How relieved they were when I told them that they were perfectly normal! That they weren't alone. And how surprised they were.
The Truth About Grief
As this pattern became obvious to me in my practice, I sought to get the word out more clearly, more widely. Every time I taught a seminar or class on grief, it was a major theme. I told anyone that would listen. When I trained grief volunteers for hospice, I told them, showed them, and told them again. I felt that getting the truth out there would make grieving a little bit easier. Help people not feel so isolated by their rollercoaster experience. I think it helped in our little corner of the world, for a bit. But if we don't share this experience with other people, it will not become accepted as the norm. The truth is that very often we are numbed after the first shock of a loved one's death. There are things to do and plan, and there is no space for us to fall apart. We walk through the first days like zombies and often don't remember much of it later. Then, three to six months down the road, the full reality hits us and we do feel like we're falling apart. It happens to almost every person who grieves. We should be prepared for it, in ourselves and others, so we don't have to grieve alone.
- Grieving a Loss - CARING CONNECTIONS - NHPCO
Grief resources from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
- The Compassionate Friends
If you and your family have experienced the loss of a child, The Compassionate Friends can help you find the support, understanding and healing to work through your grief.