by Michael Raitt -
SGN Contributing Writer
At some point in your life - if not already - you will be faced with one of the most commanding paradoxes of the human experience. That is the death of a loved one. A loved one could be a parent, spouse, child, friend, or family pet. The form (human or animal) is of no consequence. The experience is profound.
A paradox is a contradiction and with the experience of grief, the paradox exists where one feels great pain, there is intense love. Where one experiences immense fear, one finds absolute strength. Understanding this paradox is important as you face the death of a loved one and the feelings of grief.
Generally, people are familiar with the phases of grief when they have lost a loved one: 1. Denial and Isolation; 2. Anger; 3. Bargaining; 4. Depression; and 5. Acceptance. These phases are usually presented in a linear way (as numbered above) - you move from one to two, then to three, and so on. In this framework, it is implied that soon you will be through your grief and on with your life.
These experiences are very real! Implying that you will move through them sequentially, and that there is some kind of finish line, is not. You don't finish grieving the death of someone at the end of the workweek or when your bereavement time ends. This can be a very long process - sometimes a lifetime.
When you've lost someone you love, you will experience all of these feelings. At the beginning, it may be difficult to delineate one feeling from another. Yet, as time goes on, you will recognize certain experiences and you will note that some feelings are stronger than others. Do not be surprised when these feelings cycle back and forth. Do not be surprised when, down the road (sometimes many years after someone has died), you experience some of these feelings again. This is normal.
By the time I was 35 years old, many friends had died (during the AIDS crisis), both of my parents had died, as had one of my two brothers. In my 20s, I was so terrified of experiencing the death of someone that I started doing counseling. It was in my terror that I found the tremendous strength that I would call upon in the following years as I would continue to find myself at the side of others who were at the end of their lives.
What I have noticed is that as time passes, I can be moved to tears by each loss. Then I can bring forward the love and memorable times I've had with each person. The painful memories can lead me to the loving memories just as the loving memories can take me back to the experience of grief. This is the contradictions of the paradox converging - the love with the pain.
Don't expect a time limit on grieving. It is normal for you to grieve for as many years as you need to.
(Please note: I did not say, 'as many years as you want to.' Because most of us want a finish point to this process, we must understand that time and the healing process of grieving will be the determining factor.)
So now I've briefly framed a broader understanding of the experience of grief.
The next part is, 'What do I do with my grief?' An important part of getting on in your life after a great loss is the meaning you make of the loss.
'Meaning making' is a very individual thing. It simply involves taking a feeling or memory you are having about a loss and doing something intentional with it. I can only give you examples of what I do with meaning making - you'll have to figure out what is helpful for you.
My father was a very generous man. By no means perfect, yet he was very generous with his family and friends. When I 'make meaning' out of his death, I am conscious and intentional about being generous and noting it as a legacy that I have held on to from my Dad. Sometimes I share this with others and sometimes, my generous gesture is simply a private act that I combine with a memory of my Dad.
My mother dabbled in art and was a great baker. Throughout the year, I attempt (sometimes dismally, but no matter) to recreate something she loved to bake. Again, sometimes it is my own private process and sometimes I share it with others. Regardless, I am remembering her and actively engaging in something that was about her and meaningful for the both of us.
The anniversary of my mother's death is coming in a few days. I will go out to a nice restaurant and enjoy a nice meal and reflect on my life with her and how I still miss her every day! This is an annual tradition for me that I enjoy doing.
My older brother died unexpectedly (long story). He worked what most would consider a very menial job for most of his adult years because he never graduated from high school. At his service, hundreds of people showed up - so many that there ended up only being standing room on the sidewalk outside and where they had to place loud speakers so people could hear the service.
From my brother's death, I never again minimized or trivialized another's life through what they do for a living. Nor did I ever again put anyone on a pedestal because of something as superficial as a job or money. I became acutely aware that he had impacted the lives of all of these people in different ways because of who he was - not through money or any profound social cause that came from a university degree. Rather through day-to-day interactions. Many years later I try, on a daily basis, to be mindful of my impact and the impact that others have on me no matter their status but simply through their character and actions.
I could go on. You get that 'meaning making' reflects the impact that someone has had on us.
My hope is that what you get from this is that in grief, we feel a mix of intense, contradictory feelings for a very long time, because we love while we are in pain. Let it happen and let it be okay. At some point, be thoughtful and intentional about the meaning you make from the loss of a loved one and let that meaning impact how you show up to others while you are still alive.
Michael Raitt, MA LMHC, is a Therapist and a Contributing Writer to the SGN. He writes a bi-monthly column in the SGN. If you would like to comment on this column, ask a question you'd like him to write about, or suggest another topic of interest, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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