Even with all its flaws today, I can see how our society has evolved in many ways in my relatively short time on Earth.
It used to be that bereavement leave was only granted to individuals upon the death of legally recognized family members. Someone who was estranged from their parent could take days off to go to the beach if they wanted, while someone in a same sex relationship would not be granted those days to mourn the death of a life-partner. Not that any employer of mine disallowed time off to mourn, they just weren’t eligible for the benefit of 3 paid days off. They’d have to use vacation or sick days.
Times have changed. Thankfully.
How we view grief has also evolved as we re-introduce deathcare into the Westernized cultural landscape.
We have moved from pre-industrial society acceptance of death as a normal part of life, to death being repackaged as a sterilized medical event in a hospital setting, coming back around now to death being part of everyday living awareness.
We have gone from having wakes in the ‘front parlour’ of the home, to having services in a funeral parlour, to now swinging back around to having home funerals.
As we evolve, we learn new truths about ourselves, our society and the experiences we have as human beings. It doesn’t make the old truths, lies, but it does render them inert.
At one time we reserved the term ‘grief’ solely to describe the deep sorrow caused by the death of a loved one. As it stands now, we know we experience grief over any kind of loss, with the specific label of ‘bereavement’ for the grief caused by the death of a loved one.
The process of grief is different for everyone simply because each of us grieve each loss differently. There are no two deaths that affect the same person the same way, much less different people the same way.
That’s because grief isn’t about who died, it is about what you have lost.
Once again and louder for those in the bleachers…
When your friend says someone has died, the knee jerk sympathetic reaction is to think of yourself and what it would mean to you to lose that person in your life. For instance, when someone says, ‘My mother died’, you immediately go to your own definition of what a ‘Mother’ is and project what mothers mean to other people.
You reach into your own experience of your mother and make an assumption; one of two assumptions, actually. Either you assume they have the same relationship with their mother as you do with yours, OR if your experience with your mother is non-traditional and adversarial, you might project they had a Norman Rockwell/Hallmark Movie version of a mother.
Either way, typically more ‘weight’ is automatically given to the loss of a mother, than perhaps a cousin. However, someone’s cousin may have held a more intimate place in their lives than a cousin of yours has in your own life. This is important to note, and understand, if you want to offer true support to a bereaved, either professionally or personally, it is paramount to find out what the bereaved has lost.
Grief is not directed by the legal definitions of relationship. Nor is it determined by ‘how much’ you loved someone. (Which is really a ridiculous statement anyway. How would one go about measuring love, exactly? And even if you could measure it, why would you?!)
To understand grief you have to understand that…
It doesn’t matter how the energy was directed. It might be directed in constant conflict. It might be directed in perfect harmony. It only matters how much energy was invested in that paradigm. Even if you hadn’t spoken to the person in 20 years, if in that 20 years you were emotionally invested by way of regret, anger, sadness, wishfullness, longing, or even hatred, you were invested and will have a grief response that might shock, scare or surprise you.
We grieve what was lost…and sometimes -in the case of estranged or contentious relationships- what was lost is the hope of the opportunity to have a better relationship.
For instance, if you’ve invested a lot of energy into ‘hating’ your estranged father, you might be surprised at your grief reaction when he dies. Then you might be tempted to talk yourself out of your grief reaction because to you, grief is determined by how much you loved someone, and you certainly ‘didn’t love that SOB’. When you change the formula, though, to one where grief is related to the energy you invested into hating the man, you might be able to better understand how and why you’re grieving a person you never really knew.
That formula will help you explain why you mourned the loss of your pet more than some people.
I have a visceral response when people qualify their expression of grief over the death of a dog with ‘I know it isn’t the same as losing a human, but…’ When we use the formula that grief is proportional to the energy invested into a relationship it no longer seems odd to intensely grieve a pet, maybe even more than some human beings.
Many times people overly invest in their relationships with their pets because they have human relationships they’ve not reconciled. In other instances people living very isolated lives have only their pets as a source of unconditional love and affection. These are not losses to be taken lightly or diminished by saying, ‘it isn’t the same’. We don’t have lesser or greater love-frequencies based on the species of the subject of our love. Human beings love in human being fashion, period.
Our grief is about OUR connection, OUR feelings, OUR experiences with that which has been lost and what we perceive has been lost. It is not up to anyone else to determine if our grief is warranted, excessive or unjustified.
This brings me to the categories of grief – healthy grief and complicated grief.
Healthy Grief – Otherwise referred to as ‘normal grief’, but we all know there is no such thing as ‘normal’ when it comes to individual expressions of grief. However, there is a reasonable expectedness assigned to grieving and for the purposes of this conversation I will call that reasonable expectedness, ‘healthy’. Healthy grief is that which occurs over a period of time and can be described as a gradual lessening from the onset. In other words, the process of grieving cycles from ‘actively mourning’ to ‘having grief’.
It is a fallacy to think we can ever be free from grief when we’ve lost someone important to us. Actively grieving is when our pain is right upfront. It is center stage of our lives and we are just trying to make it through the day. Having grief is the intermittent experiences and expressions of feelings of loss associated with missing the one who has died. It can be confusing because we can be several years out from the death and experience a sudden onset of sadness and tearfulness. We can even say that it feels just like it did that day we lost them. However, this intense feeling lasts only a few minutes or hours. We are able to recover from it quickly and go back to enjoying life. This is the grief cycle.
While there are no standard timelines for how long the period of intense sorrow lasts, intense sorrow for the first 6 weeks is considered reasonable, but intense sorrow 6 months from the onset would be cause for some concern. The process of grieving is also affected by the type of death, though. An expected death of an 99 year old grandparent would expectedly elicit a less intense and briefer grief cycle, than the sudden loss of a 13 year old child by suicide.
An expected death has a shorter cycle of grief after the death because grieving begins the moment the death is anticipated. It is called ‘anticipatory grief’ for that reason. The longer the period of anticipation, the shorter the grief cycle after the death. Conversely, the more traumatic and sudden a death, the longer the grief cycle. If someone is experiencing a longer grief cycle, they can still be experiencing healthy grief.
Complicated Grief – The opposite of healthy grief, complicated grief is the umbrella term for all expressions of grief outside the parameters of reasonable expectedness. Complicated grief is the experience of delays or stagnation in the grief process. This would be gauged by assessing that within a year of the loss the bereaved has not been able to resume some enjoyment of life (providing they experienced enjoyment of life before the death). The sorrow has not lessened sufficiently for the bereaved to be able to say they have grief, but are not actively grieving. The sudden loss of a 13 year old child by suicide, as mentioned above, would expectedly create conditions ripe for complicated grief.
Being unable to maintain relationships, find experiences of joy, or resume participation in daily life after a year would all be indications of complicated grief. Still experiencing intermittent episodes of tearfulness, a year later, would not be considered complicated grief.
If grief is directly proportional to the energy invested in the relationship, then it stands to reason that co-dependent type paradigms often lead to complicated grief, but not necessarily. The traumatic death of a person with whom we were intimately invested in would naturally warrant a longer grief cycle. We must be compassionate and patient with individual grief cycles.
The most important thing about grief/grieving is to not judge it. Not yours. Not someone else’s either. It is the judgement of ourselves that causes complicated grief. The judgement of the “wish I would’ve, wish I could’ve’s”. The judgement that our experience of grief needs to be different than it is currently showing up. Time spent judging our actions or decisions only delays our healing process. We get our thoughts stuck in a rut trying to change the past, trying to change the ending, and our feelings of grief have no outlet because we are too busy trying to hit the ‘undo button’.
The more we can accept our feelings as they arise, honor them in our expression and give them the attention they are asking for, the more healing we will find in the process of grieving…