By Therese Rando, Ph.D.
As a griever, you need to appreciate the fact that grief is work.
It requires the expenditure of both physical and emotional energy.
It is no less strenuous a task than digging a ditch or any other
physical labor. The term “grief work” was coined by psychiatrist
Erich Lindemann in 1944 to describe the tasks and processes that
you must complete successfully in order to resolve your grief. The
term shows that grief is something you must work at actively if you
are to resolve it in a healthy fashion. It demands much more than
merely passively experiencing your reactions to loss: you must
actively do things and undertake specific courses of thought and
action to integrate and resolve your grief.
However, grief is not commonly perceived as work. You probably are
not prepared for the intensity of your emotional reactions and do
not fully understand the importance of accepting and expressing
them. You probably do not expect to have to work so hard to
accommodate yourself to your loved one’s absence or to build a new
identity and world for yourself. Grief can deplete you to such an
extent that the slightest tasks become monumental, and what
previously was easily achievable now may seem insurmountable.
Since most other people are similarly unaware about grief and how
much work it involves, they may not provide you with the social or
emotional support you need during your grief. In fact, society’s
unrealistic expectations and inappropriate response to your normal
grief reactions may make the grief experience much worse than it
otherwise would be. For instance, if people did not tell you to “Be
brave,” “Put this behind you,” or that “You shouldn’t be feeling
that way,” along with other unhealthy suggestions, you probably
would have fewer conflicts about expressing your grief. You also
would have more realistic expectations about the grief process and
in general would have fewer problems in recovering naturally from
it. This is why it is so crucial that society be given realistic
and appropriate information about grief. It is time that other
people become a support to grievers, not a hindrance.
Your work of grieving entails mourning not only the actual person
you’ve lost but also the hopes, dreams, wishes, fantasies,
unfulfilled expectations, feelings, and needs you had for and with
that person These are significant symbolic secondary losses that
you must identify and grieve. They include not only what is lost in
the present but also what is now lost to the future as well. The
widow must grieve not only for the present loss of her beloved
husband, but also for the retirement they will not share, their
special dreams that will be unfulfilled, his absence at his
grandson’s birth, and more. This doesn’t mean you must do this all
at once. That would be overwhelming. Instead, you need to do this
gradually through the mourning process so you can let go of what is
necessary to give up from the past, healthily experience the
present, and prepare for the future.
Sometimes the death of a loved one brings up not only grief for
what you lost, but also grief for what you never had and now never
will have. For example, if you had a very conflicted relationship
with your mother, when she dies you may grieve not only for what
you have lost, but also for the fact that you never had a better
relationship with her, that she never was the kind of mother you
wanted her to be, and that now you will never have even the hope
that it could change and you could get what you want. In such a
case you grieve for the past, present, and future.
Another issue that can complicate your grief work is the fact that
major loss always resurrects old issues and unresolved conflicts.
The pain, emptiness and sorrow caused by your separation from your
loved one frequently reawaken your earliest and most repressed
feelings of anxiety and helplessness as a child. The terror and
power of these reawakened memories can be overwhelming to any of
us. Old conflicts about dependency, ambivalence, parent-child
relations, and security, to name but a few, are also stirred by
your experience of loss. They, too, can interfere with a successful
resolution of grief. Finally, this is a time when your other
not-so-old but still unresolved (or perhaps resolved, but
nevertheless still sensitive) losses can come back to haunt you.
These can make you feel even more deprived, more vulnerable, and
more powerless and out of control. It is terribly unfortunate, yet
past issues often arise at the precise moment when you are
struggling to confront a current loss. They add to the burden of
the grief process. Therefore, when you are dealing with the death
of a loved one, you frequently are contending not only with the
present loss but also with old losses and unfinished emotional
business as well.
Tilly’s husband died at age sixty, following a two-year battle
with cancer. Tilly was left alone in her home, since her three
adult children lived out of state. After the death, Tilly was
surprised to find herself not only feeling grief over the death of
her husband but also preoccupied with memories and feelings about
her adolescence when her beloved father had abandoned the
Tilly thought about how she had reacted then, and she experienced
in the present her earlier feelings of loss, fear, insecurity, and
confusion. She felt like the fourteen-year-old girl for whom it
seemed as if the earth had been shaken when her father walked out
the door. Although she knew better, she felt like she was as
helpless now as she was then, when she had few resources to help
her cope and the world was so frightening. She wanted her father
back again, even though he was long dead. It seemed like she was in
shock again now as she was when her father left, even though she
had anticipated her husband’s death. Her present loss had
resurrected the long-buried thoughts and emotions from an earlier
loss of a significant person in her life.
Taken from Therese A. Rando, How To Go On Living When Someone
You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books, 1991, pp. 16-18.
The Grief Experience
Do Men Grieve Differently From Women?
How Long Is This Grieving Going to Last?
What About This Thing Called 'Acceptance'?
The Physical Stress of Grieving
Also by Therese Rando, Ph.D.:
The Purpose of Grief and Mourning
What 'Recovery' Will and Will Not Mean
Family Reorganization After a Loss
Dr. Therese Rando, author of
How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, is a psychologist
in Warwick, Rhode Island, where she is the Clinical Director of The
Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss. Having published 70
works pertaining to the clinical aspects of dying, death, loss, and
trauma, Dr. Rando is a recognized expert in the field and has
appeared on numerous television programs, including “Dateline,” CBS
“This Morning,” “Today Show,” “Good Morning, America,” and “The
Oprah Winfrey Show.”
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