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Whenever I make a new acquaintance, I often find myself having to demystify the work I do for Hospice & Home Care of Juneau. Not unexpectedly, many people feel uncomfortable at the thought of being with someone who is dying or bereaved. I tell them that I consider it a privilege, and that I find the work a constant source of hopefulness and inspiration. Recently, a woman asked me, "What's the point of dwelling on our grief? Is it really helpful to keep talking about something that might be better left alone? I think it's like having a scab, if you keep picking at it, it's never going to heal." I have to admit that as accustomed as I am to being questioned about grief and loss, I can still be taken aback by the overwhelming desire of the general public to not attend to its grief. Yet, I understood her point: Why should we focus on the incredible pain of our loss, instead of leaving it alone to heal "naturally," in peace?
I guess I don't really believe we are trying to heal when we choose not to address our grief. I think we've been conditioned by society to avoid that which is unpleasant. John Welshons, author of "Awakening from Grief," describes it this way: "Instead of being taught how to deal with the inevitable disappointments and losses in our lives, we have been taught to ignore and deny them. We've been taught to 'keep a stiff upper lip,' and to 'talk about something more pleasant.' We want to 'feel better fast.'"
I think this societal expectation is perfectly expressed by the public's reaction to Jacqueline Kennedy's behavior at her husband's funeral; how what was perceived as her stoicism was revered. I see it differently. I see a woman who, three days earlier, was sitting next to her husband when he was shot in the head. I see a woman in shock, a woman numbed by trauma. Sadly, that lack of outward emotion, that numbness set the standard for "appropriate" mourning in this country. We cringe when we're at a funeral and someone wails without restraint. That out-of- control behavior penetrates the layers of our defenses; it makes us feel afraid.
One of the hardest aspects of grief is the pressure from others to "feel better fast." Our antennae are quick to discern who really wants to know, when we are asked, "How are you?" For most of us, our standard answer is, "Fine," and generally the questioner is satisfied with our response. I hear all the time how so-and-so is doing so well after the death of a loved one. Often, when I ask about someone who has suffered a significant loss, I may be told, "I saw her yesterday and she was having a bad day. She broke down during our visit. I'm worried about her." I try gently to educate people by saying, "You don't need to worry about the tears. You have to remember that her husband died two weeks ago, it is natural and healthy for her to cry and feel sad."
There is no right way to grieve. Our grief is as individual as we are. There are many factors that will affect how we respond to a loss, including our relationship with the deceased, the nature of the death, our age at the time of the loss. What is true for all of us is the need to acknowledge the loss, to feel the pain and to integrate the loss into our lives. Therese Rando, Ph.D., writes, "Put very simply, there is no way around it. There is no way around the pain you naturally feel when someone you love dies. You can try to delay it, or you can try to deny it. You can cut yourself off from your feelings. You can keep yourself so busy that you never process the separation or feel the grief. Yet, if you want to resolve your grief, if you want to leave the pain behind, if you want to be healthy and symptom-free, if you want someday to have as fulfilled a life as possible, sooner or later you must go through the grief. Going through it is what will help you heal."
The greatest gift we can offer the bereaved is the encouragement and support to fully express their grief. It takes great courage to face great loss, but it is the key to a future alive with meaning and joy.
Mary Cook is a volunteer with Hospice & Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS serves all persons, regardless of their faith.