Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Things I've Had to Learn

This sounds kind of like a quote from a Dr. Seuss book, but it's not:  The things I've had to learn over the past 8 months could fill at least a bookshelf, and maybe even a library.  Some of the lessons have come from things I have read or have been told, but the majority of them have come from what I have had to do or see and the mental processing that I have had and am continuing to do to do as a result.

Here are a few:
*Grief and mourning are not the same thing.  Very simply put - grief is more internal, at least initially (thinking about the loss, etc.), and mourning is more external (like crying).  One must do both to adequately adjust to a loss.   

Oftentimes in our society, after the funeral, people are encouraged to move on, to be done with mourning.  Advice like "keep a stiff upper lip;" "be strong;" and "stay busy!" is offered as an attempt to help, but actually doing these things only serves to make the person who is grieving feel isolated, abnormal, or like a burden to others as emotions are bottled up instead of expressed.

*Grief isn't just about emotions; it involves state of mind and can also include physical reactions that can affect the body such as fatigue, insomnia, physical pain (backaches, headaches, stomachaches, etc.), panic attacks, and anxiety.

*In cases when a loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, that person and those around him can experience anticipatory grief before the death occurs.  Any or all of the behaviors and emotions that are associated with grief can be experienced during this time, including bargaining, anger, denial, sadness, and acceptance.  (more about this on a personal level later)

*Even when grief seems to be under control, the intense feelings associated with loss can come back at any time.  The things that bring about these feelings are sometimes referred to as "triggers" and can result in "upsurges" of grief.  Things like holidays, anniversaries, other important events (graduation, birth of a child, etc.), coming across personal effects, music, or familiar smells can cause memories and associated feelings of loss to resurface.

*Although there are some commonalities in the grieving process when a loss is suffered, each person's grief process is unique.  One's grief can be influenced by things such as the relationship with the person who passed away, the circumstances of the death, the ritual or funeral experience, the people in one's life and support that is or isn't offered, personality, culture, religion, background, other co-existing stressors, past experience with death or loss (if any), and overall mental and physical health.  I was told early in my dad's illness that it's important to recognize that even people in the same family can experience and cope with the same crisis differently, and I found this to be very true.  If a family in crisis is lucky, like mine was, each person in the family is able to use his or her strengths, experience, and knowledge in a productive way to propel the family as a whole towards their common goal.  As well, each person has to find his or her own way of coping, and of grieving, based on things that are personal to each individual.

*Loss can change people for the better or the worse - or sometimes just into someone different.  More on my personal perspective about this later ...

*Grief is "heart-based", not "head-based." One cannot rationally think one's way through grief.  This is a tricky one for me; I much prefer to think, to identify a problem and then set goals to fix it.  This is the first time in my life that I faced a challenge that I knew there was not a way out of, a way to fix, no matter what I did.  Not at all a good feeling, and something I am still trying to reconcile.  

*For as many questions that are answered as one grieves, so are as many or more brought up to be asked.  Part of getting past the tears, the anger, the pain, and the shock must be accepting that there are questions to which there really is no answer.  I see that, but I can't really accept it yet.  

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