This is the fourth installment in a series on death, dying and grief. Are you sick of reading about it yet? Do you have an internal reaction akin to “enough already”? Would you have the same impatience if the topic were about sex or money?
Some of us have very little tolerance for dealing with death, dying and grief. We know what we’re supposed to do in the immediate aftermath of someone’s loss: call or visit or go to the funeral, say something like “I’m sorry for your loss”, and perhaps bring over a casserole if we’re really close to the person. But after a few days, or maybe a week, it’s time to get back to the business of living life. Anyone who needs longer than that, unless it’s a really clear case of tragedy like losing a child – well, we really don’t want to hear about it, do we?
I believe there are a number of reasons for our intolerance of grief and grieving and I want to touch upon a few of them here.
The first would be that I think many of us don’t really understand what grief is. Sure most of us have heard about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), though I think part of what makes them so well known is that they seem to give us a sense of order, and therefore control, over something that is mysterious and unknowable. Her findings, while popular, have been largely debunked by later research.
The second is that I think our society, with its emphasis on productivity and functionality, has a hard time making space for things that don’t fit into neat boxes. How long should you take off work following the loss of a spouse/child/parent/sibling/close friend? What should you expect of yourself or others following such a loss? When is it “too much” and when is it “too little”?
The third thing is that I think people who are not plugged into a religious tradition, which has prescribed rituals and processes for how to handle death, are at a real disadvantage when it comes to grieving. So many people, I believe, are walking around with so much unprocessed grief because they didn’t have a larger framework to use when they suffered a loss. I can only speak with some authority on the Jewish tradition. I have to say that anyone who uses its practices on death and dying – from the way the dead are cared for, to the periods and practices associated with how to grieve the loss (there are different practices in effect for the period until the funeral, for the first seven days afterward, for the first thirty days, for the first 11 months, and then for each annual anniversary of the death) – has a much more contained and healthy way to process loss.
If there’s a take-away I’d like to impart, it’s that any major loss, whether it’s a divorce, a death, a major catastrophe like the loss of a home or the loss of a livelihood, takes longer to grieve than most of us think it should. In my experience, a good rule of thumb is two years: the first year is the more acute stage where it’s the primary focus and the pain is the worst, the second year is less acute and more about integrating the loss into whatever the new life will look like.
If you're interested in further reading on a variety of topics related to grief, please check out this link: http://www.howardlunche.com/morereading.htm, which is part of the website of Howard Lunche, who is a former bereavement counselor for hospice and therapist in Berkeley.
Next week: guest blogger Nicole Beasley, Ph.D., writes about "practicing love."
Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com. He is currently accepting referrals.