Friday, May 07, 2010

What a Chaplain Has Learned About Grief, Part 2

I wrote this several years ago to present to an adult Sunday School class. I have used it since to share with a parish visitation group and a parish that lost its church to arson. I have recently revised it and thought I would share it here. This is the second installment.  The first is here.

5. So, what can one expect?

First, you can certainly expect to feel shock and denial. Understand for yourself and for others that a certain initial denial is normal and even desirable. Denial is literally the emotional shock absorber. You don't want to live there, but you can't help but go there at first. Again, this is important for us to know who want to help someone grieving. That initial reaction that appears to be disbelief is, if you will, cushioning for the soul.

It is rarely necessary to confront this, at least in the initial minutes, hours, and days after the loss. Most of the time those who seem to express disbelief and denial are not really trying to deny facts. They’re trying to express the intensity of feelings they can’t yet sort out.

Second, you will realize that the world is not the same, and you are not the same. I remember when the dean of my seminary died, about a year after I graduated. He was a great scholar, but he and I had knocked heads almost from the time I arrived, probably because we were so much alike. I spent most of my seminary career angry with him, and was still expressing that when I learned of his death.

But when I learned of his death I realized a sudden, painful absence. I had lost the person I had loved to hate, and suddenly, even a year out of school and a thousand miles away, my world was not the same.

Obviously, this is one of those times where the sense of change is proportional to the importance of the person or thing lost. Minor losses do change our world, but it doesn’t take too much grieving or too much time to adapt. For a major loss, the magnitude of the change in reality makes adaptation much harder.

It might be easier to imagine if you think of your loss if your house burns down. How long would it take to replace just those things that you can replace? Home? Belongings? Clothing? Even to replace the replaceable takes a lot of time and energy. And what about those things that can’t be replaced, like family photographs? If it took you years to accumulate the lost set of photographs, it will take you years to accumulate a new set.

Now, move from that to the loss of an important person. That person can’t be replaced. Another person may take on the roles and activities in your life that the lost person took. A widow may marry again, and a child may find other older persons who can provide love and support and mentoring. But the new person can never be the old person, and the lost person is not replaced.

By the same token, if the world is not the same, then I am not the same – not the same in the world, and not the same in myself. If my parents die, what does it mean to be their son? Certainly, not what it did while they lived. When my first wife divorced me, and my children moved to live with her, what did it mean for me to be a husband and father? Granted, I hadn’t lost everything of who I am; but what I had lost was absolutely enough to change who I am.

It’s out of these experiences that we feel the anxiety and anger. Yes, this is frustrating and frightening and out of our control; and being frustrated and frightened and out of control, we feel anxiety and anger.

Again, that’s important: when we feel that anger, or we see someone express that anger, we need to appreciate it as normal. It may not be comfortable. It may not even make sense at the time. However, it is reasonable, inasmuch as it makes sense in light of the loss.

In fact the broad spectrum, and the apparent chaos, of our feelings in grief are a reflection of this. All of these feelings are a part of doing the work of grief, which is initially to mourn and let go the person or thing or situation we have lost.

This leads to the third point: the world has changed, and I have changed, and we don’t get the old world, the “old me,” back. It is normal to hear someone say, “I just want things to get back to normal,” or, “I just want things to go back to the say they were.” But the person lost, the situation lost, simply isn’t replaceable.

I have used the word “adaptation,” because we don’t back get the old normal. Instead, we build a new normal, a new way for things to be. That will be enough; indeed, it can be good and joyful. But it will be new; it won’t be the same.

This building of the new normal is the other half of the work of grieving. We can’t get the old normal back, and we can’t simply stop, simply stay where we are. We have almost not choice but to begin working on the new world, and we won’t feel anything terribly brave about it.

This is, in fact, hard work. It takes time and effort, and on any given day we may not feel capable. However, we really have no choice: we continue to live in the world, and the world continues to go on. We will do, over time, what it takes to come to terms with the new way things are.

This is why I talk about good days and bad days – even good hours and bad hours – as the measure of our progress. In the initial days of shock and anxiety and anger, there will seem to be many more bad times, bad days, than good. There will be times when we are truly dysfunctional, unable to get out of bed or take on the tasks of the day. More often, we will be able to do what we need to, but with a continuing sense of sadness and heaviness.

And gradually that changes. We discover that, while we are not the same, neither are we altogether different. While we don’t get the old normal back, some parts of it continue. With time and effort the balance shifts. We reach a point where there are more good times than bad times, more good days than bad. It’s not that there are no bad times; they are just less frequent, and less debilitating. There will still be sad times. They will simply come to be outnumbered by good times.

This is the hope in grieving. When you embrace the work, when you work through your grief, you have the promise of a new normal that is once again good. No, it will not be the same, but it can be good and joyful and filled with hope.

6. You can’t do it alone.

Notwithstanding my comment that we must each grieve in our own way, none of us grieves effectively alone. We are no more created to be alone in our grief than we are in our love. Being in relationships is part of the nature of being human, and in the stress and work of grieving we need people.

Now, we may meet that need in a number of ways. Most of us will rely to some extent – usually to a great extent – on family support. At first this may seem like the blind leading the blind: if we are grieving, it’s likely that other members of the family are grieving. However, the companionship of another that has experienced the same events is as helpful in grief as it is in any other experience. And since none us is ever in exactly the same place emotionally, we do have something to give one another, even when both of us are grieving.

This is also where the Church community can be most supportive. Our Christian siblings will not necessarily share with us the same experience or the same feelings, but they will share with us the same hope, both for us and for the person we lose.

We clergy are certainly a part of the support the Church has to offer, but we are hardly the whole community available. I do hope you will call on and depend on your clergy. In addition to the Christian hope we all share, we clergy do have some additional experience and training in addressing grief and providing support. Sure, some of us will be better than others; but all of us will, I believe, acknowledge the need and do our best to meet it.

In some cases, there is also a need for other persons for support. For many, grief support groups and education groups can provide strength and information and encouragement as we adapt to the new normal. Good groups are professionally led, and provide both a place to unload our own pain and for us to provide help to others. Both are good for us.

And for some people there is a real need for professional counseling. We may seek that from clergy in formal pastoral counseling, or from a clinically trained psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker. For the person whose grief continues to leave them unable to function, to re-engage in life, counseling and therapy can be really helpful. For some of us, it’s just easier to share the feelings and the struggle with someone who is independent of and outside our normal circle.

If we get to that place, it’s important to remember that we’re not somehow “sick” or “crazy.” We simply need that additional help to continue and complete the work that grief requires.

So, that’s what a Chaplain has learned about grief. I imagine I was correct at the beginning: it’s not really new.

But, then, grief isn’t new, either. We all will lose, and we all will grieve. And when we grieve, if we will do the work grief requires, allowing those who love us to help us through, there is beyond grief the promise of new life, a new normal, that is indeed good and joyful and filled with hope.

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