By: Megan Gunnell - Special to Daily Tribune Oct. 19, 2008
No doubt, Americans live in a hyper-accelerated culture where fast food, high speed Internet, express lane checkout counters and speed passes at gas stations are not fast enough for some. The problem with living in a world that continues to race all around us is that some things continue to move at only one pace — slow. Grief work can be exhausting work and there is no rushing through the process. Just as we cannot change the speed of the seasons, we cannot change how quickly we move through grieving the loss of a loved one. The old adage “time heals all wounds” may not be entirely true, but what is true about that statement is that as time passes, our grieving process seems to lighten ever so slightly.
Our grief may come and go at predictable moments — like anniversaries or special dates that remind us of our lost loved one, or it can come at unpredictable moments — like on a random Tuesday morning on the way to work where we can’t anticipate any sort of trigger for the wave of emotion we sometimes feel. As our lives continue to change or our role in life changes — we may go through significant life events that create a sort of “upsurge” in our grief years after that special person has died. For example, if we get married, have a child, change jobs, move to a new home, we may find our grief comes back to us at those moments when we may have felt years beyond our grieving.
The grief process can depend on many factors. Was it a sudden, traumatic, unexpected loss, or was this an anticipated death from a long-term struggle with illness or disease? Does the family feel the death was preventable or unpreventable, sudden or anticipated? The nature of the relationship with the deceased is also a factor that plays a large role in complicated grief. If there was a lot of unresolved conflict, or if the relationship wasn’t what the survivor had hoped it would be, there can be in essence, two losses. We may, for example, grieve the loss of the father who died, but we also grieve the loss of the father we didn’t have — a father, for example, who may have been an alcoholic, or emotionally absent, or inattentive. This is also true for those who care for a loved one who is “lost” over time, such as a person with a degenerative disease like Alzheimer’s or Lou Gehrig’s disease. With these examples, a person can lose their ability to communicate or function as they used to and, consequently, when they die, the family may feel as if they’ve lost that person twice — once when they were declining, and once at the time of death.
Defense mechanisms, such as denial or avoidance, are temporarily OK and can sometimes protect us from an emotional overload of thoughts and feelings. We can only handle so much processing at once and sometimes our system, mind and body, only allows a small amount of reality in at a time. It’s never our job to rob someone of their defense mechanisms, but to support them at the pace that feels right to them. After all, you cannot jump in the express lane or increase the speed of the grieving process. It naturally unfolds at a pace that is comfortable for you. Overall, grief work can be emotionally and physically draining. If you are currently experiencing a loss in your life, remember to nurture your mind and body, move slowly through the process and be gentle with yourself.