Rethinking Ways to Think About Grief — Part I

A few months ago, another woman who had lost her mate and I were talking about how unstoic we’ve been about our grief. We cried when we needed to, screamed it to the heavens, flung it into the blogosphere. We admitted to feeling a bit childish, because in earlier days, people just accepted death and moved on. We decided that if we had lived in an earlier age — pioneer times, for example — we might have acted the same as they did, but since we live in the times we do, we have the luxury of letting grief take its course.

This conversation niggled at me. How do we know pioneer women just accepted death and moved on? How do we know they didn’t cry themselves to sleep when they lost a child or a their husband? How do we know they didn’t scream their loss to the heavens or suffer a crisis of faith?

So much of what we know about earlier times is from men — probably sociopathic men who have no feelings or sense of empathy for another’s suffering. (Not all sociopaths are serial killers. Some psychologists estimate that there are thirty thousand psychopaths who are not serial killers for every one who is. What makes a sociopath is lack of empathy, conscience, and remorse.) Most pioneer women didn’t read or write. (Which could be another myth?) If so how would they ever be able to convey to future women (us) how they felt?

Last night online I tried to find out the truth about the way early American women grieved, not just as dictated by their societal and religious mores, but how they really coped.

I didn’t find out much. Since grief is such an individual process, I would presume they grieved much like anyone today who has to work from morning to dawn. In other words, they found themselves crying at odd moments of privacy when no one could see them. Grief at the loss of a child or a partner is endemic. The show of grief is what changes from culture to culture.

In my online search, I came across an article in Time Magazine that had been published at the beginning of the year: “New Ways to Think About Grief.” The article started out great, debunking Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. They agreed with what I’ve been saying all along, that what we bereft mostly feel is a yearning to see our loved ones again. The Kübler-Ross grief model doesn’t hold true for most of us, and why should it? Those stages were conceived as a way of showing how people came to accept their own dying, not how people learned to deal with the death of others.

Then the article entered a gray area: One study of 66 people by George Bonanno, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who specializes in the psychology of loss and trauma, suggests that tamping down, not expressing, or avoiding negative feelings, known as “repressive coping,” actually has a protective function.

Another 60 person “study conducted by the husband-and-wife research team Wolfgang and Margaret Stroebe of Utrecht University found that widows who avoided confronting their loss were not any more depressed than widows who “worked through” their grief. As to the importance of giving grief a voice, several other studies done by the Stroebes indicated that talking or writing about the death of a spouse did not help people adjust to that loss any better.”

I don’t know who those people in the studies are or how they were chosen. All I know is that in life and on the internet, every one of the bereft I have encountered found comfort in talking about their grief, or in writing a grief journal or letters to their mates. But what really helped all of us was listening to others tell their story. Grief is so isolating that it’s important to know we are not alone. It’s possible some of those people in the study weren’t deeply connected to their spouse — not every spouse is a soul mate — and so it didn’t feel as if they’d had part of them amputated. It’s possible some of those in the studies had young families to care for. Like the pioneer women mentioned above, they would have no time for grief. It’s also possible those in the study had large families or many friends to surround them with love and give them needed hugs. Those at the grief support group I went to were mostly alone and lost, with no one to hang on to. So we hung on to each other. That is the benefit of grief groups. The connection.

Interestingly enough, in not a single discussion, online or offline, did any of the bereft I encountered indulge in negative thinking. We were all trying to find a way through the morass of physical pain and emotional shock. We were bewildered by what had happened to us and our mates, and though some had unresolved issues with their mates, they never gave in to bad mouthing their relationship. It was all about the love that once was there and now is gone.

(This rant of mine was so long, I’ll post the other half tomorrow.)

12 Responses to “Rethinking Ways to Think About Grief — Part I”

  1. Joy Collins Says:

    I am so tired of people [read that as so-called “studies” and others who have no idea what it is like to lose a soul mate] tell me how I should grieve. One thing that grief has given me is the courage to stand up for myself and grieve the way I feel the need to and damn everyone else and their opinions.
    I refuse to use the words “moving on” and “resolution” and “closure”. Those words don’t apply. They never will. I may not cry as much as I did when my loss was new but I still grieve just as much. I still yearn for one more smile, one more touch, one more hug, one more kiss, one more chance to say “I love you” and hear it said back. That will never change.
    And I still have my meltdowns. Those days when the tears flow and nothing will stop them.
    And that’s OK.
    It is through reaching out to others who are in the same place such as you, Pat, that I feel comfortable and validated. We all need that. And I think despite these silly studies, the face of grief is changing. I think expression of grief rather than stuffing it is being more accepted. And I think it is the healthier way to be.
    And if someone else thinks otherwise – oh, well.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Joy, exactly right!! I had to split my critique of the article in two because there just was too much about it that was wrong. I know we are sane and well-adjusted. I know we are resilient. I know we have great courage. I’m functioning normally and I’m sure you are too. How dare anyone act as if there is something wrong with us because we still grieve.

  2. Deborah Owen Says:

    I guess you’re right. We pick up ideas and form opinions based on TV shows and myths and we accept
    them as fact – without research or question. I love the way you think. Hard work has always been a good
    healing agent, as is working for a charity, soup kitchen or whatever. The idea is to think of others before
    one’s self and bury yourself in the need. Another good reality check is to compare pain. No matter how
    great one’s loss it, someone else has it worse. For example (although I don’t know this from personal
    experience), it’s horrifying to lose a husband, but worse yet to lose a husband and children in, for instance,
    a fire. I know a woman whose husband is dying from a malignant brain tumor and a five-year old named Christina
    that has an inoperable malignant brain tumor. I know two wives who are watching their husbands lose their minds to Alzheimer… and the list goes on. These families are devastated. > I used to run away from befriending people who had such problems because I can’t get their pain out of my mind – and then a casual friend of mine came down with
    cancer and it became ‘put up or shut up’ time about dealing with cancer patients. Yes, it hurts to deal
    with people in so much grief, but if we can help only a tiny bit, shouldn’t we try? I guess I’m writing this
    as though I were journaling, as I’m not applying any of this to you, Pat. It’s a hurting time of year and for those
    of us who can, we need to comfort others who are hurting so much. Sometimes the question becomes… what do I say to them? Someone with cancer told me, “Just say ‘I care.'” Blessings, Deb

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      This is why it’s important to talk about grief and even more important to listen. We need to stop being afraid of our own pain, but even more than that, we need to stop being afraid of other people’s pain. I once had someone walk out of my life because they couldn’t solve my problems and couldn’t handle my unhappiness. And what I really needed was someone just to be there for me.

      Sometimes there are no words. A hug or a touch on the hand are nice if you have that sort of relationship. Sometimes being there is just enough. But if you have to find words, “I care,” are good ones. So is “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry isn’t an apology. It’s an acknowlegement of the horror people are going through. And you are so right — there is always someone who has it worse. What about someone who accidentally ran over their own child? I can’t even imagine the scope of that grief.

      I hope you don’t get to where you regret having stumbled across me and my blog. I seem to always make you think about things you might not want to think about.

      • Deborah Owen Says:

        “I hope you don’t get to where you regret having stumbled across me and my blog. I seem to always make you think about things you might not want to think about,” Pat said. I’ll never regret meeting you or the other widows. I’m in a learning phase of life – not as a widow, but as one who deals with hurting, grieving people daily. I shrank from this task for a little while, afraid of the pain that didn’t belong to me, yet knowing it would become partially mine out of empathy. I no longer shrink from it. I embrace it and try to learn from it. Thanks for being a good teacher. I don’t see how it will help me prepare for widowhood – God forbid – but it prepares me for my present role in life. The hardest part is crying for someone and not being able to help them. I thought I’d grow ‘tougher’ and be able to handle it better, but that isn’t happening – and I’m glad. I don’t ever want to lose the joy of helping even a tiny bit and maybe I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t feel their pain. Keep up the good work, hon.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          Deb, I’m sure you don’t do it, but for anyone else reading this, you need to make sure you don’t make their pain about you. Give them the dignity of their own pain. Just acknowledge it. That’s what so many people in pain need — a recognition that they are in pain together with the realization that they are not their pain.

    • drmedhus Says:

      Your blog really tugs at the heart strings.

  3. Deborah Owen Says:

    Joy, I can’t even imagine what you and Pat and other widows are going through, but I’m listening and trying to learn. Everyone handles grief in their own way. Whatever works for you, girl. God bless as you go through this difficult season.

  4. Mary Says:

    Pat, this piece is so needed….we should plaster it on every bill board, every Facebook page, every newspaper…everywhere. I just went on a rant at my on line grief forum about the very same thing….I will miss Bill till the day I die. I will grieve this loss forever. I like one of the comments above…”I may not cry as much as I did when my loss was new but I still grieve just as much.” People think because we are smiling that we are no longer grieving. Well, we are and we will and it is just fine that we do. Let all of us who get it, keep getting the word out there. Maybe the book I write will be a course on grief to be taught at all levels…including adults of all ages.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Mary, a course book on grief would be good. It needs to be taught to non-grievers. Most of us manage to find our way through the pain (or at least function despite it) but only if well-meaning people let us grieve. Other people’s grief scares people, so what they really want is for you to stop grieving so they will feel better.

      • Joy Collins Says:

        That is exactly right. One of the reasons those who are grieving wind up suffering in silence is because they realize their grief is uncomfortable for those around them, further isolating the person who is grieving. Instead of being allowed to feel their feelings, the one who is grieving now has the added burden of worrying about everyone around them and being acutely aware of making others uncomfortable. The kindest thing you can do for someone who is grieving is just “be” with them and allow them to go through what they need to go through. You can’t make it better. Nothing can make it “better”. I remember at John’s viewing everyone kept asking me what could they do for me. My first thought was “Bring John back”. But I knew they couldn’t and what else was there to say. It would have been so much easier for me if someone just hugged me and said they were sorry and let me talk about John and how I was feeling. Even now, no one asks me how I really am and I wonder if they even want to know so when asked I just say “I’m fine” even when I am not. But then I feel so alone.

  5. Mary Says:

    Pat, I so agree…maybe that is where I am headed. I have taught school at many levels over 14 years and done therapy for 40 more…and I have lost both parents, 4 of my best friends and finally the love of my life, Bill. I think that background qualifies me 🙂

    Joy, yes, it seems so simple….a hug says so much. There are no answers. We just want to be heard and comforted. Fear is the wall.

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