Grief and Grieving
Being members of two different brain tumor support groups and being of a certain age, my husband and I go to a lot of funerals: some in churches, some in event centers, and some outdoors. Many funerals are cancer generated—people who have succumbed to what I am now regarding as an epidemic of cancer. And we of the older generation—the “mature age”—are departing gracefully as our time on earth draws to a close. We think of death a bit differently than folks younger than us. It’s difficult to watch younger people die while they’ve been in the prime years of their lives, while for us “olders” it’s simply time to go.
My own children are older than my mother was when she died. That was a long time ago and it was a sudden death. A few years later, losing the other parent after a long illness I came to the conclusion that either way the loss is hard to bear. Grieving is work that has to be done sooner rather than later. If grief is not recognized and dealt with it goes underground and festers, leaving a person totally unprepared to deal with any sort of crisis that may occur years later.
Many decades ago Elizabeth Kubler Ross published her findings on the stages of grief. However, I haven’t seen or experienced the various stages done in order nor separately. Grief is not tidy. It varies with the culture of the deceased and the bereaved. It varies with life experiences, circumstances of the death, and the support system or lack of support for the bereaved. Most of all, grief varies with individual personalities.
When my favorite uncle died some years ago, his wife threw herself on his coffin, crying hysterically. My younger self looked on with horror, wondering why she didn’t make an effort to control herself. Most of the funerals we have attended since that time have not included effusive displays of grief, but the pain is there, endured stoically. It’s our culture that encourages outward bravery while our insides are breaking up into little pieces. Our culture does not encourage outward displays of emotion.
Most of our grieving is done privately. Grief support groups, while laudable, are another indication of how grieving is a separate process from ordinary daily routine. How do we handle grief? How do we help others grieve? And most important, how do we grieve? And how do we handle the idea of death? Have you ever noticed the expression, “she passed away” or even more of a euphemism “If something should happen to him.” Bordering on the illogical is “If I die.” Death is a fearsome thing when we go to such lengths to avoid thinking of it or talking about it. And when it occurs, all the avoidance in the world does not alleviate the feeling of pain and loss.
It has been my experience as a Stephen Minister and as a person accumulating wisdom with accumulated years that the best way to comfort a grieving person is to let him or her take the lead. If they want to step out of being with others for a period of time, that’s what is needed—if being alone does not become a method of self destruction. If the grieving person wants to talk about the deceased, sometimes to the exclusion of all other topics, that’s what is needed to make the transition of having the person and no longer having the person in life. Grieving is work. It’s an individual matter and the length and method cannot be predicted, dictated, or managed.