Grief and Mourning
We have all seen our friends suffering over a loss, and we feel helpless watching and not to knowing what to say or do. There is no “right” or “perfect” way to be of help. You can’t undo the loss, return the person to life or health, or repair the damage. You cannot even take away the pain that accompanies loss. But you can, by your words and presence, reassure your friend of caring and support as she or he goes forward.
As much as our hearts ache, we often feel awkward. What should I say? Not say? What if I say the wrong thing? Here are 5 tips to help you to be comforting during a time of grief and sadness.
1. People who are grieving don’t always remember everything that happens but they do remember basic acts of kindness – a casserole, a visit, a text, an errand taken care of, phone calls made on their behalf, babysitting or dog walking. Simple, kind and useful.
2. It is okay to simply say, “I’m sorry” or “I’m sad” or “I’ll be here for you” or say nothing. Less is more. It is better to stay away from long stories or compassion in the form of, “I know what you are going through” (maybe you do and maybe you don’t).
3. Take your cues from your friend who is grieving – does she want you to talk, be quiet, listen, stay, go, or wash the dishes.
4. Go easy on giving advice unless you are asked. Stay away from “It will go away”, “You’ll get over it” types of statements – these comments feel like you are minimizing the loss.
5. Gently stay in touch. A minute call or voice mail that says, “I’m thinking about you,” might be all that is needed. But STAY in touch, don’t abandon them now.
Primarily, you are letting your friend know that she is not completely alone and that WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.
I’ve written, thought about, and worked with grief for my entire career as a psychologist. I’ve looked at cross cultural patterns, abnormal grief, and creative outcomes. I haven’t spent much time thinking about ways that men and women may grieve differently. Underneath the behaviors and outward signs of coping, men and women experience the same stages and emotions. In fact, grief seems to be a universal response to loss, although it is expressed differently in different cultures. Therefore, since men and women are still socialized differently, perhaps they cope differently with loss and grief. I’m drawing the remainder of today’s post from material in a book, Men and Grief by Carol Staudacher. (I like her already – she references my book, Maternal Bereavement). Ms. Staudacher notes 5 coping styles that are more frequently associated with men than women.
5 styles of coping with grief that are more frequently associated with men than women.
- To remain silent
- To engage in solitary mourning or secret grief
- To take legal or physical action
- To become immersed in activity
- To exhibit addictive behavior
Let’s look at them one at a time.
- To remain silent – Many men keep their thoughts, feelings, and pain to themselves. Perhaps this makes them feel stronger and less vulnerable or, maybe they have less need than women to express their emotions to other people.
- To engage in solitary mourning or secret grief –Many men prefer to mourn alone rather than in the company of others. Perhaps the label of “distant” or “secretive” is preferable to “unmanly”.
- To take legal or physical action –Crying can make a person feel weak whereas action can make you feel stronger and more in control. Aggression, anger and violence become substitutes for softer emotions.
- To become immersed in activity –Related to taking action is the desire to become busy and be immersed in activity. It may seem cold or frantic to others but to the mourner, his mind and body are occupied and that consumes energy and thought that would otherwise drift to loss.
- To exhibit addictive behavior –When emotions are suppressed for a long time, it can result in pathological grief reactions, including addiction. The use of alcohol is a well known method of self-medication. It may become difficult to separate the survivor who is drinking heavily from the survivor who is an alcoholic. Either way, help is needed.
After my post about the memorial at Ground Zero, my cousin asked if there were any trees or relief from the stark landscape. Many trees have been planted but they are still small and may never relieve the sense of devastation. But I want to write about the tree called ‘The Survivor Tree”, pictured in my photograph.
For those of you who are beginning something new, whether it is the new year, school, job or a life transition, this is a good story.
After 9/11, the clean up crew found one tree partially alive – only one. It is easy to imagine how meaningful any sign of life was to them. From the rubble, they pulled out an 8 foot stump of a Bradford pear tree. It was removed and taken to a tree nursery in Stamford, CT. where it was cared for – until the hurricane that tore through the East Coast. The tree was blown over but again rescued and brought to its home on the site of the World Trade Center where, I can tell you, everyone is very moved to photograph it and give it a mental high five.
Other details for the obsessive readers:
1. it may not be visible but there is a hat from a firefighter and a note sitting in the branches;
2. this is the only pear tree in the memorial site;
3. the nursery that tended it has made 300 saplings from this tree in the years since 2001 and;
4. these next generation trees will be given to other sites that are creating memorials.
We are used to memorials that praise the sacrifice, the nobility, and the achievement of those who gave their lives. Think about the memorial to WWII, Roosevelt (fairly recent), Martin Luther King Jr.(also recent), Lincoln, or any of the thousands of men on horses that proliferate in our towns and cities. Most are figurative and almost all stress courage and success. When Maya Lin created the VietNam memorial, a simple granite slash in the ground inscribed with the names of the dead, the hullaballoo went on and on but the memorial works; it is emotionally moving and changed the direction… somewhat.
This is the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I remember being told as a kid that Rosh Hashanah marked the beginning of a 10 day period when the Book of Life was opened and that I would either be inscribed in it OR NOT before the book closed on Yom Kippur. Great! That’s the stuff of childhood nightmares. The literalness of the concept doesn’t work well for kids or adults but the ideas do. What is lovely, very useful, and psychologically healthy about Rosh Hashanah is the belief that, at the beginning of the (Jewish) new year, we ought to take stock of our lives, repair broken relationships, ask forgiveness for our misdeeds, think about and care for others, and generally get started on a better path for the year to come.
To do this, we are required to engage in three actions – “teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (good deeds, usually charity)”. Repentance has an actual set of behaviors that make a lot of sense. We reflect on our behaviors and then we seek reconciliation with people we may have wronged during the course of the year. In my sardonic moments (which happen after a certain number of hours in synagogue), I have wondered if psychologists and therapist-types ought to be excused from reflecting on our behaviors. We spend so much time in this activity every day, it becomes a habit. Reflection is easy – change is hard. Perhaps therapists ought to have an asterisk in this section of the prayers that tells us to move along to less familiar, more challenging activities such as reconciliation and good deeds.
Reconciliation requires righting the wrongs we have committed against people so, for many years during services, I remembered Janet, a friend from grade school. We became distant in high school and I had other girls with whom I was much closer. Then, the summer before senior year, I went to a camp in the mountains to be a junior counselor for the first time. Several close friends had spent a million summers there; so had Janet. When I got to camp, my friends were not interested in me; they had other people and I was not invited into their groups. Strangely, Janet, who was quite the star of the place, decided to spend the summer with me. We had a great time. It didn’t make us best friends forever but I think about Janet on Rosh Hashanah because I never thanked her for being a better friend to me than I had been to her. It has always felt like unfinished business – righting one of my personal misdeeds.
Of course, two weeks ago, out of the blue, after more than 40 years, Janet called me. I recounted my memories and thanked her for being a better friend when it counted. Of course, this should be enormously satisfying; the stuff Oprah has built an empire on! But Janet remembered all of this differently – she remembered me as a good friend and had no need of my repentance. I hope this doesn’t ruin my chances to be written into the Book of Life. And I’m going to have to find something brand new to reflect on this year during services.
(this was first published last year)
- hyperarousal – startle reactions, hyper-alertness, vigilance for danger, or other bodily signs that prepare the body for fight or flight.
- intrusive thoughts – reliving the event; unwanted thoughts or images pushing their way into your mind on a regular basis.
- constriction – feeling shut down, frozen.
People can have these symptoms after bad personal experiences (assault, rape, war) or natural disasters (storms, floods) or other events that overwhelm our ability to adapt. If these are familiar pieces of your day, you probably want to get professional help.
For relaxation, consider Object of Obsession
The 3 essential traits that are linked to good health are:
A sense of Personal control, and
The ability to find Meaning in one’s life experiences
These 3 traits are valuable psychological resources. They also allow us to cope more effectively with adversity and provide a buffer when experiencing illness (although no one quite understands how it works). These are traits to cultivate because they actually help us to adjust to new, maybe unpleasant, experiences and they seem to even protect our health.
Source: Psychological resources, positive illusions, and health. S. Taylor et al. American Psychologist V.55 #1: 99-109, 2000.
Reading keeps you healthy; purchasing my book keeps me healthy.
Today is Saposnik/Safosnik/Sapoznik Day (decreed by my cousins and myself) because it is 100 years TO THE DAY that my grandfather and my grandmother, with their five sons, were reunited at Ellis Island in the New World after 4 years apart.
For years, we dabbled in trying to learn more about our family but got nowhere. We searched Ellis Island, ancestry sites, and Castle Garden. We knew the family name had been changed to Pozner from something else but there were dozens and dozens of possibilities. That generation of 6 brothers and 1 sister is now gone and their stories are gone, too. Out of all of my uncles (my mother was the 1 girl), Berl/Barney/Ben was the most silent, so it is ironic that he was the one that provided the needed clue. I found his naturalization papers two weeks ago and he had the wrong debarkation and wrong date, but he had the correct name of the ship, SS Neckar and the name of their home, Pavoloch, a town near Kiev. I turned the information over to my cousins…………….
Gary, my determined cousin-in-law, tracked them down. I was deeply moved to see the ships’ (Korea 1909 and Neckar 1913) manifests with my grandfather, Aron Sapoznik (in 1909) and my grandmother Hinde Safosnik (in 1913) listed. They were so young. I knew they left their parents to make the journey but I was saddened to see that they also lost their names to become the Americans, Harry and Anna Pozner. I know it is the story of millions and millions of our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. Tonight at 6-6:30 EST, 5-5:30 CST, and 3-3:30 PST, (because we are also separated), we are toasting the reunion. One hundred years to the day – l’chaim!
A side note: during WW2, the Nazis killed every Jew in Pavoloch/Pavolitch. The town no longer exists.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been studied a great deal in the US since the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and since this past September was the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, researchers have reviewed the data that has been collected and tried to make some sense out of it.
In a review of the studies of PTSD in the people who had been most closely associated with the tragedy, such as rescue and recovery workers, Pentagon staff, WTC evacuees, NYC workers, and children, the researchers examined the long and short term consequences. Researchers found that, although there was a general decline in symptoms, certain groups had a worsening, including rescue and recovery workers, firefighters, children and people living in close proximity. Ongoing stress contributed to their PTSD. For them, the disaster did not end on 9/11.
Increased problems seen post 9/11 were:
1. Major depression
2. Generalized anxiety disorder
3. Complicated grief (which includes prolonged yearning, bitterness, sense of meaninglessness and disengagement).
What protects people from worsening PTSD?
People seem to be more resilient if:
1. They are hardy, meaning that they display commitment or involvement in daily activities and perceived control over life events. They also show a tendency to view unexpected change or potential threat as a positive challenge rather than as an aversive event.
2. They have strong attachments. Good social networks always help and healthy attachments styles also contribute to well being.
3. They have certain biological factors.
4. They have a cognitive attributional style which allows them to respond to events with positive appraisals concerning both the level of threat present and their ability to cope effectively with the threat. They see life events as under their control.
Source: Neria, Yuval et al. PTSD following the 9/11/01 Terrorist Attacks. American Psychologist V. 66 #6, pp 429-446.
Why Don’t We Live Together Anymore?: Understanding Divorce; Interactive exercises and discussions by Robin Prince Monroe
Don’t Fall Apart on Saturdays! The Children’s Divorce Survival Book by Adolph Moser and David Melton
Mom’s House Dad’s House [for parents] by Isabella Ricci
Let’s Talk About It: Divorce by Fred Rogers
Let’s Talk About It: Stepfamilies by Fred Rogers
I Don’t Want To Talk About It by Jeanie Franz Ransom
Dear Daddy by John Schindel
Kevin and His Dad by Irene Smalls
Families are Forever! Kid’s Workbook for Sharing Feelings About Divorce by Melissa F. Smith
Vicky Lansky’s Divorce Book for Parents: Helping your children cope with divorce and its aftermath by Vicky Lansky
How to Survive the Loss of a Love by Peter McWilliams
Marital Separation by Robert Weiss
If you are an early career clinician, a professor who teaches interviewing skills, or a clinical supervisor, you will find my newest book, “What Do I Say? The Therapist’s Guide To Answering Client’s Questions” (with C. Waehler, published by John Wiley, 2011) a practical, useful addition to your library. http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=what+do+i+say+edelstein