Learning to grieve
Story by Chris Graham
My mother-in-law was telling a story about how tough it was for her to deal with the death of her daughter, my wife Crystal’s twin sister, Christina, 15 years ago to suicide.
“I went back to work, and I was getting back to normal, and one morning I just lost it there at the office. And I remember somebody came to me and said, ‘You should be over this now. You need to move on.’ ”
I lost my father three weeks ago – and by all appearances I’ve moved on. Except that I can’t sleep at night, and I’ve been down and out with a flu bug that has lingered since the afternoon of his passing on Jan. 2 to the point where I’m wondering if I will ever get back to normal.
This isn’t entirely a coincidence, said Cynthia Long Lasher, a grief-support specialist at Shenandoah Valley Grief Services in Waynesboro and the author of Death Is No Stranger: Helping Children Grieve.
“We’re forever changed by loss. We’re never the same again,” Lasher said at the January Conversations With … event sponsored by Augusta Free Press Publishing.
“People who have had a death will often say, I want things to get back to normal. Especially if it was a sudden death – a car accident, somone was shot in the war, suicide, something very sudden. People often will say, I just want things to go back to the old way, I want everything back to normal. We learn from death that it’s never the same. We’re forever changed by death. We have to create almost a new normal. We almost have to create a new life for ourselves,” Lasher said.
“We often say that you have a hole in your heart when someone dies – and it’s huge, the pain is raw, it’s fresh, it’s very difficult. In time, the hole will get smaller, but you’re always going to have that hole. And that scar is forever going to be there. We’re forever changed,” Lasher said. “And so when people say, Get over it, move on, we almost need to reeducate them to say, My life is different now, it’s changed, and my life will never be the same again, and it’s OK.”
Lasher said she encourages people who have lost loved ones to make sure to include those who have been lost actively in their annual family observances – and to be there to support others who have suffered the losses as well.
“Anniversaries can be very difficult,” Lasher said. “I encourage folks, if you have a friend who’s an adult who’s lost someone, to remember them at holiday times and anniversary times – the year after the death, or six months, or that person’s birthday – to send them a card and say, I was thinking about John, or I was thinking about Susie, and remembering them on their birthday.
“Valentine’s Day is one of the most difficult holidays for grieving people. And if you’ve not been a grieving person in your life, and I can’t imagine many adults have not been, but there are some, Valentine’s becomes very difficult – because in this country, it’s a day when we talk about love and romance and flowers and cards. And if you’ve lost someone you’re close to, particularly a spouse or a parent, and you might have gotten a card or a contact from them, and they’re not there, it is very lonely. For many people, Valentine’s Day is the most forgotten holiday – and it’s very difficult,” Lasher said.
I had never considered grief or grieving as being even a stage of life that we all go through at one time or another – given that no one close to me had died until my own father had passed on.
Now I am left to wonder why there is a prevailing sentiment out there that death is something that we need to move on from – as if grief is just a phase like being a teen-ager or going through a midlife crisis.
“People perceive that if you’re grieving, you’re weak, you’re vulnerable, and in this country no one wants to show signs of vulnerability or weakness,” Lasher said.
“We live in this country which is death-denying. The American death attitude is denial of death. We don’t want to talk about dying. We don’t want to talk about aging. In many ways, we’re in a culture that’s denial of aging. We don’t talk about older people. If they get really sick or are dying, we put them in a nursing home. The largest percent of people that die today in this country die in an institution – hospital, nursing home, some institutional-like setting. People don’t die at home with their family and friends. At the turn of the century, people died at home. Children, grandchildren, saw it – they were caregivers. Today, people die in institutions, so it’s not something that we witness. And so death has become a stranger to us, instead of something that we’re familiar with,” Lasher said.
“People think we shouldn’t show our vulnerabilities. We shouldn’t show weakness. So let’s pretend like in three days everything’s fine. I have never met a person that’s fine in three days. We say we’re fine, but we’re changed. So why can’t we be honest and say that I’m having a hard time, I’m sad, this is difficult – because that’s what most of us are feeling. But our culture will not allow that,” Lasher said.
As to how we can effect change in this …
“A lot of it could be folks just like yourself talking about it with others and spreading the word,” Lasher said. “And I think when folks see that you’re open to talking about grief and sharing your pain, it sets a great precedent. So sometimes it’s modeling for yourself, but that’s OK. Because neighbors often look to see how everybody else is handling something. No one wants to be different – children or adults, no one wants to be different. But if you talk about it, I think it validates it – it gives other people permission, if they down the road have a loss, if they’ve seen you talk about it, and you were OK sharing about it, it might give them permission.”
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.