Grief - The Human Experience
Wanda Bincer, M.D.
Grief is a universal human experience and all of us are familiar with the feelings of pain and sadness following a loss. We read about tragedies every day in the newspapers, see them on TV, hear about misfortunes from friends or experience a loss of someone dear to us through illness or old age. Our culture tends to encourage us to ignore death and pain, and promotes the myth that we can all be young, beautiful and if we live right, happy forever.
Many have read or heard of the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and other experts on death and dying. Thus we are familiar with the stages of grief, shock, denial, rage, despair, and finally acceptance. We may find reassurance in the fact that the terrain has been studied, that there is a map on how to travel the areas that need to be passed on the road to our destination. For some the travel is made easier by a strong faith, by a sense of meaning and purpose, and by the firm belief that they will need with absent loved ones after death.
At different times many of us come into contact with grieving persons at a funeral, memorial service or when visiting the bereaved. We offer caring words, compassion, practical help and maybe even love, but then we are finished and go on with our lives. I was thrust into the world of senseless violence, grief and anguish with the sudden news of the murder of my oldest child and only daughter. It began with utter shock and disbelief and a slim hope that a mistake had been made. The shock and disbelief still catch me at times, even though four years have passed. And of course a terrible mistake was made; some cruel and misguided man ended the life of a young woman, who loved life, people and animals. She picked up stray puppies, loved children, had a radiant sunny smile and wanted to start a camp for mentally retarded and disabled children. A part of me was killed with her and I will never be the same again.
We all ask "why"? We become acutely aware of our vulnerability. The world suddenly becomes an unfair and dangerous place. Our sense of trust, order, and the belief that should we live just and good life nothing bad will happen to us, are shattered. However, it is important to remember that we are all individuals, that our circumstances differ, as does the length and pattern of our grief. What we can offer those who are grieving is a caring acceptance of their special way of dealing with their anguish and a willingness to listen.
"Give Sorrow Words"; is the message of the self-support group Parents of Murdered Children. Healing can be facilitated by telling one's story again and again and by allowing oneself to experience pain, rage and despair. Most of us do not realize our own strengths and ability to cope. The resiliency and power of the human spirit are awesome. When I come into contact with families whose child has been murdered and experience the compassion and caring within the group, my faith in the human spirit is restored. Survivors of the murder of a child, spouse, or friend have a great deal to offer one another and often can be of more help than the clergy or mental health professionals.
I would say that probably the most important element that can help us in our grieving is that we treat ourselves with great kindness and that we do not set up unfair expectations of ourselves. Length of time, intensity of sorrow, may be different for each of us. The different stages of grief follow no rigid order and we need to give ourselves permission to experience our anguish in our own time, without deadlines or hurtful judgments.
As we live through unimaginable heartbreak and sadness, it is a time for gentleness; it is a time to forgive ourselves, our anger and self-centeredness; it is a time to allow ourselves to weep, as long and as often as we wish.
It is important not to allow society in general, our friends, mental health professionals, or the clergy in particular, to pressure us into getting on with the business of living and thus shortening or suppressing our grieving. Well-meaning people who expect the bereaved to become quickly functional, smiling and cheerful again, may do incredible harm and will certainly increase the feelings of loneliness, hurt and alienation already present.
It is important to grieve, to experience the pain, to weep and to acknowledge the impact of our loss. To allow ourselves to grieve is healing in the long run. It enables us to put our lives together again as best we can under the circumstances.