Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Different Kind of Grief

I've been thinking lately about the very different kinds of grieving that people do.  We tend to lump all grief together, we identify stages and experiences that people go through, no matter what kind of grieving they are doing, and while we "rank" grief (death of a spouse is worse, for example, in our minds than death of a acquaintance or perhaps a pet), that ranking shows in many ways how little we understand about grief.

Each person grieves differently, and each loss for each person is experienced differently.  Yes, there are some similarities: most people experience some form of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (others identify different stages which can include guilt, pain, loneliness, reconstruction and hope in addition to the others mentioned).  Most people revisit other times of grief, other losses, as they go through whatever current loss they are facing. For most, the order of these feelings and stages varies and there is a bit of "cycling" where you may pass to one stage then back to one you've experienced before then onto another and back again.  This can happen rapidly or slowly.  Sometimes, regardless of the kind of loss, people can get stuck, mostly when they are unwilling or unable to actually feel all the feelings that arise with a particular loss, or when the loss continues to cause other problems for them.

But regardless of these similarities, there are also so many differences.  I've been thinking in particular about the difference between a death and a 'break up' of any kind of relationship, be it friendship, a schism in a family or a partnership.  The stage names may be similar, but they look very different.  For example, the "bargaining and denial" stages after a death usually don't last too terribly long because the reality is you can't bring someone back.  Once they are gone, they are gone.  But after the ending of a relationship where both people are still alive, the denial and bargaining can go on for years.  We've all heard of people who still hold a torch for their exes years and sometimes even decades after the relationship has ended. I find that within those stages there are also different aspects than perhaps occur after someone has died.  One sub-stage is a vilifying of the other, which may not always happen but often does.  In this aspect or sub-stage of denial, the end of the relationship occurred because the other is just wrong, evil, messed up.  We deny our own part in the ending because we can't face it.  We exaggerate the others' part in the ending because it hurts too much to think we would be "left" or that the relationship would fail because of anything other than our partner or friend or family member just being an awful human being.  Another aspect which combines the denial and bargaining stages is a continual hope that somehow things will be resolved or that reconciliation of some kind will be possible, especially if things ended with animosity.  Most of us don't like the idea that someone out there hates us, or feels negatively about us.  And I think most of us would wish for that to resolve, for the other to see through whatever our issues and behaviors have been and to desire healing and good will in the end.  Even when we know this is an impossibility, even when we know it is not best for either of us, even when our smartest, most mature selves would balk against any renewed interaction that might look like the potential for reconciliation because we know it would lead to other problems, be unhealthy, or cause more damage, we still hope for it in our hearts as part of our grieving process.

The point of all this?  While it has been a huge step forward that we now recognize that grief is a process that takes time and that there are different and normal stages that most people experience through grief, we still have a ways to go in understanding how every grief is different.  While models of grieving initially are helpful so that we have a framework for understanding grief as a natural and healthy process, failing to see each grief as the unique experience that it is can damage our ability to be truly empathetic with what another person is feeling.  Each grief is its own.  Each loss will be handled and experienced differently by each person.  Trying to box a person into a particular stage, and scheduling out how long or in what way that stage should be "mastered" won't help. The more we can simply be with one another through whatever the other is experiencing, the more we can support each other in moving through grief. The worst thing we can do is to tell someone else to get over it, or to feel something other than what they are feeling in the moment. The best we can do is allow another to go deeper into whatever the feelings are so that they may emerge on the other side.  That means we have to let go of our preconceived ideas about what each grief should look like. There just isn't a right way to grieve.  And there certainly isn't a map through the grief process.  There isn't a "one size fits all" way to walk through our losses.  I say it again: each grief is unique and the process through each loss will therefore be unique.  There isn't a right or wrong, and there isn't even a "better" or "worse" way through.  It will be what it will be.  And the best we can do is hold hands as we walk our journeys.