Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Helping Loved Ones Grieve

This is another post about death, loss, and grieving—albeit a lot less personal and more practical than yesterday’s article. I feel the need to address grief counselling because, simply put, we have seen so much death in Egypt the past few years. Mental health services in Egypt are not designed to handle issues of a subtle nature such as a grief. 

Family, friends, and even most qualified professionals resort to religious rhetoric assuring the grieving that “we all meet at the other end of the rainbow someday”.  No one takes into account the fact that bringing religion into the mix, in and of itself, is rarely solace and in many cases can be a source of anxiety to the grieving person. 

“She was such an angel,” a grieving friend of mine had told me about his mom. “I’m sure she’s going to Heaven—but being as bad as I have been in my life, I’m not sure I’ll ever meet her again.” He’d said that half-jokingly, but his eyes spoke of his true angst. 
If focusing on the afterlife when talking to the bereaved is a big no no then what can we do? Here I’d like to present a poignant quote from John Welshons’ book Awakening From Grief:Finding The Way Back to Joy
“Our job is to be a presence, rather than a savior. 
A companion, rather than a leader. 
A friend, rather than a teacher.”

We are not trying to find magical solutions to offer the grieving—for all we all know too well there is none. But by being present, day in and day out, we help them work through grief and come out whole and functional on the other end. 

Working Through Grief

One of the general models that grief counsellors use is aptly named the TEAR model. Each letter stands for a task the bereaved needs to complete. 

I.To accept the reality of the loss: a phase of “denial” may set in and be longer than one would initially imagine. Funeral rituals are essentially humanity’s way of coming to terms that the person is departed and only their body is left behind. Ghossel, or the “Washing” in Islam for instance is of a special significance. On a more personal note, I had not fully accepted the reality of my grandfather’s passing except when I saw his lifeless body draped in white.  
II.Experience The pain of the loss: This may seem counterintuitive, but it is essential. Experiencing the pain sets the stage for it to go away. By being present, by lending a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, we can help our loved ones work through their pain. 
III.Adjust to the new environment without the lost person: This adjustment may be needed on more than just the obvious physical level of the changed reality. There is also an emotional adjustment, a void that might have been left by the departed. 
IV.Reinvest in the new reality and learning how to embark on a new life while finding a meaningful connection with the deceased. This is not about forgetting but rather about living without them yet still honoring their life and the memories they shared together. 

Marriage and Grief 

I was reading a short story, Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri and she tells of a young woman, Ruma, still grappling with the loss of her mother. I found it fascinating that Jhumpa addressed the effects this can have on a marriage.  

“She could not explain what had happened to her marriage after her mother’s death. For the first time since they’d met…she felt a wall between them, simply because he had not experienced what she had, because both his parents were still living in the   house in Lincoln.”

I think Ms Lahiri got the alienation spot on—but was a tad off on the explanation. What most likely happens when the female partner loses a parent is that her husband, unable to watch her suffer, withdraws at least partially. Many men are not able to be present enough for their grieving women. They seek distractions quickly and leave the woman to her pain. Although this is neither intentional nor a conscious decision, the rift it creates maybe very difficult to overcome. So my advice to a man with a grieving partner is, be fully present, be fully there. Be there longer than you think is necessary. Hug her tighter than ever. Don’t let your own discomfort with tears stop you from wiping her tears away. Don’t let the job fall to someone else, or a wall may be erect between you that stands to damage the relationship over time.
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