How to Help a Loved One Through Sudden Loss

Here’s how to offer support to someone grieving after an unexpected death.

 

By Julie Halpert

Over the past several years, the husbands of three of my friends died suddenly at the age of 50. These experiences helped educate me on how to be supportive in the face of an unexpected loss. I couldn’t imagine that I would ever be on the receiving end of such support. But that happened when I lost my son, Garrett, to suicide in September 2017.

Since Garrett’s passing, I have been amazed at the generosity of my community. One friend paid to have my home’s gutters cleaned and windows washed. Our family’s veterinarian refused to let us pay for her pet care services for a year. Another friend gave us keys to her lake house to use when we needed to get away. Each spring, we find a hanging plant on our porch from parents of a friend of Garrett’s. As brutally hard as it’s been to walk this new path without my son, these actions have provided a glimmer of positivity amid my despair.

While people have stepped up to help after our loss, such generosity is not always a given in the wake of a sudden death — an outcome that many families are experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 800,000 people in the United States alone.

“Many bereaved people experience another secondary loss when friends and family run away after a loss due to their own discomfort,” said Sherry Cormier, a psychologist and certified bereavement trauma specialist. Being present with a friend’s grief in this situation can stir up anxiety about death, she said. “They think, ‘That could happen to me.’”

Unlike a death that occurs in an older person after a long illness, with a sudden loss, “your world is turned completely and totally upside down; you’re in complete chaos,” said Camille Wortman, a professor of social and health psychology at Stony Brook University and author of “Treating Traumatic Bereavement: A Practitioner’s Guide.

Outside of the loss itself, one of the most painful experiences for grievers is that their friends and family may not be willing to help them through their grief, Dr. Cormier said. Rather than turning away, you can offer connection. Here are some ways to help a person who has recently experienced a loss.

Take on tasks.

With a sudden loss, the bereaved find themselves immediately inundated with new and mounting responsibilities. Helping ease that burden can be invaluable. Dr. Cormier suggested leading with language like: “I’d love to help. Does anything occur to you that may be useful?” If they don’t provide suggestions, you can be specific: Ask if you can bring dinner, mow the lawn or pick up groceries. You can also provide a welcome distraction, offering to go for a walk with the bereaved or take them out to dinner.

Jerri Vance, who lives in Princeton, W.Va., lost her husband, James, a 52-year-old police officer, to Covid-19 on New Year’s Day of 2021. “He went into the hospital on Dec. 7th and I never saw him again,” she said.

Immediately following her husband’s death, people in her community threw a fund-raiser for medical bills and funeral costs that raised $29,000. Friends and neighbors provided meals for a month and a half. Other friends helped her take down Christmas decorations. The principal of the school where she teaches third grade even showed up to clean her kitchen.

Ms. Vance said she appreciated all the prayers after her husband’s death, but she was most buoyed by those who offered to lighten her load.

Continue reaching out.

A study released in August by the American Psychological Association found that the loss of a loved one in a traumatic event can cause complicated reactions for those left behind, including prolonged grief. Other studies have found that people who have endured a traumatic loss are more likely to experience severe, intense and persistent psychological reactions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, compared with those who have had an expected loss, according to Kristin Alve Glad, a clinical psychologist and the lead author of the A.P.A. study. In these situations, Dr. Wortman said, the bereaved can struggle for many years or decades.

“Time does not heal all wounds,” Ms. Vance said. “There are times when I feel forgotten. Everybody goes back to their normal lives, and, for us, there’s never going to be a normal life again.”

Dr. Wortman suggested checking in periodically and reaching out during times when those who are grieving may be particularly vulnerable, like a wedding anniversary or major holidays. She has compiled a list of helpful websites and articles that focus on offering support in these situations.

Consider adding simple “thinking of you” messages to your to-do list. Lisa Zaleski, who lives in White Lake, Mich., confronted the unimaginable, first losing her daughter, Sydney, in June 2017 at the age of 23 in a car accident, then her son Robert in December 2019 to suicide when he was 31 years old. After her daughter died, a friend she wasn’t especially close with sent her a text of acknowledgment every day for a year. “It felt like a tremendous amount of support,” she said.

Connect the bereaved with community support.

Nneka Njideka, a licensed clinical social worker in Brooklyn, N.Y., who specializes in grief, explained that those with more resources have “grief privilege.” They may be able to take an extended leave of absence from work and afford a team of professionals to cope with the loss, for example. But she said that isn’t the case for those who are low on resources — and people of color in particular — who, in addition to losing their loved one, may be faced with “living losses,” like unemployment or food insecurity.

Calandrian Simpson Kemp, who is Black and lives in Houston, was working the night shift at a homeless shelter for women in 2013 when she got the call that her only son, George Kemp Jr., had been shot dead at 20 years old. “Everything you envisioned for them has been stolen from you,” she said. It was too much to bear for her husband. When she broke the news to him, “he dropped his keys and never went back to work,” she said. The family, which includes her daughter and stepdaughter, became uninsured as a result. She couldn’t afford mental health care and at one point needed to use a food pantry.

“I felt that bullet was still killing my husband and I, because we lost everything that we had,” she said.

Ms. Njideka said in these types of situations, it’s important to help the bereaved network with the community and build a circle of supportive resources, perhaps to raise funds for bills and therapy. Ms. Simpson Kemp started a program, The Village of Mothers, to assist mothers who lost their children in finding the services they need.

Listen more than you talk.

It’s helpful to just sit with those who are grieving and let them cry, Dr. Cormier said. Allow them to tell you the story of their loss and don’t try to problem solve or give advice. After Ms. Simpson Kemp’s son was killed, a woman from her church offered to drive her to the cemetery and simply sat with her there.

“She would just wait in the back and allow me to be still and silent in that space with George,” Ms. Simpson Kemp said. She “showed me it was OK to slow down and put the pieces together to help make sense of what had just happened.”

Choose your words carefully.

Try to be mindful to avoid minimizing the loss or encouraging a quick recovery, said Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, public health and medicine at the University of California, Irvine. She has developed a list of “don’ts” in the event of a loss, based on her research with hundreds of bereaved people. Never suggest that you know how grievers feel, even if you’ve experienced a similar type of loss; you can’t possibly comprehend the depth of their grief, she said.

Other phrases to avoid, according to Dr. Wortman: “You’re so strong,” “You have so much to be thankful for” and “Everything will be OK,” along with religious platitudes like, “It’s part of God’s plan” or “He’s in a better place.”

Ms. Vance said it’s best not to make empty promises. Some of her friends promised her children pedicures and an outing to get ice cream, yet no one followed through. Her kids were hurt. “When you promise something, you’ve got to follow up with it,” she said.

In the case of a death by suicide, it may be even harder to know what to say or how to help, since stigma can be an issue. Doreen Marshall, a psychologist with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said loss survivors often feel an incredible amount of guilt and may assume responsibility for what happened. Dr. Marshall, who lost her fiancé to suicide, said that means friends and loved ones may be even more reluctant to offer support.

As with any other type of sudden loss, focus on providing the type of support that the griever needs, Dr. Marshall said. Avoid asking about the circumstances of the death, she said, but say the loved one’s name, ask about the person’s life and share happy memories that you have.

“We miss our kids like crazy,” said Marny Lombard, when we spoke about her son, Sam, who died by suicide in 2013 at 22 years old. If Sam comes up in conversation, it doesn’t make her more upset. “When you say the name of my child, you bring me momentary joy,” she said.

Complete Article HERE!

9 Myths About the Stages of Grief

By Elizabeth Beasley

Ever since Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s book “On Death and Dying” hit the shelves in 1969, it’s been a key source of information about the grief process. Dr. Kübler-Ross outlines five stages of grief that many people go through: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But her theory was geared towards people who were in an end-of-life situation and facing imminent death. Also, she never intended the stages to be a linear timeline. Though her model is helpful for understanding grief, it has created myths about the stages of grief that don’t ring true for everyone.

Myth 1: There’s a clear timeline for grieving. 

“On Death and Dying” lists five stages of grieving, but there’s no real timeline for the process. Grief is a very personal experience and most people go through it in whatever way helps them the most. You may stay in one phase longer than others, bounce back and forth between phases, skip a phase, or have phases that are uniquely your own.

The grief experience is complex and, while the five phases are a guideline, it is perfectly normal to grieve in a completely different pattern. That’s why many researchers and clinicians quit using the term “stages” when talking about grief.

Myth 2: Mourning and grief are the same thing.

This might surprise you, but they’re actually different. The definition of grief refers to the emotional state you experience when you’ve lost someone or something. Those emotions include a wide range of feelings from numbness to pain. Mourning is defined as the way you express your grief and the actions you take as you go through the grieving process. A good example of mourning is wearing black, bringing flowers to a gravesite, or following specific traditions of bereavement. Most people experience both grieving and mourning.

Myth 3: The grief process is the same for everyone.

When it comes to grieving, and even mourning, there are a lot of societal and cultural expectations about how to do it correctly. But every person is as unique as their grief process and will think, feel and act differently. Know that there is no correct way to cope with a loss. If you can find a way to grieve while feeling supported, rested, healthy, and authentic, then you are doing a great job. It won’t always be easy, but it’ll be the way you need it to be.

Myth 4: Ignoring your grief helps it go away faster.

When you’re experiencing a loss, it can be tempting to stay busy and distracted. This can lead to a pattern of avoidance that keeps you from feeling your emotions and healing. Grief is emotional trauma and, like physical trauma, it’s important to acknowledge the pain and treat it.

In some cases, ignoring grief may lead people to numb their pain with substance abuse, which can cause more pain. Of course, there will be times you’ll want to take your mind off your experience. Try to find support that lets you balance some breaks with fully experiencing your grief.

Myth 5: Crying is necessary for grieving.

We grow up learning that crying is a normal response to sadness, but it’s not the only way to show you’re sad. People who don’t cry over a loss can be experiencing just as much grief as those who do. Keep in mind that feeling numb or being in a state of shock is also a common grief response. This may prevent people from expressing their emotions with tears. Crying can help you process the pain of grief, but you can still work through it without shedding a tear.

Myth 6: The first year is the toughest.

This myth is common, because it is somewhat true. The most intense emotions related to the grief process often happen in the first year. However, every year and anniversary after that may still be difficult. Remember, there is no timeline for grieving. If you are grieving or know someone who is, be open to unexpected emotions at unexpected times and don’t expect the grief process to suddenly be over. Also, remember that support groups are always available and you can get counseling services at any time, even years after your loss.

Myth 7: Grief will eventually go away.

Time does not heal all wounds, especially the wounds of grief and loss. The intensity of your grief may decrease with time, but you may never forget it or feel truly healed. Grief ebbs and flows and can continue for a lifetime. When you prepare for it to last, you may be more at ease expressing your feelings in your own way as they come and go, rather than trying to suppress or stop them. It’s also helpful to know what makes you feel better when grief shows up, so you can get the support you need.

Myth 8: The goal of grieving is closure.

Our society is built around achievement. Common milestones include graduating from school, getting married, and retiring from a career. We like to check things off the list, but closure isn’t the goal of grief. Finishing grieving is not the endgame and there is no finish line. Some say the main objective of the grieving process is to experience your feelings of loss, sadness, anger, and guilt, while taking care of yourself and continuing to live and move ahead. Keeping an open mind about grief will serve you better than looking for closure.

Myth 9: Grief affects females more intensely.

The process of grieving has taken on a lot of expectations from society, including stereotypical views of how females and males grieve. Society expects females to be more emotional, to openly grieve through crying and expressing their feelings. “Boys don’t cry” is a stereotype that keeps males from showing their sadness through tears and emotions. The truth is that every person is unique and should freely cry or not cry or show grief in their own way. No one grieves more than anyone else. We are all individual beings with individual grieving styles.

Complete Article HERE!

The poetic elegies that can help us make space for our pandemic grief

Elegy performs an essential caretaking, both intimate and public, of our dead.

Claudette Donlon attends a memorial service at Washington National Cathedral on Jan. 19. Some of Donlon’s friends have died of covid-19.

By David Sherman and Karen Elizabeth Bishop

The grinding work of pandemic survival leaves few moments to reckon with the significance of our catastrophic losses. The scale of death from the coronavirus — 5.4 million, more than 800,000 of them in the United States, and counting — baffles understanding and eclipses feeling. But a society survives such devastation only by creating shared spaces and open time for mourning. How do we begin to acknowledge so many dead? What cultural forms and expressive practices can bear these absent lives with us into the future?

Elegy is where we figure out how to do this work. Elegiac poetry helps us hold vigil over the dying and bear the dead to a resting place. The form has long offered symbolic versions of these defining human acts, surrogate ways to fulfill existential obligations when we are rendered passive and mute by another’s death. Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” shared in so many classrooms and anthologies, still resonates for the way the poet risks the unanswerable questions at the jagged heart of elegy: “O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved? / And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?”

Whitman wrote these lines for a slain president and a nation devastated by civil war. In a pandemic, when a flood of statistics threatens to swallow the singularity of every death, contemporary elegies — about the dead, for the dead, in place of the dead — offer us new ways for our grief to work its way past silence. Elegy performs an essential caretaking, both intimate and public, of our dead. Poetry is a labor of survival.

At the beginning of the pandemic, our most established mortuary and memorial practices were in lockdown. Funerals were forbidden and mourners had no way to gather in person, as farewell rituals collapsed into screens. The anguished poetry of that moment tried to work through this dreadful impasse. Nick Laird’s “Up Late,” an elegy to his father, who died of covid-19, describes the sudden, otherworldly alienation of pandemic dying: “This morning / the consultant said your father now is clawing / at the mask and is exhausted and we’ve thrown / everything we have at this. It’s a terrible disease. … // Dad, / you poor bastard, I see you. / You lay like that for a week alone / with your thoughts in the room. // Tethered. Breathless. Undefended. / At sea as on an ice floe / slipping down into the shipping channels.” As touch is impossible, Laird labors to make sure his father is seen and his death de-sequestered. The poem struggles with how to be present from a distance, how to witness the ravages of the pandemic from the inside out. In this final gift of elegy, his father is isolated, but not alone, as he drifts into death’s cold waters.

In recent seasons, many have tried to acknowledge the pandemic dead in inventive memorial forms: empty chairs in D.C. and Tennessee; flags in Austin and on the National Mall; prayer flags and cairns and quilts in Massachusetts; origami cranes in Los Angeles; and freshly planted groves of native trees in Ohio. But where memorials, however elegantly conceived and assembled, function only in situ, elegy offers an alternative: a text that is easy to access, reproduce, circulate and share. Whether spoken or written, elegy leverages that most intimate, visceral and spontaneous mechanism of expression: the human voice.

Contemporary elegy, like love poetry, seeks to tell something very old and repetitive — I miss you, where are you, why were you lost among so many spared — without cliche. Each death uniquely rends our shared world; the shock of innovative elegiac form captures the specific incompleteness of being in the wake of another’s death, telling how this death and this grief matter. “In the night I brush / my teeth with a razor”: This distich — an old elegiac form renovated here by Kevin Young — is the entirety of his poem “Grief.” It jolts us awake to confront a terrible void by coupling daily routine with violence. Just as a blade might threaten the nerves protected within teeth, his image cuts through familiar language to expose raw grief. In the same volume, “Book of Hours,” we come to the oddly musical line: “I wish to wash / my face in the furnace.” Such soothing alliteration and assonance, laid out in iambic pentameter, delivers us without warning to the terrifying catharsis of a cleansing by fire. Where elegy wounds in image and sound and figurative device, it also houses the impossible strangeness of grief so that we survive it.

Many poets use elegy to tell the dead about their own passing, as if they might help us make sense of their absence and our own, now uncanny, survival. “I was asleep while you were dying. / It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow / I make between my slumber and my waking,” Natasha Trethewey explains to her dead mother in “Myth.” Trethewey addresses her mother directly, seeks to summon her with just the right images, rhythms, and pitches of longing. For a moment we meet in a fertile borderland between being and nonbeing, or a time zone between is and was. We inhabit this space alongside the poet; elegy is a practice of addressing the dead so that others can overhear. Trethewey’s address to her mother is also to us, and eventually to herself, in a circuit that offers company for grief’s isolation.

Elegy, like other commemorative practices, often strains between individual and collective voice amid widespread trauma and social crisis. Mass death requires a different language to grapple with loss, fracturing traditional elegy as poets seek to chronicle many interrupted lives. Kim Hyesoon’s astonishing book “Autobiography of Death,” translated by Don Mee Choi, responds to the April 2014 Sewol ferry disaster, in which hundreds of schoolchildren drowned off the coast of South Korea in view of a horrified nation. Hyesoon hallucinates impossible rites of commemoration: “a four-ton bronze bell with a thousand names of the dead engraved on it dangles from the helicopter / The helicopter flies over a tall mountain to hang the bell at a temple hidden deep in the mountains,” or “A thousand masks float on the thousand rivers of the north, south, east, west.”

In these poems, the 304 people killed in the disaster become thousands of names, masks, and rivers because their loss is incalculable, beyond account. Each death, for Hyesoon, is multiplied by injustice and official negligence so that it becomes many deaths, intolerable and beyond repair. Her imagination inscribes the sky, water and land with their absence, remaking and remapping the world in their wake. Her poetry teaches us about the combination of imagination and courage we need to create commemorative spaces for the millions who have died, and are dying, of covid.

Elegy modulates collective anguish into form and meaning. In “The Man with Night Sweats,” poems written in response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Thom Gunn imagines lives vanishing on a wide scale, and in intricate entanglement: “Contact of friend led to another friend, / Supple entwinement through the living mass / Which for all that I knew might have no end, / Image of an unlimited embrace.” For Gunn, the living mass names our basic existential solidarity, the far-reaching interdependence of human lives.

The Missing” goes on to explore a sense of mutual implication in others’ illness, a shared exposure that speaks clearly to the present: “But death — Their deaths have left me less defined: / It was their pulsing presence made me clear. / I borrowed from it, I was unconfined, / Who tonight balance unsupported here.” Gunn searches an ambiguity in survival, because every survival is temporary. It is hard to ignore, against these measured verses, the pressure of the shadow-word “uncoffined” for “unconfined,” as if the speaker has returned from his own burial to speak here also for himself. In a posthumous undertone, Gunn speaks with the dead. Elegiac language is a territory that the living and dead inhabit together. Four decades later, we need to reclaim this lyric territory.

Elegy does not change the fact of death. It is just poetry, as frail as the breath that utters it and a confirmation of our own precarity. As Joy Harjo tells us in “Death Is a Woman,” “I have nothing to prove your fierce life, except paper / that turns back to dust.” But somehow we are stronger in both knowing that the terms of death are nonnegotiable and still insisting, on the page and in our voice, on negotiation. The mind imagines tactics; the voice tries out its claims. This work is ours to do. Poetry helps us gather the remains of the dead, even across great distance, and offer them a place. Elegy makes our dead, sheltered from the weather, sound.

Complete Article HERE!

I Didn’t Know My Mom Was Dying. Then She Was Gone.

Would things have been better if I had known the truth?

The author as a child with her mother, circa 1994

By Lenika Cruz

The pink notebook my mother kept when she was sick contains 18 entries, most of them shorter than a haiku. The pages list medications and surgeries, the names of family members who sent money, and which body parts hurt and how badly. One entry, from October 1995, reads: “Neck (severe pain) Coming out of the mall to cold air.” I was 5 that day; my sister was 3. We were leaving the mall after taking a family portrait when my parents started panicking—about exactly what, I didn’t know. I just remember my dad rushing my mom home because of what I later learned was an excruciating neck spasm. Hours later, an ambulance took her to the hospital for the last time. Four months later, she was gone.

One strange thing about losing a parent so young is that you might forget which details you learned about their death and when; you might also question whether what you remember is the truth or a distortion. At some point during the first decade of my life—I’m not sure when or how—I became aware that my mom had died of breast cancer. Last month, I asked my father how much my sister and I knew about our mother’s illness at the time, if we understood that we might soon lose her. “I don’t know if we ever told you,” he admitted. “Your mom wanted to shield you both from that stuff. She always wanted to protect you.” I figured, then, that we had learned the truth from overhearing conversations between the grown-ups around us—and I wondered whether it would have been better if we had known before she passed.

What should you say to a child when a parent is dying? The answers to this impossible question generally fall into two buckets: Tell them the truth or protect them from the truth. The most persuasive arguments in either direction prioritize what would be best for the child. My colleague Caitlin Flanagan wroteabout why she and her husband told their then-5-year-old sons that she had breast cancer: “I thought I had the power to protect them from hardship. No one has that … But endurance is built into the human condition, and it’s as powerful in children as it is in adults.” In a 2019Atlantic essay, Jon Mehlman explained why he and his wife chose not to tell their three young daughters about her cancer for seven years—until a month before her death: “Our kids would not be robbed of stability; protecting their sense of the ordinary was everything.” Later, his daughters told him they were grateful not to have known for so long.

The author's mother, Tomo, when she was younger and healthy
The author’s mother on her honeymoon in Japan

Reading these accounts, I felt conflicted about my own experience. I hadn’t known my mom’s diagnosis, and no one explained to me what a mastectomy or chemotherapy was, but I witnessed plenty of signs that she was declining. I saw her without her wig after all her hair fell out. I knew that she sometimes didn’t feel well, and I would visit her in the hospital, where I’d push her wheelchair and play with the automatic-recline button on her bed. I understood during those dark months that things weren’t normal, but I still remember myself as a happy child. I know now that memories can be faulty, and I wonder if it’s truly possible for a child surrounded by so much evidence of suffering—and denied the full truth about that suffering—to emerge from that experience unscathed.

Was I simply too young to understand mortality? Linda Goldman, a grief counselor and the author of several books on children and loss, told me that, contrary to what many adults believe, small children are not too young to feel sad about death. “Kids can love when they’re toddlers, and they can grieve. They’ll cry when a goldfish dies!” she said. And when it comes to a parent’s illness, Goldman explained, children are more perceptive than many adults give them credit for: “Kids are pretty savvy, and they take in what’s going on in their environment even if they’re not told the truth.”

While she acknowledged that the question of preparing children for loss has “no black-and-white answer,” she does recommend being honest about a loved one’s illness or death in an age-appropriate way. That’s because when children sense that they’re being lied to, Goldman said, they can start to fear for their safety and become distrustful. I told her that I had been wondering whether my parents were wrong not to have prepared me and my sister for my mom’s death, and whether I wasn’t really as happy as I remembered.

But the more we talked, the more I realized that fixating on a binary question—to tell children or not tell them?—obscures the many other factors that shape how a child will process loss. For instance, Goldman explained how having a memory of helping a dying family member—giving them flowers, bringing them medicine, making them laugh—can make children feel useful, and be an enormous psychological comfort. I thought of how one of my strongest memories of my mom’s illness is helping her reverse the car when she was driving. By that point, the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and turning her neck hurt, so I would look back for her and let her know whether the coast was clear.

So much, too, depends on the ability of adults to cope with the situation. “I’ve found that kids can handle what adults can handle,” Goldman said, noting that children look to grown-ups for emotional cues. When we spoke recently, my dad told me something I had never known before: that back then, even hehadn’t truly believed that his wife might die. He had always thought that she would pull through somehow. Perhaps that naïveté or stubborn faith—whatever you want to call it—had the unintended consequence of shielding me and my sister. Goldman also said that when parents are struggling, children need to have adults around them whom they know they can depend on. While my dad was balancing a full-time job with helping to care for my mother, my mom’s parents came to stay with us and looked after me and my sister. At no point did we have to feel abandoned or alone.

Being able to say goodbye—whether before or after a parent dies—is crucial as well, Goldman said. Even though I didn’t know that my mom was nearing the end, I was at the hospital all the time during her final weeks. And hours after she passed, according to my father, I took him by the hand and led him toward her hospital room. Then I crawled into the bed next to her and started touching her face and talking to her, even though she could no longer respond. A week later, at her funeral, my sister and I stood next to her coffin the entire time. Sometimes, Goldman said, adults want to keep children away from funerals and other rituals of loss: “We’re so death-phobic that it’s hard to admit that death is a part of life.” But these moments can offer valuable opportunities for closure, even if the search for answers and feelings of loss never quite go away.

When I called Goldman, I was half-expecting her to tell me all the ways I must have remembered something incorrectly, to point out the holes in my story. Instead, she gave me a deeper appreciation not only for what my parents had to go through, but also for the ways in which my 5-year-old brain had allowed me to come away from that painful time carrying warmly lit scenes of my mother: Even with IVs coming out of her, with a terry-cloth cap keeping her bare head warm, she looked so pretty laughing.

Somehow, when my parents made what some therapists might call mistakes, the results still had a certain beauty to them. Goldman said adults should be careful with clichés about death, such as telling young children that someone who is dying is simply “going to sleep” or that they will be “watching over you all the time.” Kids might take these words literally and become afraid of sleeping or worry about being surveilled. Like many other children, I was told that my mother would be “watching me from up in heaven,” a place I understood only as being somewhere in the sky. Two weeks after she died, we flew back to Guam, the island where my parents first met, where we would bury her. I had the window seat. Staring out over the left wing of the plane, I searched for her among the clouds

Complete Article HERE!

Joan Didion Wrote About Grief Like No One Else Could

On a patio deck overlooking the ocean, Quintana Roo Dunne leans on a railing with her parents, writers John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, in Malibu, Calif., 1976.

By Annabel Gutterman

Joan Didion made sense of the world through words. She was known for them: her cool, exacting prose; her sentences, smooth and spare. But in the aftermath of her husband’s fatal heart attack in 2003, her relationship with words changed. “This is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning,” she wrote in her 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. “This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.”

Didion, who died on Dec. 23 at 87, was the author of five novels, several works of nonfiction including Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, screenplays and more. She was a prolific storyteller who ushered in a new style of journalism, combining research and lyrical imagery with cutting moments of humor. In the foreword of the last book she published before her death, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, writer Hilton Als described Didion as “a carver of words in the granite of the specific.” She both dissected the ordinariness of the everyday for its complexities, and broke down the most foreign of situations into familiar, accessible parts. Crucially, Didion also explored the language we use to process loss, and the limitations of that language. Now, as the world mourns her death, we look to her own words for both guidance and solace.

“Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life,” Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking. The book, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, chronicled the process of grieving the death of her husband and most trusted collaborator, the writer John Gregory Dunne, a little over a month before their 40th wedding anniversary. (Dunne was writing for TIME when they first met.) When Dunne died, the couple’s adopted daughter, Quintana, was unconscious in the ICU, suffering from pneumonia and septic shock. Didion’s experience with loss continued: A little over a year and a half after Dunne’s death, Quintana died at age 39. The writer examined that second excruciating loss in her 2011 memoir, Blue Nights, detailing a new kind of grief while crafting an aching examination of mortality and aging.

“This book is called ‘Blue Nights’ because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness,” she wrote. “Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.”

Joan Didion, circa 1977

Though both books were rooted in Didion’s agonizing personal tragedies, they were not ones of self-pity or despair. Instead, they sought to understand how memory informs grief and how death shapes life. The title of The Year of Magical Thinking comes from Didion’s experiences reckoning with the finality of death, and the disillusion that exists in its aftermath. In one poignant scene, Didion becomes fixated on her husband’s shoes while going through his clothes.

“I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return. The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought. I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power.”

Didion detailed how she would convince herself that she could bring her husband back, even though she was well aware he was gone. “Magical Thinking is an act of consummate literary bravery, a writer known for her clarity narrating the loss of that clarity, allowing us to watch her mind as it becomes clouded with grief,” the author Lev Grossman wrote in a review for TIME in 2005. “But the book also reproduces, in its formal progression from those first raw, frenzied impressions to a more composed account of mourning, Didion’s recovery. She literally wrote herself back to sanity.”

The Year of Magical Thinking was Didion’s 13th book. She finished it in 88 days during the year after Dunne’s death. It was the first time in 40 years that Didion did not receive feedback from Dunne on a writing project. Although she wrote the book quickly, she said it was difficult for her to finish because the book “maintained a connection with him.

Often described as a companion piece to that book, Blue Nights is another gutting look at a writer grasping for words to describe a loss—this time, of a beloved child. While just as candid as its predecessor, Blue Nights is a more raw exploration of grief, less polished in its structure, with Didion moving between fragmented memories. These range from the scenes of Quintana’s adoption and her reunion with her birth family to Quintana losing a tooth as a child. In Blue Nights, the magical thinking that once consumed Didion is gone, instead replaced with her reflections on memory and rumination on growing older and the ways her daughter’s death made her face her own mortality. “When I started writing, I thought it was going to be about attitudes to raising children,” Didion told The Guardian. “Then it became clear to me that, willy-nilly, it was going to be personal. I can’t imagine what I thought it was going to be, if it wasn’t personal.”

The raw emotional weight of both The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights provided an unflinching look inside Didion’s otherwise steely, sophisticated exterior. In letting her guard down, she allowed readers into her grieving process—and provided a roadmap for others navigating their own pain. “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us,” Didion wrote in The Year of Magical Thinking. “I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”

Complete Article HERE!

How your brain copes with grief, and why it takes time to heal

Grief is tied to all sorts of different brain functions, says researcher and author Mary-Frances O’Connor. That can range from being able to recall memories to taking the perspective of another person, to even things like regulating our heart rate and the experience of pain and suffering.

by Berly McCoy

Holidays are never quite the same after someone we love dies. Even small aspects of a birthday or a Christmas celebration — an empty seat at the dinner table, one less gift to buy or make — can serve as jarring reminders of how our lives have been forever changed. Although these realizations are hard to face, clinical psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor says we shouldn’t avoid them or try to hide our feelings.

“Grief is a universal experience,” she notes, “and when we can connect, it is better.”

O’Connor, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, studies what happens in our brains when we experience grief. She says grieving is a form of learning — one that teaches us how to be in the world without someone we love in it. “The background is running all the time for people who are grieving, thinking about new habits and how they interact now.”

Adjusting to the fact that we’ll never again spend time with our loved ones can be painful. It takes time — and involves changes in the brain. “What we see in science is, if you have a grief experience and you have support so that you have a little bit of time to learn, and confidence from the people around you, that you will in fact adapt.”

O’Connor’s upcoming book, The Grieving Brain, explores what scientists know about how our minds grapple with the loss of a loved one.

Interview highlights

On the grieving process

When we have the experience of being in a relationship, the sense of who we are is bound up with that other person. The word sibling, the word spouse implies two people. And so when the other person is gone, we suddenly have to learn a totally new set of rules to operate in the world. The “we” is as important as the “you” and “me,” and the brain, interestingly, really does encode it that way. So when people say “I feel like I’ve lost part of myself,” that is for a good reason. The brain also feels that way, as it were, and codes the “we” as much as the “you” and the “I.”

On the difference between grief and grieving

Grief is that emotional state that just knocks you off your feet and comes over you like a wave. Grieving necessarily has a time component to it. Grieving is what happens as we adapt to the fact that our loved one is gone, that we’re carrying the absence of them with us. And the reason that this distinction makes sense is, grief is a natural response to loss — so we’ll feel grief forever. A woman who lost her mother as a young person is going to experience that grief on her wedding day because it’s a new moment where she’s having a response to loss.

But “grieving” means that our relationship to that grief changes over time. So the first time, maybe even the first 100 times, you’re knocked off your feet with grief, it feels terrible and awful and unfamiliar. But maybe the 101st time, you think to yourself, “I hate this, I don’t want this to be true. But I do recognize it, and I do know that I will get through the wave.”

On the emotions involved in grieving

The range of emotions that someone experiences when they’re grieving is as long a list as the range of emotions we have in any relationship. Commonly there’s panic, there’s anxiety, there’s sadness, there’s yearning. But what we sometimes forget is that there’s also difficulty concentrating and confusion about what happens next.

I am often struck by the intensity of the emotions. Grief is like someone turned up the volume dial all of a sudden. The emotion that I think often interferes with our relationships and friendships when we’re grieving is anger, because the anger feels so intense. You have someone blow up at a dinner party and you think, “What’s happening with them?” And then to try and remember, “Oh, they’re grieving and everything is amped up a little bit.”

On what is happening in our brains

We have neuroimaging studies basically of grief, of the momentary reaction where you have that emotional yearning experience. There are less than a handful of studies looking at more than one moment in the same person across time — so looking at their grieving trajectory. What we know right now in these early days of the neurobiology of grief is really coming from snapshots.

Having said that, one of the things that we know is that grief is tied to all sorts of different brain functions we have, from being able to recall memories to taking the perspective of another person, to even things like regulating our heart rate and the experience of pain and suffering. So lots of different parts of the brain are orchestrating this experience that we have when we feel grief.

On prolonged grief

When you’re knocked over by that wave of grief, you want to know, “When will this end?” From a research perspective, there is a very small proportion of people who might have what we now call prolonged grief disorder, something we start looking for after six months or a year [after a death or loss]. … And what we are seeing, [in such cases], is that this person has not been able to function day to day the way that they wish that they could. They’re not getting out the door to work or getting dinner on the table for their kids or they’re not able to, say, listen to music because it’s just too upsetting. So these types of concerns … suggest it would be helpful to intervene and get them back on the healing trajectory where they will still feel grief, but they will adapt to it differently.

The older term that we were using for a long time was “complicated grief.” And although prolonged grief disorder is the term we’ve settled on, there’s a reason that I like the term complicated — because it makes you think of complications.

As an example, one of those is the grief-related rumination that people sometimes experience. The better term for that that people will recognize is the “would’ve, should’ve, could’ve” thoughts. And they just roll through your head over and over again. The problem with these thoughts — we sometimes call “counterfactuals” — is that they all end in this virtual scenario where the person doesn’t die. And that’s just not reality. And so, by spinning in these thoughts, not only is there no answer — there are an infinite number of possibilities with no actual answer of what would have happened — but it also isn’t necessarily helping us to adapt to the painful reality that they did die. And so our virtual version is not really helping us to learn how to be in the world now.

It’s less than 10% of people who experience prolonged grief disorder. And what that means is 90% of people experience difficult grief and suffering, but don’t have a disorder after losing a loved one. I think it’s so important to remember that … because we don’t want to hide grief away … in a psychiatrist’s office or a counselor’s office, except in indications where that would be helpful to get people back on track.

On how to support grieving people in your life

I think when you care for someone who is going through this terrible process of losing someone, it really is more about listening to them and seeing where they’re at in their learning than it is about trying to make them feel better. The point is not to cheer them up. The point is to be with them and let them know that you will be with them and that you can imagine a future for them where they’re not constantly being knocked over by the waves of grief.

On losing people to the pandemic

One of the topics I think is not much in the national conversation is that so many of the deaths of our loved ones happened in hospitals, emergency rooms and ICUs — and we weren’t there to see it. And that is for a very good reason, because we were trying to stop the spread of COVID. So having family members in hospitals did not make sense.

But it means that people are without these memories of watching their loved one become more ill and watching those changes that happen in their body that prepare our mind for the possibility that they might die. To go through that process without those memories makes it much harder to learn what has happened. So many people feel it hasn’t really sunk in yet that they’re gone.

What I don’t hear very often is the fact that with COVID, the loved ones that are left behind made the sacrifice of not being with their loved ones in the hospital in order to stop the spread. And that sacrifice needs to be recognized, I think. In part to help people heal, so that it’s understood why they’re having such a difficult time. And to elevate the understanding that they did something for the greater good — and they gave up something while they did it.

Complete Article HERE!

Grief Is Evidence of Love

Yes, mourning is an acknowledgment of loss. But the late scholar bell hooks argued that it is also a way of honoring our commitment to those who have died.

By Kellie Carter Jackson

Fourteen years ago, the day before Thanksgiving, I lost my sister Tracie to breast cancer. She was 37, married, and the mother of three children. I can’t remember what happened the next day—what we ate or who even cooked. Everything was a blur. A couple of days after we laid Tracie to rest, my mother called me. William, my only brother, was being hospitalized. Doctors didn’t know what was wrong, but he couldn’t breathe. I refused to believe that anything bad could happen to him, that the world could be this cruel, this relentless. But four days after he was hospitalized, he died. I had not yet unpacked my bags from Tracie’s funeral. The grief was so overwhelming, so consuming, so mind-boggling that I collapsed. Two weeks after William’s funeral, it was Christmas. My four sisters and I all gathered at my parents’ home. It was like we were sleepwalking. There, but not really present.

As of this holiday season, Americans have lost more than 800,000 people to the pandemic. And the distress that many of us face isn’t always tied to death: Scores are suffering through the loss of homes, income, stability, and security. As the professor Chad Broughton wrote for The Atlantic, “The country is grappling with an onslaught of grief.” When people ask me how my family got through some of the toughest pain we have ever faced, I venture that it was not the passing of time, nor keeping busy, nor social withdrawal. For us, it was community. Our church sent us food for months. Our friends came and stayed with us on a rotating schedule of visitations. Mothers baked home-cooked meals; elders laid hands on us and prayed. Everyone gave care, and we were almost never alone. In the same ways that we shared in celebration of new life, we also came together in death and loss.

That collective process is what bell hooks, the prolific author and Black feminist who died last week at age 69, described in her seminal 2000 book, All About Love. “Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation,” she wrote. “Healing is an act of communion.” hooks urged readers to be disturbed by the Eurocentric approach to individuality, arguing that the warped ethos of attainment without help encourages people to feel fulfilled only when they have accomplished or conquered something alone. Yet one should not seek to conquer grief, because, according to hooks, grief in its most basic form is an expression of love. Grief is an acknowledgment of loss, yes, but it is also a way of honoring our commitment to those who have passed on.

Initially, I hadn’t wanted to talk about my siblings’ death. And many times when I did, I was quick to qualify the circumstances, to explain their diseases for fear of some racist stigma being projected onto them. I often felt that racism was going to hijack the sympathy that some acquaintances and strangers would have otherwise had for me. I feared people asking, “You had two siblings die, to what, gun violence? AIDS?” For many Black people, the cause of death is a measurement of how much compassion should be shown; somehow even in death we must be respectable. But hooks wrote that “love knows no shame. To be loving is to be open to grief, to be touched by sorrow, even sorrow that is unending. The way we grieve is informed by whether we know love.” I no longer have shame regarding my siblings’ deaths, only regret that, at one point, I did.

What hooks gave me was the language to understand grieving and healing as radical, communal acts. “Love invites us to grieve for the dead as ritual of mourning and as celebration,” she wrote. “We need not contain grief when we use it as a means to intensify our love for the dead and dying, for those who remain alive.” hooks condemned the capitalist patriarchy that prizes domination and categorizes love as weak; she framed love as powerful simply because it doesn’t seek power. Her work prioritizes human vulnerability and suffering, positing that through connection we can find the antidote to pain.

This holiday season, I will commune with my husband and my children—my son, who shares William’s name, and my two daughters, one of whom shares Tracie’s birthday. We will gather with loved ones and ones in need of love, and affirm the beauty of shared lives. “Only love can heal the wounds of the past,” hooks wrote. Fourteen years later, I know that she was right. My grief will always be unending, because so is my love.

Complete Article HERE!