I remember the summer nearly three years after my father had died. I was taking a college course on family dynamics and was writing a paper on the members of my family. As I was writing about him, I was suddenly “overcome with grief.” I understood what was happening so I pushed back from the computer and let the sadness engulf me. I sobbed for about a minute until the feeling subsided. I had mourned for my father after he died, but this was different – the intensity was profound, the time brief, and the result was like having a large burden taken off my shoulders. I never repeated that experience, but I don’t think I needed to. It was the final gut wrenching reaction to his death and I was finally at peace.
In the same vein, I had a mother and her twelve-year-old daughter as clients. Their whose husband/father died unexpectedly after a lengthy operation. A favorite place the family liked to go was to the beach on South Padre. After mourning for a few months, they decided that it was time to go back to this favored place. The mother reported to me later that they started walking along the beach in the morning and it was beautiful – a gentle breeze was blowing, the ocean was gently washing upon the beach, the sky was blue with a few puffy clouds, and being spring, the weather was warm but not hot. As they walked along, sadness began to wash over them as if it were a wave from the sea. Together they cried, remembered their husband/father and acknowledged their love for him and for each other. After a short time, the feeling was exhausted and they proceeded on their walk with more joy than they ever imagined they would have again.
These and other similar client experiences I have been privy to illustrate that the most effective way to work with the pain is to be with it, to become intimate with it, to embrace it. Being with that pain, either in the company of others or by ourselves, gives us the opportunity to experience it fully and to learn the lessons it offers. Some people find that it is best for them to share what is happening to them with others. Others find that they work best by doing their work alone. These are two different styles of mourning. The important thing is not so much how we do our work, it’s that we do it.
Of course, as with all aspects of life, there needs to be balance. To work incessantly on our pain is no better for us than is our attempt to reject it. Constant grief work, in the words of Robert Neimeyer, is like staring at the sun without blinking – it is harmful. Non-stop ruminating can send us into a downward spiral that is hard to come out of. The most effective mourning involves balancing active grief work with “mini-vacations.” By “mini-vacations,” I mean striving to reorient ourselves to the practical tasks of everyday living that need our attention. It is an outward focus balancing the inward focus. Stroebe and Stroebe, two Dutch researchers, have written extensively about the need for mourners to oscillate between immersing themselves in their grief work and distancing themselves from it to address practical needs – attending to the requirements of daily life, doing new things, taking on new roles, addressing life changes, etc.
While they are working through their pain, some people get frustrated that each day is not better than the day before. It seems sometimes we go two steps forward and one step back or even one step forward and two steps back. A good analogy to this aspect of mourning is a rollercoaster. A rollercoaster has its ups and downs – each high point leads to a new low point which itself leads to a new high point, and so on with each new high and each new low is not quite as high or low as the last one. The ride slowly levels out until it is flat at the end. Mourning is similar in that there are alternating “highs” and “lows” of grief reactions, but with continued work over time, the ups and downs become less extreme.
Many people have asked me how long mourning should take – six months, one year, two years, five years, forever. In a way that is like asking how long a piece of string is – it is as long as it needs to be to get the job done. In many ways, mourning does last a lifetime. At first, we feel the suffocating weight of our grief, but with continued work, the burden becomes lighter until it reaches a manageable level. Eventually, the grief gets to a very low level, but it is never extinguished. After all, we loved someone who was an integral part of our lives. That person had an affect on us that will never go away, so why would we think we would ever forget him/her? There will always be some sadness, some feeling of loss, some missing of him/her, but mixed in will also be thankfulness for having the privilege of loving and having been loved. Our loved ones may no longer be with us physically, but they will always be with us in our hearts, sometimes closer than when they were alive. The death of the body does not mean the death of love!
In conclusion, working through the pain of loss is hard work emotionally, physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually. However, it can also be fruitful, transformative work as we re-integrate our loved ones into our heart, establish a new relationship with them, and get our head and our heart back in synch.