Grieving Right

Grieving right

Thought I'd bring in the new year with a few words about renewal.

Many of you have been to the movies this past week so undoubtedly you've seen that preview for the movie Freedom Writers about the kids in So-Cal who are in school and have a new teacher who makes them face their feelings about losing friends to gang warfare.

She asks, "Step up to the line if you've lost one friend to gang violence."

They all step up to the line.

"How many have lost two?"

Nobody moves.


Nobody moves.


This is a subject that touches most of us because these are young people we're talking about who shoot one another, mainly out of stupidity.

It affects yours truly who hears only a couple of stories like that a year, but they're a couple of stories too many. What I see is that it's very hard for kids to grieve. They don't like it and they don't know how to do it right.

And since so many of them are already using drugs and alcohol, they're able to avoid the whole nasty business.

But it's NOT a nasty business, really.

Grieving even has it's own diagnostic classification. Sure, it's one of the various "depressions" (I've talked about the fact that depression varies.) But it has its own name, Grief Reaction.

I'll say. Most docs and clinicians treat it altogether differently than we treat other depressions.

Although docs like me prefer to treat the other depressions using a cognitive-behavioral therapy, meaning we LOOK FORWARD, attack irrational thoughts, and encourage behaviors that shake up the seratonin in the brain,

grief reactions require that patients to LOOK BACK. We exacerbate, exaggerate the grieving. We INCREASE the feel bad.


Well, yeah. We kick it up.

See, you CAN'T kick it down. No matter what you do, outside of numbing yourself with drugs and alcohol which will retard both you and this sublime process.

Barring that, you can't avoid feeling badly when you lose someone you love. It's why many of us avoid recommending anti-depressants, too, during the first year following a loss.

You can't avoid feeling badly because you have too many memories. This is how we're wired, by the way. It means

(1) We have too many neurons attached to visuals and other senses associated with that person, senses like touch. Being alone means not FEELING that person anymore.

(2) We have too many sad thoughts to avoid feeling bad, including memories of events, guilt about things we did and didn't do.

(3) We have other emotions that squeeze into our psyche, like anger and anxiety for having been abandoned.

All of that gray matter, the sensory memories, the thoughts, the memories of events, the onslaught of emotion add up to an intellectual conclusion of LOSS.

You're going to feel bad.

So you can't avoid it. What else can you do but surrender?

Family therapists have always encouraged family members to get together to REMEMBER.

We tell folks to talk about those who are no longer with them and to establish rituals to that will help, like calling one another near the birthdays and anniversaries of the deceased, calling each other on their own birthdays and anniversaries, writing virtual letters to the person who passes away and reading them to each other, visiting the cemetary, giving charity or establishing other remembrances.

Most cultures already have such rituals in place.

It's particularly healing to work on relationships within the family, to renew or to establish, sometimes for the first time, some family intimacy. I tell the children of a widow, for example, to call their mother more often, and to call one another more often. Just check in. It'll feel good.

Ironically, many things can interfere with the grieving process. Things happen that take us away from our grief, like work and school. And psychologically, people can't focus on remembering the deceased all day and all night.

Sometimes they even find themselves happy.

This really messes with their minds.

They feel guilty. "How can I be happy? We just buried him last month? How can I be laughing?" Then they'll make themselves feel badly about feeling good, which is pretty easy to do, face it.

TherapyDoc's philosophy here may seem a little on the edge, but hear me out.

Like I said, you can't avoid grieving. You can't avoid feeling badly. You're going to grieve for the rest of your life, on and off, for those who have departed.

It's okay to feel good.

It's MORE than okay to feel good. It's GOOD to feel good if you feel good.

Don't worry. You'll feel bad. There's time.

You want to feel good (when it happens you know it) because when you're depressed, really depressed, it's hard to do anything productive. It's hard to live decently. That's okay for awhile. I mean we can all go a few days without bathing, and we can all stand to lose a little weight, and it's no big deal if we blow off school or work for a little while. Some of this is inevitable.

But grief work, which is somehow keeping memories alive and using those memories in a positive way, requires social interaction. You can't start a foundation if you're in bed.

So really grieving right requires a little effort and energy, and it's hard to have both when you're depressed every waking minute.

Grieving right implies remembering, making phone calls, talking to others about the deceased, reviving a person's life so that it has meaning and can be remembered by others with honor.

Grieving right is continuing as a positive force in the social universe when someone else is unable to do so. Because where there is life, there's hope.

And maybe it's good to communicate that to others, ultimately help others who suffer in one way or another. We're still here. What are we doing with our lives?

So I don't know what Freedom Writers is going to be about, but I'm hoping it's that. If you're still here, if you're the survivor, it's an awesome responsibility.

And no, being that positive force in the universe won't happen over night, but it will if you have it in mind that that is what you want to be.

The P.S. I forgot this part. I've been wanting to write this stuff for a long time and indeed, Freedom Writers gets the credit for pushing me to do it. But there's something else about grieving that people often get wrong.

They attach too much meaning and time to WHAT HAPPENED, the how's and wherefores of a death. Especially if it was tragic or violent. Tragic, violent deaths make GREAT copy. Folks can talk about the event for years and years, never once mentioning the life.

Death is horrific enough, rarely dignified and certainly not glorious. We can analyze the last hours and days an elderly person suffered in a hospital ad nauseum at a wake or a house of shiva. It's amazing how many times survivors tell the story, and it helps them, I'm sure, to integrate the loss in the psyche.

It helps distract everyone, really, from describing who that person was which is harder, much more difficult.

Distraction is good to a point. We don't take away the umbrella until it stops raining.

But it's a person's life that matters, not the endpoint. It's everything up until the end that is worth remembering. That's what I like to think about.

Copyright 2006, TherapyDoc


Becky said…
thanks for this great post, especially for New Year's day when people might be "resolving" to "get over it."

On that note...what about ambivelent grief like divorce and the other assorted broken friendships that result from that? Does it work the same way with the remembering part?

Just wondering...
Therapy Doc said…
Broken friendships. Divorce. Another subject entirely and I'll post on it this month, okay?

But in a couple of words, Yes and No. The treatment is very different but the attachment is the same, sometimes worse because those people are still alive and yet they're still not available (I'm assuming that's what you mean).
Mark said…
I believe we all grieve in our own way and that sometimes our grieving process may be different then our cultures expectations of the grieving process and this creates unnessecary conflict.
If we could come to understand that we should celebrate the deceased's life and be thankful for how that person touched us and others then our grieving process would have a more positve impact on our life.
I agree the loss of someone can leave a massive hole in our life, a space which can never be filled. The key is to remember and celebrate the life that is lost and by doing so enhance your own life and all whom you touch.