BU Alumni Web

Bostonia: The Alumni Magazine of Boston University

Winter-Spring 2010 Table of Contents

Good Grief

| From Alumni Books | By Susan Seligson

The Five Ways We Grieve: Finding Your Personal Path to Healing After the Loss of a Loved One (Shambala Publications)

Although no two people grieve the death of a loved one in precisely the same way, the self-help canon produces a steady stream of manuals — sometimes enlightening but largely predictable — peppered with the jargon of loss, from “healing” to “closure.” In her crisply written guide, social worker Berger takes the genre a step further by dividing people mourning a loss into a series of types. There are the nomads, adrift in their unresolved grief; the memorialists, who channel their loss into tributes; normalizers, who instead of retreating, thrive on the embrace of family and community; activists, who reach out to others suffering from the disease or circumstances that led to their loved ones’ deaths; and finally the seekers, whose loss triggers a spiritual quest for solace and meaning. Woven throughout with often heartbreaking stories of real people and the varied losses they’ve endured, Berger’s book, which draws on years of research and clinical practice, offers validation as well as comfort; she hopes that by identifying with one of the five types, readers will feel more self-aware and less alone.

You Asked, We Answered
Readers took advantage of our invitation to ask Susan Berger about dealing with grief. Here are some of those questions, along with Berger's responses. .

QI have found many texts deal with the grief caused by death, but what about other kinds of grief? Do you believe that people experience and recover from it in similar ways? — Amy (SED'04)

AYes, you are right, Amy. There are many kinds of losses besides death:

-- Relationship losses (e.g. divorce),
-- Developmental losses (e.g. parents who have children with disabilities often suffer "living loss" of hopes and dreams for their child that will never be fully realized).
-- Children and grandchildren who lose an elderly loved one to Alzheimer’s or other dementias and physical disabilities like strokes. They are physically alive but not 'present' or aware, or change personalities, etc.
-- People who lose a body part or physical capacity (e.g. war veterans, accident victims, elders who lose their physical capacities, yet may remain very mentally acute)
--Victims of violence and trauma, physical, emotional and sexual abuse also lose their "innocence," sense of safety and security, and "wholeness."
--There are also losses of pets, sometimes our closest friends and companions.
-- Natural disasters (like those we have seen this year and in prior years) when people lose their homes, their treasured objects, photos and scrapbooks of memories and significant events. These, too, can never be recaptured.

What all of these kinds of losses have in common is the disruption of their lives in significant ways. As a result, they lose their identity, the sense of who they are, in their former environment.

QMy husband had a major stroke in his 60's and has been in a nursing home for 2 1/2 years. Although he is alert and aware, he has major physical disabilities and I cannot care for him at home. He tests at superior intelligence but no longer has executive abilities or insight and needs a great deal of care. I have a business career, am a ballet dancer, sing in a church choir, and I’m on several boards as well as being a longtime garden club member. My life is full. I visit him every day as he is nearby. I am blessed with wonderful children and grandchildren and live in a community West of Boston. I am doing my best to come to terms with carving a new life and this is difficult, complex, and costly and for which I was not ready. We thought we had it all but it all changed. I am now essentially alone. As a married woman, I fall between the cracks in our society in my situation on a journey of loss. How do I change this path? — Anonymous (CAS'66)

AI am so sorry for the tragedy of your husband's stroke. These experiences can seriously disrupt the "narrative" of our lives. It seems that you are doing well to continue on with the activities you enjoy, and I assume, care for your husband's welfare as well.

When you lose a loved one - even though your husband is alive - you lose your identity and the life you had together. It is a "living loss" which must be grieved (for him and for you and your family). I would suggest the following:

1. You find a support group for caregivers and family members of people who have experienced significant changes in their relationships and lives. Check in local newspapers or online for support groups at hospitals and churches and synagogues. Also, there is, I believe, an organization for stroke victims and their families, where you could find people with whom you share this experience. Having support of others is very important in your grieving process. You can learn from others and obtain comfort knowing you are not alone.

2. There is a concept called "anticipatory grieving" that acknowledges the loss and allows you to feel the pain. It is important that you allow yourself to feel your emotions (sadness, fear, anger, guilt), and work them through so you can go on with your life with strength, dignity, and freedom from any "unfinished business." If you have trouble with doing this, you might want to see a grief counselor to help you. I would extend this advice to your family members, too.

Sometimes the reality of your changed life doesn't really hit you for months or years, but it is best to confront your new reality than to deny it. My book, The Five Ways We Grieve, offers many examples of how others have done so successfully.

QI am part of a non-profit which runs an annual weekend grief camp for children 8-13. Do you have any suggestions for us? What do you think is the most important issue these children need to express/discuss? How can we be most efficient in helping them? Thank you. — Sharon (SED'86)

A Hello Sharon, I have heard about such camps — what a wonderful program for grieving children! Many communities also have centers for grieving children where they can go to continue their grieving with professionals, if necessary.

There are many books that address children and grief. Most libraries have a selection. They often consider the child's stage of development, cognitively and emotionally, since there is a difference, for example, between an 8-year-old's understanding of death and a 13-year-old's.

In general, children of all ages need to feel safe and secure, that their lives -- where they live, their friends and activities-- won't change significantly. Since families are the primary support for children, find out from the surviving parent what actually happened, where the child was and how it was handled (e.g. go to the funeral? Ask questions about where mommy or daddy went, and what answers they were given, etc.), what changes might happen, so you can help the child prepare for them.

Ask them to tell you their stories (as much as they can express, verbally and physically) about how their parent died, how they felt, such as "scared, sad, mad, guilty." They sometimes feel they are somehow responsible and you can assure them otherwise. Does your program offer groups for children to share their feelings together? This can be very healing, because the kids feel they aren't alone or different, and have other kids who understand them.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. Please check out my book, The Five Ways We Grieve, for more information about grief and other resources for help. And thank you for your dedication to helping these children. I believe they will definitely benefit.

QAs a clinical social worker myself, I work primarily with brain injury and stroke survivors who are clearly grieving their "loss" of self and working to find new meaning and purpose in their lives. Do you explore non-death related grief work in your book? Families too are grieving and need new ways to process this "living grief." Very interested in your comments, thank you. — Sally Johnson (SSW'78)

A Hello Sally, Thank you so much for your interest in my book and its application to the "living losses" people suffer (both the victim and the family member).

I have stories of survivors of loss due to Alzheimer's (living loss), alcoholism (emotional abandonment), various diseases, war and disasters (societal loss), in my attempt to identify loss as resulting from many causes.

You are so right in recognizing the "loss of self" and the search for new identity and meaning reconstruction as essential tasks of grieving. Also how family members' lives are also forever changed. One of the stories cited a teenaged son's comments of the family's life going from "riches to rags."

My book is unique in demonstrating the lifelong impact of loss on survivors, and illustrates how most people adapt successfully through one of the five identities. Most grief books focus primarily on the immediate and short-term impact, leaving survivors to figure out how to live their lives on their own. I propose that hope and love are essential for survivors' adaptation, (more than just coping and adjusting to their significant life changes).

Please let me know if my thoughts have been validating and helpful. Feel free to share it with your colleagues — and clients! :)

Best of luck in doing your important work.

QI’m wondering if you have specific thoughts on losing grandparents. We often hear that it is easier to lose someone who is old, has lived a full life, may have been suffering due to a disease. And it is easier than the sudden loss of someone way too young. However, losing grandparents is hard, and obviously we can't join the cause of fighting old age to help us get over it. Any special thoughts on this? — Robin (UNI'99)

A Hello Robin,
You are so right that in our society, which values youth more than the wisdom of age, many people don't view the death of a grandparent or elderly person as significant. The fracturing of the extended family has also contributed to isolating rather than integrating older persons into the family unit.

My book, The Five Ways We Grieve, discusses grandparents from two perspectives: a granddaughter who adored her grandfather, and a grandmother grieving the loss of a grandchild, and feeling a "double loss" of hurting for her daughter's grief as well.

Grandparents often give grandchildren a special kind of unconditional love that can positively shape a child's sense of safety and security, essential to healthy development. Conversely, a grandchild can give their grandparents a special kind of love, sometimes a sense of purpose for their lives as they grow old.

I hope these thoughts provide you some comfort in your grief.

QMy wife has terminal brain cancer. Doctors predict she has 18 months. I’m not sure how to discuss this with our 19-year old son. Our older son is well aware of the circumstances, he's 26. I am afraid that the 19-year-old (Andrew) is in denial and then he will be hurt and feel guilty after Mom is gone. I'm looking for advice on how to discuss her prognosis with Andrew. We've been dancing around the issue and I have not said specifically to Andrew that Mom is dying, although I think he is aware at some level. — Richard Menard (CGS'72)

A Dear Richard, First, let me express my sadness to hear about your wife's terminal illness. Your family will face seeing your wife's painful decline in functioning in the coming months. It is important to be as prepared as possible — physically, emotionally, and spiritually — in the following ways:

Everyone grieves differently. Learn as much as you can through the excellent online resources about the course of this illness. Share this information with your son as a way of helping him to accept the reality of his mother's impending death. This process is called "anticipatory grieving," getting ready for her passing. If he wants to talk to a grief counselor (or other confidante), help him find this help. If he'd like to attend a bereavement support group, explore where they might be in the community.

Stress the point that no one can go through the loss of a loved one by themselves. Everyone needs support. It is a sign of strength to ask for help.

Encourage both of your sons to have as much contact as possible with their mother. This should involve face-to-face visits as well as phone calls or emails. Since I have no information about your wife's current level of functioning, you will have to decide what is the best approach.

If your wife is able to speak with your younger son directly, it will be valuable to encourage them to talk about the experiences they have shared over the years, including some funny memories if they have them. Other ideas can be her memories of him growing up, his activities (e.g. school, sports, friends, etc.), and accomplishments. Similarly, he can be encouraged to remember pleasant experiences they had from his perspective.

Talking together and being together as a family is also really important now. Live in the moment, and appreciate the time you have together, whether this is staying at home or going out.

Discuss with your wife and sons what plans might be made when she becomes sicker. How would you all like to see her being cared for:

--Should she stay at home with the help of family members, friends, home health care or other professionals?

-- Or, should she go to a hospice?

For grieving to be healthy, everyone should "feel the pain" rather than cover it up or pretend you're not sad. Beyond this, let your son express his sadness in ways that are meaningful to him. For example, does he play a musical instrument he'd like to use at the funeral? Does he like writing down his thoughts? Or would he want to "punch a punching bag," or kick a pillow, acting out his pain in an aggressive way (more common in males).

Finally, we all need to say goodbye to our loved one to have a sense of closure. You and your sons (perhaps other family members) can be at her bedside when she expires.

Most important is to communicate as much as you can with each other. Keep the door "open," and share all the feelings — sadness, fear, anger – you have together.

Keep in mind that when we lose someone we love, we also have the potential to grow to understand others' suffering, and become a wiser and more life-affirming person.

I hope these ideas are helpful to you. Good luck as you go through this new journey in your life.

QThis fall my mother passed away unexpectedly. I find myself coping with all the tasks and duties related to settling her estate but I have yet to actually come to terms with what happened (we were on a trip together when she got sick). I went to South Africa for the month of February, just to have a change of scenery and grieve, but have been unable to allow myself to take the time to accept it. I am not depressed but know that it is an unresolved issue which I don't care to talk about with family or friends. Any suggestions on how to move on after this sadness? — Eileen (GRS'84)

A Hello Eileen,

I am sorry about your mother's sudden death. Sometimes, the unexpected loss is harder to absorb than other ways of dying and it can take longer to accept the reality. From what you say, it seems that you are in the initial state of grief when people are in shock, feel numb, go through the motions of doing what has to be done, but don't believe their loved one is gone. Changing your environment as you did was unsuccessful because you are not yet "feeling the pain" of your mother's death.

It is also true that many people aren't really "hit" with the reality for six months (which is about the time frame you are describing).

In my book, I call those with unresolved grief "nomads," unable to focus or make any meaning of their loss. Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Do you feel lost and you don't know who you are anymore? When we lose a loved one we lose our identity, as a daughter, and perhaps a friend?

2. Why do you not want to talk with family or friends about your feelings?

3. Was there any "unfinished business" between your mother and you that you might be avoiding?

I suggest in my book that telling your story is one of the first steps to healing. Pent-up energy needs release. Unresolved feelings of guilt, anger, sadness, etc. are such examples. Exercise, meditation, acupuncture, can also help.

If you are still feeling the way you are now by the anniversary of your mother's death, I believe you would benefit from seeing a grief counselor who can help guide you through the grieving process.

I hope these suggestions are helpful.

Print: Print this Article


Email: Email this Article

The content of this field is not retained.

Enter multiple email addresses separated with commas.


On 10 March 2010 at 1:30 PM, Jen Miller (CAS'99) wrote:

I have read this book it is a great resource to people going through a loss.

Ask the Expert

Through March, Susan A. Berger (CAS’67, SSW’75) will take your questions about dealing with grief. Some questions and answers will be posted above.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Which is lightest? elephant, cat, moon, tissue

Persons who post comments are solely responsible for the content of their messages. Bostonia reserves the right to delete or edit messages.