Grief ex­perts help us nav­i­gate life af­ter a death

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Front Page - BY VIBHU GAIROLA IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY LYNN SCURFIELD

ON OC­TO­BER 7, 2015, be­fore the sun had risen at home in Canada, I was awo­ken by a phone call dur­ing which I learned one of my dear­est friends had died. Ja­cob had been a school­mate at my ju­nior col­lege in Sin­ga­pore. I’d been drawn to his gar­gan­tuan per­son­al­ity, im­pec­ca­ble bak­ing skills and love for his pals. At 25, his heart had sud­denly stopped beat­ing.

While friends in Sin­ga­pore planned for the wake and how best to sup­port his family, I hap­lessly apol­o­gized for not be­ing able to af­ford a flight back. I felt numb but some­how still func­tional. I’d dealt with loss in my family be­fore, but Ja­cob’s death was unique: he was the first out of my cho­sen family of friends to die. All of us shared the sense of im­mense loss, but I felt alone in my strug­gle with it, be­cause I was miles away from the rest of the group.

The fact is, while grief it­self might be uni­ver­sal, it tends to iso­late more than it unites and can make you

un­sure about how to process your feel­ings. Thank­fully, be­reave­ment pro­fes­sion­als of­fer in­sights that can help us come to terms with loss.

Iden­ti­fy­ing Your Grief Re­sponse

While re­ac­tions to death will dif­fer from per­son to per­son, the first step for ev­ery­one should be an at­tempt to un­der­stand the na­ture of your own sit­u­a­tion.

“Grief is your in­ter­nal re­sponse to loss,” says Dr. Alan Wolfelt, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Loss & Life Tran­si­tion in Fort Collins, Colorado. Af­ter some­one dies, he ex­plains, grief presents it­self as a con­stel­la­tion of feel­ings that can range from sad­ness to shock to dis­ori­en­ta­tion to anger. Most of­ten, it is ex­pressed in pre­dictable ways, be they phys­i­cal (loss of ap­petite, in­som­nia or dif­fi­culty con­cen­trat­ing) or emo­tional (yearn­ing, re­gret or even relief ). “There are dif­fer­ent di­men­sions of re­sponse to loss unique to the in­di­vid­ual and im­pacted by the cir­cum­stances of the death and the re­la­tion­ship to the per­son who has died,” says Wolfelt.

Iden­ti­fy­ing your par­tic­u­lar re­ac­tion to los­ing a loved one will help you de­cide what tools you need to nav­i­gate it. But what­ever that may be, Wolfelt stresses you should not feel badly for hav­ing in­tense re­ac­tions. A grief coun­sel­lor can help you be­gin to pay at­ten­tion to the ar­eas that need a bit more work. “Emo­tions need mo­tion,” he says. “Mourn­ing puts your emo­tions into mo­tion, and they will usu­ally soften over time.”

Rec­on­cil­ing With the Loss

When go­ing through grief, it’s com­mon to look for­ward to a time when the pain will com­pletely dis­ap­pear, but at least one ex­pert in the field sug­gests a dif­fer­ent goal.

“A lot of peo­ple feel like they’re not do­ing grief ‘right’ be­cause they’re not at­tain­ing this so-called ‘clo­sure,’ and we need to re­frame these ex­pec­ta­tions,” says An­drea War­nick, a reg­is­tered psy­chother­a­pist and grief coun­sel­lor based in Toronto. “I’m not try­ing to help any­one ‘get over’ or ‘move on’ from any­one who has died.”

In­stead, she helps peo­ple stay con­nected with the de­ceased. Com­fort with talk­ing about the dead and re­mem­ber­ing them is a sign that the loss has been in­te­grated into your life and is less likely to cre­ate bar­ri­ers to in­ti­macy or psy­cho­so­matic dis­tress mov­ing for­ward. War­nick sug­gests al­low­ing your­self to miss the de­ceased and even em­brace re­minders of the per­son. Some­times, she says, it’s help­ful for the be­reaved to ad­dress any un­fin­ished busi­ness with the dead by writ­ing a let­ter to them.

War­nick also pre­pares her clients for “grief bursts,” sud­den rushes of emo­tion trig­gered by scents, foods or

places associated with the de­ceased. Some­times, War­nick says, “They come out of the blue, with no ob­vi­ous trig­gers.” She em­pha­sizes that these surges are com­pletely nat­u­ral and noth­ing to worry about. “We’re not try­ing to mit­i­gate those feel­ings. If you’re in the car and the per­son’s favourite song comes on, pull over and al­low your­self to weep.” Breath­ing and mind­ful­ness tech­niques, she adds, can also help in these mo­ments.

These floods come fur­ther apart as time passes, they may never dis­ap­pear. “If you talk to an 80-year-old woman whose child died 60 years ago, she’s still go­ing to be griev­ing,” War­nick says. “‘Time heals all’ is in­ac­cu­rate.”

Find­ing a Cir­cle of Sup­port

Grief and mourn­ing are words of­ten used in­ter­change­ably, but Wolfelt says there’s an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion be­tween the two. The for­mer, he ex­plains, is a per­sonal re­ac­tion to loss, while mourn­ing “is the ex­ter­nal, shared re­sponse, or what I’d call ‘grief gone pub­lic.’” Mourn­ing be­gins with cer­e­monies like funerals and wakes. As hard as it is, see­ing a supine, life­less body is some­times the only thing that makes the un­real real. “You may know it in­tel­lec­tu­ally but not emo­tion­ally or spir­i­tu­ally,” Wolfelt says. “And a big part of mourn­ing is in­te­grat­ing that loss from your head to your heart.”

These events also pro­vide a con­text within which to share mem­o­ries of the de­parted, val­i­date your grief and ac­cess a com­mu­nity that pre­vents you from feel­ing iso­lated. That as­sis­tance, says Wolfelt, shouldn’t end there. “In what I call a buck-up, move-on cul­ture, we can’t iden­tify peo­ple who are griev­ing,” he says, adding that it’s con­se­quently im­por­tant for them to seek on­go­ing sup­port. Those look­ing for groups can con­tact their lo­cal hos­pi­tal or use on­line re­sources like the Cana­dian Vir­tual Hos­pice at my­

For im­mi­grants like me, reg­u­lar jet-set­ters and mem­bers of fam­i­lies spread out across many coun­tries, dis­tance is a com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor be­cause it iso­lates us from the com­mu­ni­ties where heal­ing would be­gin. Griev­ing with­out the friends I’d had in Sin­ga­pore meant I had to take tiny steps alone, and I never con­sid­ered reach­ing out to a sup­port group or re­ly­ing on close friends in Canada who didn’t know Ja­cob. Look­ing back, I wish I had done those things. Fi­nally, af­ter many years, I’m ready to take that leap.



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