Processing Grief

   One of the greatest blessings of my frequent commutes to and from and between offices is that I get to enjoy the gorgeous scenery along these rural highways. I get to see lush green hillsides, beautifully manicured nurseries, farms with cattle grazing in pastures, and barns that proudly display their own unique characters.

   The other day as I was driving to one of my offices, tears started to well up in my eyes. I knew instantly that they were connected to memories of my dad when he and I would be traveling along country roads and enjoying the beautiful scenery. These memories are some of the most precious I have of my relationship with my dad. I also had some gospel music playing on the radio. This just further opened the floodgates of tears. My dad Tom Normand was a journalist and an avid listener of gospel music's cousins, bluegrass and country. This is likely one of the reasons he was attracted to my mom Hayley, a country music singer and songwriter. But what I couldn’t understand is why more than 13 years after my dad's death was I suddenly, out of the blue, sobbing almost uncontrollably.

It is not that I have grieved every day since he died. I did grieve intensely every day for the first year after his death and nearly every day for the following two years. But after that, I was able to go for longer and longer periods of time in which I didn’t notice much grief. I would still remember my dad, but the grief was not as intense. So why now?

   Such is the mystery of grief! Perhaps it was triggered by the recent passing of the father of friend and colleague from COVID-19. Perhaps it was triggered by recently visiting the grave of my "Uncle Ben," who was like a brother to my dad and his best friend. Perhaps it was triggered by memories of my deceased parents-in-law Grady and Juanita--memories that were triggered by seeing neighbors laughing as they were having friends and family over, just as my parents-in-law often did at Christmas and other times. And perhaps these memories were also triggered by the passing of my dear cat Thomasina, who in her old age required the care-giving skills of my husband Scott and me, as did my mother-in-law in her latter years.

   What I can say about this season, though, is that I finally have peace regarding my dad's death. This is a kind of peace that comes with the "acceptance" stage of grief. It is a peace that usually comes with the passage of time. It is a piece that I can't explain, the "peace of God, which passeth all understanding" as described by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:7.

Stages of Grief

   The "stages of grief" refer to the "Kübler-Ross Model," outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross' book, now a classic, focused on stages of grief experienced by terminally ill patients.

Her stages consisted of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Other stages, such as shock and guilt, have also been suggested through the years. The stages now refer mostly to experiences of survivors of the deceased. A person may not necessarily experience all stages, and the stages do not not necessarily come in any particular order. However, they often relate to one another, and a person may cycle through the stages more than once.

The first stage is often "shock," which is a stage I am experiencing now upon hearing the news of a friend's recent passing from COVID-19. Whether the person died suddenly or after a chronic illness, there is likely going to be some level of shock. This may result in extreme anxiety and even panic. As a defense mechanism, many may repress these negative emotional memories, shifting into a state of "denial."

   As the person wrestles with both denial and reality, he or she might "work out" these conflicts through dreams about the deceased in which the person is sometimes alive and sometimes dead. The person grieving may start to experience irrational guilt, making comments such as "If only I had ..., then he/she might still be here." This is also the mind's way of "bargaining," although it is too late to reverse the situation. If the person is still alive but imminently dying, bargaining might sound more like, "If I do this, then he/she might live" or "God, I will try to be a better follower of Christ if you let him/her live." As the person's efforts at bargaining fail, the person may become intensely angry or at least irritable, snapping at others. As denial gives way to reality, the person often falls into despair and experiences a profound sadness. This can lead to "depression." After a period of sadness, the person generally moves toward "acceptance."

Healthy and unhealthy coping

   Many try to find ways to cope with the pain of grief. These coping mechanism can be healthy or unhealthy. If you are going through the journey of grief, here are some suggestions for both healthy coping and avoiding unhealthy coping.

Healthy: Lean into your faith and seek spiritual guidance from a pastor, especially if you are struggling in your faith. Surround yourself by those with whom you feel "emotionally safe" and build a support system with them. This is especially important during the holidays, when grief can intensify. Take walks, spend time in nature, and be intentional about allowing yourself "time" to grieve. Journal about your feelings or write a "letter" to your loved one sharing what you would say if he or she were still here. Find ways to honor and remember your lost loved one, such as creating a collage, scrapbook, or shadow box with photos and mementos of that person. Other therapeutic activities may include eating your loved one's favorite food, listening to your loved one's favorite songs, or visiting places your loved one liked to visit. If you have an artistic gift, you might channel this energy into creating a piece of art or writing music that honors your loved one. Another great way to honor your loved one is to support a cause that was dear to your loved one's heart. This could be financially or by volunteering.

Unhealthy coping

   These coping methods should be avoided. They can complicate and prolong grief. Some turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain or engage in other risky behaviors. Some cope by having fits of rage. Widows or widowers may quickly start other intimate relationships to try to avoid the loneliness. Others isolate themselves. And some immerse themselves in work to avoid the pain. Some have to work and must compartmentalize their feelings in order to function at work. This, in and of itself, is not unhealthy. But it becomes unhealthy if the person never acknowledges and works through the pain, even in settings where it is safe to do so. And in the cases of traumatic death such as car accidents, house fires, shootings, etc., incessantly watching the news can re-traumatize a person and intensify the pain. This is particularly relevant to those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 and are surrounded by media coverage of the disease.

When to get help

   Grief may take many forms. It doesn't always involve the loss of a loved one. It can occur with divorce, loss of job/career or ministry, or the loss of anything that holds deep meaning for a person. Grief may also be what we call "complicated" or "complex" grief. This is when grief involves multiple losses and/or results in symptoms of clinical concern. This often happens with traumatic grief, or grief that involves the traumatic death of a loved one, and/or when there were unresolved issues in the relationship with the deceased. It can also happen when "sadness" turns into "depression." If you are experiencing any of the following with your grief, you might consider seeking professional help.

1) Disbelief or emotional numbness regarding the death

2) Intense anger related to the loss

3) Extreme guilt and self-blame

4) Confusion about one's role in life or identity

5) Feeling as if life is meaningless without the deceased

6) Feeling alone or detached

7) Unable to enjoy activities that normally bring pleasure

8) Difficulty functioning and carrying out activities of daily living

9) A desire to be with the deceased

10) Preoccupation with circumstances surrounding the death

11) Excessive avoidance of reminders of the loss

12) Difficulty trusting others since the death of the deceased

13) Excessive worry about those who are still living

14) Nightmares about the deceased that cause significant distress in the waking state

With the help of a mental health professional, you can begin to heal from the pain and despair that come with these life-altering losses.

~Suzanne

Rutherford Counselors

Deanna Fullerton, M.A. ( Eagles Rest Counseling )

Licensed Clinical Pastoral Counselor

Murfreesboro, TN. 37130

email: deanna@eaglesrestcounseling.com

615-235-7035

Kim Turner, M.A. ( Birds on a Wire Counseling )

Murfreesboro, TN. 37130

email: birdsonawire@att.net

615-547-3214

Branches Counseling

Murfreesboro, TN 37130

email: info.branchescounselingcenter.com

615-904-7170

Counselors Outside Rutherford

Rockhouse Center

Brentwood, TN

www.rockhousecenter.com

615-396-0668

Agape Counseling

8 Locations across Middle Tennessee

www.agapenashville.org/counseling

615-781-3000

Helpfull Links

Suicide Prevention Lifeline

1-800-273-8255

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Suzanne Blackwood lives in Rutherford County and is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Mental Health Service Provider with the Hope Center of Cannon County. The Hope Center is an outreach of Woodbury Church of Christ and is affiliated with AGAPE (Association for Guidance, Aid, Placement, & Empathy). The center offers individual, marriage, and family counseling and serves children, adolescents, and adults.