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Archive for the ‘Grief Part 1’ Category

Graham was devastated.  His world had fallen apart, his life was shattered.  His beloved son Matt, only 20 years old, had been killed in a car accident.  I saw Graham at home – given the state that he was in, there was no way I wanted him to be driving on the roads.  Matt had been a wonderful young man, bright, cheerful, hard working, a keen sportsman, a friend to everyone and now he was gone. 

Over the days and weeks that followed Matt’s passing, Graham experienced a downward plunge:

     Shock and horror

       Denial

         Panic and fear

           Pleading for release and self-sacrifice

             Helplessness

               Anger

                 Guilt

                   Depression

                     Despair and indifference to his own life

After the initial horrific shock of learning of the accident – every parent’s nightmare come true, Graham found it difficult to believe that Matt had really gone.  He kept expecting to wake from a particularly horrible nightmare to find that Matt was really OK.  He had bouts of stricken terror and horror each time he realised that there was no turning back the clock.  He made fervent offers to whatever power watches over us, that he die in Matt’s stead – anything, if only Matt could be restored to life.  He felt helpless and stricken each time he realised that this was only wishful thinking.

From time to time Graham experienced feelings of anger and he was on the receiving end of anger from others.  He felt angry at the unfairness of a young life cut short, anger at his own impotence, even anger at Matt for dying and this, of course made him feel even worse.  Graham was the target of anger from his wife and other family.  He was accused of allowing Matt to have the powerful car that they had worked on together and in which Matt had died.  His marriage became decidedly shaky. 

As the days turned into weeks, Graham felt depressed and guilty, he felt he now had nothing left to live for.

When I first saw Graham, there was little I could do, other than be there for him as a compassionate and understanding outsider.  We talked, he cried, I listened.  I understood that the downwards plunge outlined above is the “normal” grief reaction, though for him, or for anyone going through something like this, it feels anything but normal – his world was truly shattered.  As gently as I could, I outlined the grief process to him, drawing it out on a piece of paper and affirming his feelings.  I offered the suggestion that this would pass in time, but that was something he could only see as the vaguest of hopes.  His wife and other children were having similar reactions and were also receiving counselling.

Initially, Graham could not bear to think, or talk about Matt, could not look at his photograph and could not bring himself to do anything with Matt’s possessions.  Eventually, however he began to talk about Matt, the things they did together, the hopes they had had for the future.  During the course of our conversation, I discovered that Graham had been particularly close to his Grandparents, who had passed on some time ago.  They had a fond place in his memory and he had warm images of them.  One day I suggested to him that he do a visual exercise, taking Matt from the lifeless state that he last remembered him and placing him in that happy memory place with his Grandparents.  I suggested that as he did this, that he see Matt returning to the wonderful alive and vibrant young man that he was, with all the qualities that he admired and loved.  I suggested to Graham that these qualities could live on in his memory in the same way as the memories of his Grandparents were always with him and I invited him to see those memories extending into his future.  Graham was able to smile a little through his tears. 

On another occasion, I spoke with Graham about Thich Nhat Hahn’s  wonderful book No Death No Fear.  In this book, the venerable Hanh likens the human condition to a wave on the ocean.  A wave is “born” from the water, it grows to maturity when it reaches its peak, and it “dies” when it breaks on the shore.  Yet before the wave was “born” it was water, when it reaches its peak of maturity, it is water, and when it “dies” it is water.  So too, says Hahn, with us – there is no birth, there is no death.  As expounded in this book, I invited Graham to consider that Matt had never left – that he could be seen in the trees, in the flowers, in the birds, in the land, in Graham himself, that he would always be there and always be a part of him and his family.  Graham found these images helpful

Eventually Graham reached a turning point.  He accepted the reality of Matt’s passing, he was able to look back on memories of Matt, with sadness, yes, but also with fondness and warmth and without the paralysing grief of those initial horrendous days.  He reappraised his own life and decided to continue with some of the projects that he and Matt had worked on.  Graham and his wife repaired their relationship and moved on, incorporating Matt’s passing into their future together. 

The outline above is an account of a common course of grief.  People experience this in different ways and at different times and at different intensities and it is a process that can and does occur not just because of the loss of a loved family member, but for other unhappy events such as the loss of a job, loss of ability through sickness, or even the death of a loved pet.   

Grief is a process that we should not attempt to rush, or find a quick “cure” for.  It is not an illness.  Western society tends to have a discomfort with death and loss – it is often something to “get over and done with” as quickly as possible, then carry on.  Doing this, however can short circuit the grieving process and leave wounds that do not heal normally.  I have often seen people who have been unable to adequately grieve at the time of a loss and have been “stuck” in grief, sometimes for years.

I often think that our Maori people manage the death of a loved one much better than does European society.  At a Maori funeral, or Tangi, the body typically lies in state for several days.  There are speeches and songs, prayers, remembrances and food.  At the end of this time, the body is buried, preferably in the land of the person’s birth.  The person who has passed on is seen as taking their place amongst the honoured ancestors.  This process gives the family the opportunity to pass through the grief process, with no one feeling left out, embarrassed or discomfited. 

This purpose is served, or course by the ritual of our funerals.  Funeral ceremonies mark the transition from life to whatever awaits us beyond life and they give us the opportunity to realise that at some time or another, the grief process touches us all.  All things pass, including each of us and life moves on.

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