Lest you think I’m able to tell you how to survive your own death, I appreciate your confidence in my abilities. But let me clear that up right away. I’m talking here about surviving the death of a loved one, and about supporting others as they survive the same.
It’s taken me almost a couple of years to be able to write about this after the latest deaths of two people I treasure. Which is one of the things we need to discuss: how much time does it take for a person to heal?
As long as it takes….
Let me explain. For years professionals in the counseling and psychiatric fields followed a theory espoused by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross, that there were stages of grief that a person went through upon learning of their own impending death or upon the death of a loved one. Many still subscribe to that theory today. However, years after she published her idea of stages, as an older and wiser woman, Dr. Kubler Ross changed her mind. In her audio program The Wheel of Life, she said the stages were wrong and that there was no set way for a person to die or to mourn the death of another.
Rather than “stages,” which one neatly moves through, she said there is a cacophony of emotions that bounce around without rhyme or reason, except that the rhyme and reason are that it’s different for everyone. No one should ever be made to feel that they are dying or grieving “wrong.” She felt bad that she’d ever set that notion in motion.
So rather than moving through the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – a real human being, like any one of us, might be mired in the depths of depression for a week, angry for three days, in hopeful denial for five minutes, and back in depression before we know what happened. The goal is to get to more days of acceptance than anything else and to eventually live with acceptance. The amount of time that takes depends on the person. Again, there is no right or wrong. It might take one person a year and another four years. Of course, if a person is dealing with the news that they are dying, they might die while still feeling anger and depression. Who can blame them?
As for survivors, no one has a right to tell them they need to recover from their loss at a certain speed. Certainly, to tell someone they should be getting over the loss within a few months, which is an all-too-common practice, is cold-hearted and downright cruel. Or, to tell them that they shouldn’t be getting on with it after a few months, if they are, isn’t fair, either.
The key is to listen to what the grieving person tells us. If they’re not ready to go out and about, and not ready to date, and not ready to start over, that should be their decision, not yours or mine. You might be wondering if too much depression could be lethal. Sure. There are times when professional help should be sought if the person never moves toward recovery. But first, listen to that person and let them take their own natural path to accepting the loss of a love.
I say “accepting” rather than “getting over” because we never get over it. We learn to live with our grief. We come to have more good days than bad. We come to remember the good times more than the hard times. We come to think of our loved one as they were when healthy and happy rather than sick. Life goes on, we love again, we live again, but our love for that person stays in our hearts forever. It makes us stronger, better people.
When my first husband, Dick, died of cancer at age thirty-three, it was about a year before I stopped regaling God for taking such a good man from this earth. I was actually driving my car down a highway one day when I realized that, all of a sudden, I didn’t feel angry at God anymore. I wasn’t happy. But I wasn’t mad, either. That was a start.
I realized that our traditional American culture, even with so many religious faiths, doesn’t have a coherent understanding of grieving. We’re uncomfortable with it, so we simply want it to go away. If we know someone who’s lost a loved one, we tend not to talk about the deceased. We tend to want a quick fix so we won’t be uncomfortable. Therefore, we want the person to get over it and move on so we won’t have to think about it.
A lovely thing happened about six months after Dick died. A group of friends and I became friends with a group of Arab Christians in Detroit, Michigan. We lived in central Michigan and would go to Detroit on a regular basis. There was, and still is, a large contingency of Arab Christians in the city, who reminded us that the Middle East had long been Christian based before being forced by new regimes to convert to Islam. Many of their ancestors had emigrated to the U.S. when that happened. They found it sad that there were generations of young Muslim Arabs who had no idea that their ancestors had been Christian. Anyway, one family told me about a tradition they had for widows. Six months after the death of a husband, a woman was taken by a family member out for coffee. No other women were invited. They had a nephew do this for me.
We had a delightful afternoon in a cafe. I found myself smiling, even laughing. He talked about sports. So typical and refreshing. He didn’t treat me with kid gloves; we simply had a good visit. Later his aunt told me this tradition helped a widow keep a clear head because it’s so easy to fall prey to bad decisions about men when one is dolefully lonely. That is so true. I thought it a smart tradition, something we need to emulate for others.
I joined a widows support group and heard about tragic, ill-fated, and even funny bad decisions some women had made about men. That is to say, falling into a wayward relationship can easily happen, to widows and widowers, so we need to offer support as best we can rather than pretending everything is going to automatically be hunky-dory in no time at all.
Since the death of my first husband, others who I love have died. There have been the usual deaths of grandparents and parents. Friends, as well. A nephew was brutally murdered twenty-five years ago. His younger brother died in a tragic military plane crash a couple of years ago. At about the same time, a dear friend died of breast cancer. There are more. That’s not my story alone, it’s your story, too, because it’s everybody’s story.
So, how do we survive death? As best we can. We understand that recovery takes time. We offer support. We don’t rush it. Most of all, we need to understand ourselves and how what we’re doing is often not for the grieving person, but for ourselves because their grief makes us uncomfortable. We need to get over that. We can take our cues from them about how much to talk about the deceased, or not talk about them. We can let them tell us what we can best do to help them.
As for our own grief, we need to give ourselves time to heal, to breathe again, to remember that life can be good. We need to set boundaries with those who insist that we heal like they think we should. We need to ignore those who are cruel about it. And we need to move on at our own pace, carefully, thoughtfully. We need to remember our loved ones and hold our love for them in our hearts for the rest of our lives. We need to smile at the thought of the happiness they brought into our world. We need to accept that they are gone now, but we will be with them in another time and place.
Death is part of life. It can bring us together in love for the living and for living itself. We can survive death… except our own, of course, when that day comes. Let’s live lives that let us leave this earth feeling fulfilled and joyful because we have understood, we have accepted life and death, and, best of all, we have loved.
Dan Baxter says
My best-ever teacher was my professor of psychiatry. He said it takes nine months to get somebody here and probably twice that long to accept their leaving. He also agreed with Kubler-Ross that the grieving journey is not a ride through a series of tunnels but rather a roller coaster hitting all the levels at almost the same time.
The deepest thing he taught me was that losing someone is like having a truck load of sand dumped on your front lawn. Grief work is like shoveling that sand and distributing it around the rest of your life. If the loved one is ill and slowly dies from disease, we get some of the sand shoveled even before their passing. If it is sudden–an accident, a sudden illness, a crime–the load of sand cannot be attacked until we take care of the business of getting our/their lives in order. This is why the “responsible” member of the family sometimes takes the longest to shovel the sand.
I love this analogy, Dan.
Nancy McCauley says