Drawing on local expertise, the following column is written by Ruth Barry, a qualified psychotherapist. Ruth works with palliative and bereaved individuals and families referred to the Comox Valley Hospice Society in addition to her local private practice.
Grief is our normal reaction to loss of any kind. Whatever you are feeling is normal and natural for you.
David’s wife Sylvia dies after a five-year-long experience with breast cancer that spreads to her liver and spine, causing pain that requires intensive medication. The pain is controlled but both are exhausted by the experience. When Sylvia dies David is both relieved and devastated. Conflicting feelings are normal and common.
Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, well known for her study of the emotions in the terminally ill – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – gets often misunderstood. Many assume these stages only apply to the grieving process. They do not.
How someone feels and how they heal depends on the nature and intensity of the relationship with their loved one, their own personality, and past experiences of loss.
It is more helpful to talk about common responses to grief.
For example, forgetfulness: two weeks after Sylvia’s death David finds himself standing in the supermarket aisle completely confused about what he came for.
Numbness: often misinterpreted as denial. A physical and/or emotional feeling commonly experienced soon after a loss. It will pass.
Waves of emotional energy: highs and lows of emotions in quick succession. Disrupted eating and sleeping habits – either too much or too little.
Or you may not experience any of the above. We are all unique, and most of us have the ability to integrate our experiences of loss into our understanding of life, and in time to re-engage with it.
But sometimes we get “stuck” or traumatized by a death experience.
Mary reluctantly comes to see me, persuaded by her worried 38-year-old daughter, but unsure herself why anyone should be concerned. She tells me between heart-wrenching sobs that her husband Larry died suddenly in her arms of a heart attack.
They met at age 16, married four years later, and were inseparable for 46 years. In her words, “He treated me like a queen. He did everything for me. There is no life for me without him.”
She tells me that every morning she lays out his clothes for the day as she has done all their married life and she waits for him to come home. If she ventures out she hurries back for fear she’ll miss him. She talks only of the past and what she has lost. Larry died three years ago this August.
A part of her knows he is gone – she gets irritated when I say that he is not coming back. She just refuses to accept her new reality.
Her daughter is right to be worried.
Without acceptance of our losses, we lose our spontaneity, our openness to the possibilities of life, and the capacity for any potential future happiness.
Mary’s story is just one example of complicated grief. A history of depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, or post traumatic shock associated with the death, can turn normal bereavement into complicated grief.
Wendy Johnstone is a gerontologist and is the founder of Keystone Eldercare Planning. Her column runs in the Comox Valley Record every second Friday.
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