Coping with Grief
Allowing yourself to feel and express the pain is essential to healing.
Having lost a baby at a fairly advanced stage of pregnancy several years ago, I was reminded of a statement of Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian, zt”l who said, “Man’s head and heart are like two different persons. The head knows and understands everything; nevertheless, the heart does what it feels and wants to do” (Lev Eliyahu, p.188). You can say all the “right” phrases to maintain faith in God’s wisdom and goodness. You know intellectually that everything God does is for the best, that you must accept the pain as atonement, and that from this experience you will ultimately be wiser and stronger. Your mind tells you that in the Next World, everything will make sense and be seen as totally fair. At some point, when you look back at this event, you will see how it had to be this way.
Why, then, with all this intellectual knowledge, does your food taste like dust, your body feel like lead, your mind become so disoriented and distracted, and your heart feel so broken? Why is it such a struggle to glue yourself back together and carry on your normal activities? Why doesn’t the pain stop when you say, “I accept this totally as God’s will?”
The spirit tries to convey its transcendent wisdom and absolute faith to the other parts. But we are also human and have our personal longings and desires for health and happiness which are not always in accord with the Divine plan. Grief is above logic.
The spirit says, “It must be this way.” But the mind says, “It’s not fair. There’s been a mistake. I cannot accept this! I don’t deserve this!” One aspect of healthy mourning is the resolution of this conflict, with the spirit eventually winning so that we return to life with a new sensitivity and awareness which make us wiser and stronger.
However, this process takes time and is dependent on the extent of the blow and our ability to internalize the messages of faith and trust that we have been mouthing for so many years and that are now being put to the real test.
A loss is like an operation. A part of you has been cut away, without anesthesia.
A loss is like an operation. A part of you has been cut away, without anesthesia. You suddenly feel terribly vulnerable and fragile. If the loss was sudden, there is a sense of having lost control over your life. Part of you is numb and stunned. Your body feels as if it has sustained a physical blow. Your self-esteem may take a beating, as your wonder, What did I do that was so bad to have deserved this?
We will all face death. And we may be frightened by our own reactions to the event. We may suddenly regress to a childlike state of passivity and dependency and wonder if we will ever come out of it. Good mourning involves a very subtle balance between the maintenance of previous structures and disciplines along with permission for the heart to express its grief, for the mind to express its doubts and fears, and for the body to overcome the effect of the shock. You need to give yourself permission to cry. You also have to know when to say, “Enough. Go back to life and the living.”
A grieving person may not be helped by uplifting words such as “It’s all for the best” or “Be thankful it wasn’t worse.” If the heart is full of anguish and the mind wretched with despair, the person must give expression to the thoughts and feelings first. Only then can the spirit be heard. This is why it is so important to be sensitive to one’s own or another mourner’s needs to talk about what the loss means to him. That requires time and patience, which, sad to say, many people in our society do not seem to have. They throw some pat answer at the mourner like a tiny band-aid on a gaping wound and expect it to dispel the pain magically.
You may want to share your grief, but do not want to burden others with your pain. You may find that others try to comfort you by talking about the weather or other inane subjects and are too embarrass to say, “I hurt. Allow me the release of a good cry without your cutting me off.”
You, or those around you, may be in a hurry to see you get over your grief. Then you are surprised to find your muscles suddenly resisting your efforts, as if your body is weighted down by some unknown force. Tears overtake you at odd moments. You try to keep your normal social interactions, but sometimes you find yourself at a loss for words, absentminded, empty and numb, or filled with grief. You have no appetite, or you gorge mindlessly. You try to get meals on the table to keep things in order, but it all seems senseless, unreal, or unimportant. When you first resume normal activities after a major loss, you feel a bit mechanical and s tiff, like trying to walk after an operation. You must learn to function with a level of pain you did not have before. You don’t know what to expect of yourself or how much to push.
Don’t be afraid of normal manifestations of grief.
Don’t be afraid of normal manifestations of grief. Grief is like an ocean. Sometimes there is only a ripple of pain. Other times, waves of sorrow come crashing, crushing down. Don’t fight. Surrender. Allow the pain to rise, peak, and fade in its own natural rhythm. Then do something positive with your muscles to reaffirm your sense of health and control. When sorrow overwhelms you, give yourself time to mourn.
Reaffirm your faith and trust in God’s wisdom and mercy, even if you still feel bitter and angry about what you have lost. Eventually, the words will become real. One friend told me that he found it very difficult to pray when he was facing a great loss. So he prayed that he should be able to pray with real trust.
It is normal to go through stages of mourning, shock and denial, depression and loneliness, guilt, anger and resentment over the seeming unfairness of it all, resistance to the truth, jealousy, longing, sadness, and finally longer periods of acceptance. No one goes through this progression smoothly. The process of making Hashem’s will your will involves a struggle as we move back and forth between the various stages.
If you meet the mourner unexpectedly and wonder what to say, it may be best to say something like “I’m sorry about your loss” or “It hurts.” Say as little as possible. When dying cancer patients were asked what words that most wanted to hear, the most common response was, “I just want people to agree that it’s so hard to go through this.” Most don’t want to play games like pretending that everything is going to be just fine. They want empathy. That is the only thing which lessens the loneliness.
The psychologist Martin Seligman found that depressed people tend to interpret events in such a way as to ensure the continuation of feelings of low self-worth and helplessness. The three attitudes most characteristic of depressed people are that the loss is (1) stable over time, e.g., “Bad things are always going to happen to me”; (2) global, e.g., “I’m incapable of doing anything right”; and (3) internal, e.g. “All bad things that happen to me are entirely my fault. I’m a horrible person.” (Psychology Today, February 1987)
It is normal to feel somewhat depressed following a loss or failure. But to avoid prolonged depression, a person must think only those thoughts which help him regain a sense of self-esteem and purpose in life. It is important not to think of oneself as a helpless victim, as unlucky, or as deserving of having terrible things happen. Such thoughts retard the healing process. If the thoughts remain positive, then we find that our inner core of strength gently prods us back to health as we pick up the pieces of our lives. We learn to be grateful that we now are wiser and more understanding and compassionate because of what we have undergone.
An encounter with death can make us appreciate life more. When the loss propels us to contribute something new to the world, it helps us transcend the grief. May all our losses bring us to a greater level of humility, compassion and love.
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