No Need To Suffer Through Grief — Get Help!
Of all the trials and tribulations we can suffer in life, none is so devastating as the loss of a loved one.
Unfortunately, we will all eventually suffer such a great loss and the grief that it brings.
Believe it or not, a properly trained professional can help minimize the grief and help those sufferers to cope. Much of this horrible experience can be truncated, if not removed, by people who know what they are doing.
But it seems that most people don’t believe this, and some people will never learn.
Patrick Swayze was a beloved figure in Hollywood, a dashing romantic lead in “Dirty Dancing” and a macho action hero. He died a very public death of pancreatic cancer, his decline chronicled on the front pages of the supermarket tabloids for all to see. And of course his eventual death made headlines and was featured in every major news broadcast.
Throughout the decline and even after his death, Swayze’s wife of 34 years, Lisa Niemi, stood by him and became the family’s interface with the media and the public. She suffered what married people fear most — watching the one you love most slip away and feeling helpless to do anything about it.
Perhaps to help herself and others cope with such a colossal tragedy, Lisa participated in a round table discussion on Grief, Healing and Resilience at the Women’s Conference 2009 in Long Beach, CA. Elizabeth Edwards and Susan St. James, both of whom suffered the loss of children in accidents were among the participants.
I definitely believe in patient empowerment and there may be something constructive about a bunch of women getting together in a conference to talk about what loss of a loved one can do to people. But there is something that the public has never understood.
Support is not treatment.
Here was a group of celebrity women who apparently gathered to offer each other support, and by doing so, demonstrate to the non-celebrity public how to deal with this type of loss. But nobody offered anybody any kind of healing.
Women suffering together and offering mutual support is NOT, nor should it be, taken as the state of the art way to deal
I have colleagues who specialize in grief counseling. They take special training and learn special techniques to give the victims of loss comfort AND healing. When professionalism is disregarded, well-meaning amateurs can make things worse.
The best example I have concerns the Oklahoma City Bombing.
I started my first private practice after leaving the academic life in Oklahoma City in the early 1990s. At that time, I was a standard-type of psychiatrist — not the Renegade Doctor I became later on.
During my years in Oklahoma City, I developed my outpatient practice, but I also had inpatient privileges at several of the major hospitals. I made the rounds, and took care of the seriously disturbed patients in the locked wards.
That’s what I was doing at 9:00 a.m. April 19, 1995 when a home-grown terrorist named Timothy McVeigh unleashed a truck bomb on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in the heart of downtown. The results are a part of history — 168 people killed, 700 more injured. To compound the tragedy, the building held not only the federal courthouse and offices of the IRS and the ATF, but a daycare center. Of the fatalities, 19 were children under the age of six.
As part of my activities in those years, I had a radio show. On Saturday nights, I hosted “Dr Goldstein’s Housecall” on the local NBC radio affiliate. Immediately after the bombing, I went to the station every spare minute I had when not attending patients. Every evening and on the weekends, the station opened the phone lines to an open-call format and I sat in the studio taking calls with a general practitioner MD and one of the local on-air personalities — a typical Midwest Bible-Belt conservative pundit of the “Fox Network” variety like we see today.
NBC ran the Oklahoma City broadcast throughout their entire network for the next couple of weeks. We had calls from all over the USA and even from some foreign countries. I remember one call from Ireland where a puzzled gentleman asked why we Yanks would blow each other up (since he knew we didn’t have the same troubles as Ireland had in Belfast).
Our in-studio pundit was quick to note on the air that he didn’t see why we had to have a bunch of psychologists sticking their hands into this mess (he either didn’t know the difference between psychologist and psychiatrist or he was trying to show his contempt for the field).
“Why don’t you just go talk to your bartender?” was his advice.
Professionalism is not respected — much less understood.
I’ve done many serious attempts to help people address grief. Not long after starting my practice in San Diego, I was invited to be one of the presenters in the program series at the Unitarian church. They had a group comprised mostly of widows and widowers who had been getting together for a long, long time.
In other words, nobody seemed to be making progress in working through their grief.
It was one of the most difficult seminars I have ever done, because people came at me with belief systems that were totally contrary to getting well. There were no ways to answer them.
The single one who was more cutting than the others was: “God intends me to suffer for her death. I am going to continue to suffer every day of my life, because our love was so great.”
Such a belief — believing that healing does not even exist — simply amounts to self-torture, in my opinion.
“I have got to go through this. I have to grieve. It is suffering, but it is something people have to do,” another explained.
Not much better.
You see how I was reminded of this when reading about the celebrity women’s conference in Long Beach. It was not much better than the Oklahoma City pundit or the Unitarian grief society. I have trouble with celebrity worship anyway, but I have lots more trouble when celebrities do things that nobody should do, and then get copied, because they are celebrities. I can imagine a room full of women who think it is all right to walk around in pain because celebrities that they respect are in pain.
There are plenty of mental health professionals to help with both the biological and psychological aspects of pain.
This is not technically a clinical depression. The official psychiatrist manual (DSM-IV TR) calls it an “adjustment reaction.” You may not need medication, and you probably should not accept prescriptions that may be offered to you because of the side effects they may have.
Mainstream doctors tend to jump into prescribing antidepressants in cases like this. Of course, there is a whole list of natural substances that can help with anxiety and sleeplessness and appetite changes. People who are suffering have no reason to continue to do so when there are biological methods that do a very good job of truncating the pain.
Only false belief systems seem to keep people stuck in pain. Many believe that religion is helpful here, but some systems buckle under the weight of “tradition,” or even the false belief that the more someone has been loved, the more the person left behind needs to suffer. These are among the most destructive traditions and beliefs known to me.
This is where, if someone is really tied to a religion, the religious counselor who truly believes in a deity of infinite mercy and love and forgiveness, who believes that comforting the mourning is the greatest good deed of all, should be the person who leads the victim to comfort and healing.
Unfortunately, this is not always what happens and I find myself in the role of spiritual counselor — sometimes opposed to the “OFFICIAL” spiritual counselor — forced to deal in universals instead of aspects of faith that may be helpful or familiar. I can do it, I have done it, but it makes me very uncomfortable.
I don’t have the answers to the great eternal questions and all I can do is try to make things better in the “here and now” for the physical body. Spiritual guidance is out of my specialty.
Of course, biology is not everything, by all means. People do not and should not try to “forget” a deceased loved one and keep moving along. As the last survivor of a very close family, I have a great many reflections — daily, or even hourly — of the loved ones who I can’t see or talk with any longer. I have my moments of grief like any other human. Being a doctor doesn’t immunize one to the realities of death.
The term used here is generally the “completion” of a relationship. Sometimes we have the luxury of working with someone whose death was expected, as with Patrick Swayze. More often the death has already happened. Sometimes I actually use techniques that include “imagining” the deceased still alive, and acting out resolutions to past conflicts. It works, since the source of such conflicts is not the person who lived and died, but rather the image of that person that survives and remains in the head of the one who grieves.
Regular readers of this blog know that I rely upon Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) for delicate situations, and it has been of enormous use in cases of grief resolution.
The fact that “accidents happen” or “parents never live as long as children” are no comfort. The strongest comfort here is a sense of purpose. When someone dies, the book is closed. Physical immortality is simply not a reality at this time and even the most devout have times when they question spiritual immortality.
One of the more dramatic cases of mourning I have dealt with was a woman who was nearly forty, and whose young son (in his twenties) had died in an act of senseless violence in prison. Various doctors issuing multiple antidepressants over a period of three months had not helped her significantly. There was some improvement in sleep and appetite but she was just “going through the motions” of her daily activities. I had done some neurolinguistic programming (NLP), to little avail, and had not yet learned EFT.
But the searing pain remained.
She started healing only when I suggested that she join a prison reform group. She started to have a sense of power over her pain and to actually believe that she could change the circumstances that had caused her son’s death. She was able to donate some money to the group, and a lot of volunteer effort, lobbying local government and the like. We actually saw some real improvement. When last I saw her she was doing well indeed.
Patrick Swayze’s wife called a friend at 2am, she said. It would surely not dishonor his memory if she were sleeping.
Grief is not supposed to go on forever, nor are people supposed to “stuff” bad feelings and pretend they do not exist and go through the motions of life.
The loss of a loved one to death is the most profound pain anyone can live with on this earth.
We must search for meaning in death and comfort in life.
A professional who knows what they are doing can help plenty. There is no belief system that validates avoiding comfort. To magnify suffering is a perversion of any belief system that values human beings.
Like the lady who decided to work for prison reform, I urge the griever to memorialize the dead in a way that feels comfortable and right. This can include anything from a memorial photo album, to a charitable donation in the name of the deceased, to anything or everything done to further a cause that was dear to the deceased.
When my beloved younger brother died, my husband suggested we buy an inexpensive bronze tag and engrave the words “Donated by the family of Harry S. Goldstein,” affix the tag to his television, and donate the TV to the day treatment center where he spent most of his final days (as an autistic adult). This inexpensive gift was greeted by the care center as a valuable treasure and it occupied an important place in the commons room where the residents could watch their favorite programs. It was our way of memorializing Harry, and helping our own grief heal by helping others.