An Essay On Normal Grief
by Fr. Rodney Torbic
Normal grief entails the range of common responses to death. The type of relationship has a bearing on the response. The loss of a spouse, parent, child or sibling or other close relative, friend or co-worker will have a greater impact than a person with whom a more "distant" relationship existed.
The age of the person dying and the nature of the death can influence the resultant grief. The death of a young child is viewed differently than the death of an elderly family member or friend. A tragic accident is unexpected and varies from death due to an extended terminal illness.
The reactions to death have certain common elements in the surviving family member, friend or co-worker. The degree to which each element is experienced can vary. Disbelief that the person is dead is one response. Sorrow over the loss may occur. Crying, anger and confusion are within the range of normal reactions.
A change in bodily functions and sensations are often noticeable. Lack of energy or desire to engage in physical activity, a sense of emptiness inside, sleeplessness or loss of appetite and inattention to personal appearance may be manifestations.
Different thoughts may go through the mind of the surviving person. Recollections about the departed person and distress over not doing something more or different can be part of normal grief. Normal grief spans a period of time. When the death of a close loved one occurs, it is expected the death will influence behavior of the survivors for a year or longer. Joviality and optimism may diminish. Reformulation of goals and tasks shared with the deceased will be required.
Moments of gloom, distress and depression will appear due to the absence of the departed person. Places, experiences, clothing and personal items associated with the deceased are laden with certain emotional weight. Feelings of being alone or abandoned can also well up in the survivor. At times, a survivor may feel relieved the death has occurred, particularly after a devastating extended illness.
Normal grief can cross the line and become abnormal when the reaction to death lasts "too long" or extremes are reached in thought, behavior or emotion. Not leaving the house for an extended period of time, perhaps months, continuing to feel the personal world has ended even two years after the death., and prolonged periods without eating well are examples when abnormality may be setting in. Over attaching significance to clothing or personal items, or "preserving areas the way things were" can also border on the extreme. The death of a loved one, family member, friend or co-worker is beyond the control of the survivor unless the survivor contributed to the death. The survivor has control in the areas of responding to the death. Worden made the point the grieving person can take an active role in the grief process.(p.35)*
Religious persons believing in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ have reason to hope. The normal grief process need not consist of continued gloom and depressing thoughts. It can be new period of life and personal transformation with reverence and love continuing for the departed. "He will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no more grief or crying or pain. The old things have disappeared. Then the one who sits on the throne said; "And now I make all things new." (Rev 21:4-5)
*J.William Worden. Grief Counselling & Grief Therapy. New York:Springer Publishing Company,l99l.
"Attachment, Loss and the Tasks of Mourning" is the title of the first chapter in J.William Worden’s book Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy. (Springer Publishing, l99l) Psychiatrist John Bowlby’s attachment theory is featured prominently. Bowlby asserts attachments come from the need for safety and security early in life and tend to endure. Parents provide the initial base of security and the parent-child relationship impact affectional bonds later in life. Worden concludes all humans grieve a loss.
Worden comes at grief with a keen mind. He dissects and analyzes the experience. Citing Engel, he notes the process of mourning is similar to the process of healing. Time is necessary. Impaired functioning can occur.
Worden believes mourning is necessary after a loss. Four tasks must be accomplished before mourning is completed. It is good for clergy and mourners to consider Worden’s work.
Priests deal with bereaved survivors at the time of the funeral and memorial services and can be counselors during the mourning process. Survivors can find loss a shattering experience. Worden’s thinking is an experienced direction, a structure for the mourner to evaluate.
Accepting the reality of the loss is an emotional and intellectual challenge and means coming to terms with the knowing the deceased will not return. Pain is part of the loss experience and it is best to deal with it at the time.. Denial can be a less than healthy way of dealing with the loss and with the pain.
Worden is insightful in saying the deceased had many roles and the survivor may not realize all these roles until after the death. Death challenges the self of the survivor and requires a reassessed sense of the world. Death can turn life upside down for the survivor. Mutual goals dissolve. Reciprocal love ceases in the way it was known. The sense of touch and warmth is absent. Intellectual strength and emotional support coming from the other no longer occurs.
The loss of a loved one redefines the identity of the survivor. Financial circumstances can change. Parent-child relationships shift when a mother of father dies. Relationships with friends and in-laws can become different. These are points reading Worden’s book can help one consider. The role of the counsellor, for Worden, is to help the bereaved find an appropriate place for the dead in their emotional lives and continue with living life effectively.
Moving on with life is difficult and can be a sticking point. Worden puts it well when he makes the point through illustration, that loving others doesn’t lessen love for the deceased. That mourning will end can be a hopeful sign for the bereaved. A year or two years are tentative frameworks for close relationships. A poignant observation is that the culmination of the mourning will not be a pre-grief state.
Attachment, loss and the tasks of mourning deal with death. It is important to keep the perspective that for keen loss to occur, for deep pain to be experienced, for the tasks of mourning to be set in motion. there must have been a positive relationship which set the process in motion. For this, there is reason to be grateful. "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die."(Jn.ll:25)