As a psychologist I have worked with many people who were stuck in grief. They speak about losing someone with poignant emotion–as if it happened yesterday. But it happened years ago, sometimes decades ago. Some people, however, deal with loss very effectively and come to terms with a loss within a few months. What accounts for the difference? Those who deal effectively have better mental strategies for dealing with loss.
People who get stuck often form unresourceful visual images in their mind’s eye. Perhaps it is everyone gathered around the table for Christmas dinner–but there is the empty chair where momma is supposed to be. This image freezes the loss in time. It compares a picture of the way Christmas “is supposed to be” with the absence of momma and concludes that Christmas will never be the same again. Other people who get stuck see mom (or whomever they lost) in a hospital bed, wasting away with tubes and machines droning on. This image of mom is sure to elicit sad feelings. The empty chair or hospital bed scenes, however, are only two of billions of possible images. They do not represent the essence of who mom was. More resourceful images would have her with the family, or in a favorite activity, or a symbol that embodies her fine qualities.
Let me make an analogy with computers. When you turn on a computer, you get a default image on the screen. You can click options to have the computer change the default image to a more useful image. The first image is still in the computer if you need it, but the more useful image is now the default. If you have an unresourceful default image, change it to a resourceful image that honors the person who lived.
If you see the person in your mind’s eye, you can change the image and thereby change how you feel. Moving the image away from your head, making the image smaller, making it black and white, and making it dimmer, all make the image less intense. Conversely, making an image closer to your head, bigger, colorful, and bright usually makes an image more intense. Try it. The idea is to make resourceful images intense and unresourceful images seem to be a distant, far away memory.
Much of the literature on grieving emphasizes beliefs that are contrary to effective grieving. One author referred to her husband dying as “amputation without anesthesia.” This is a vivid metaphor that fosters self-pity rather than healing. Another author talked about how profoundly pervasive the death of a parent was and how she viewed everything in her life as “BDD–Before Dad Died–and the ADD–After Dad Died.” This approach intensifies the anguish as opposed to seeing parents dying as the natural order of things and oneself as mature enough to handle.
Art Linkletter, whose daughter committed suicide at 19 and son died in an automobile accident at 32 put it this way: “Too many people who lose others–mothers, fathers, children, friends–become people who see grief as a tent pole for their life. They cherish it almost, they clutch it to them, they never let it go, and that grief becomes the impelling force for a negative, bitter, unhappy, vengeful unforgiving life. Other people, like myself, use it as a springboard for being a better person and for enjoying life more and for appreciating all the good things in it as a counter to the other things that are going to happen.”
You can care and feel without feeling every death is tragic. Most deaths aren’t a tragedy. A tragedy is not living life fully, a list of what ifs, and not connecting with life. For many people the tragedy occurred years ago when they numbed themselves to experiencing life fully. As poet Stephen Vincent Benet put it, “Life is not lost by dying; life is lost minute by minute, day by dragging day, in all the thousand small uncaring ways.” For those who have lived a full life but disease has greatly compromised their lives, death can be a relief.
People who deal effectively with loss often see the deceased as an ongoing presence in their lives. A humorous but good example is Fred Sanford from the television show Sanford and Son. When Fred (played by Red Foxx) was having a hard time he would feign “having the big one” (a heart attack). He would then look up and talk with his deceased wife Elizabeth. He wasn’t crazy. He just knew her so well that he could sense her presence, imagine a conversation with her, and gain comfort and guidance from the experience. Actually, he probably got along better with her after her death than in real life as he was a cantankerous character. Many religious people find it easy to think of the person who lived as an ongoing presence or to imagine the person communicating with them from a better place.
Many people believe in an afterlife when it comes to their own lives but neglect to try to imagine their loved one already in a better place.
Teachers and professors are particularly good role models for letting go. They have their students for only a year or a few years and then must focus on inspiring a new cadre of students. Do they complain that they can’t bear to let their babies go? No, they realize that it is time for the students to leave the nest and fly. While they could become sad at the students leaving, they instead are joyful to see them move on to new challenges. They feel enriched and invigorated from having worked with them. They have a vision of helping to change the world.
We too need to appreciate the rhythms of life and work with them rather than fight them.
Dr. Michael Brickey, The Anti-Aging Psychologist, teaches people to think, feel, look and be more youthful. He is an inspiring keynote speaker and the Oprah-featured author of Defy Aging and 52 baby steps to Grow Young. Visit http://www.NotAging.com
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