May 25th, 2011

Watching on TV the havoc wrought by the tornadoes in Missouri and Oklahoma reminded me of how destructive natural disasters can be to those affected by them. Not only were many lives lost – wives, husbands, children, parents, pets – but also homes, schools, hospitals, entire neighborhoods.
Think about the memories contained in all of those people and places. We humans form many attachments in the course of our lives. First and foremost, we value our family members and friends. Beyond our immediate circle of intimates, we interact with so many other individuals who contribute to our lives with their knowledge, skills and talents, teaching our children, caring for our ailing parents, repairing our homes, pouring us a cup of coffee in the local café.
These tornadoes, as well as the floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes we have witnessed rob survivors of treasured objects acquired from experiences shared with others. These objects are valued for many reasons, the least of which is their monetary value. Studies have shown that what survivors miss the most are the memories their ‘things’ represent – photographs, sentimental gifts given or received, special books and music they have enjoyed, that have been saved for future reference as memories that compose their lives.
Grieving for these losses is just as legitimate as grieving for someone who died, because these treasures reflect lives lived.
Loss takes many forms, human and material. Socrates said: “Life is a teacher in the art of relinquishing.” As I point out in my book, The Five Ways We Grieve, survivors lose their identity when a part of their life is taken away. Learning to live in a new way as a different person is the challenge we face when we experience a significant loss, regardless of the form it takes.

Grieving and Resilience

April 14th, 2011

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about a book by a Columbia psychology professor, George Bonnano, called The Other Side of Sadness (2009). This book received many endorsements from the academic community claiming revolutionary thinking about how the bereaved experience and adapt to the loss of a loved one. His main point is that the majority of those who grieve are able to handle their loss on their own, without professional counseling, because human beings are “naturally resilient.”
“The good news,” he writes, “is that for most of us, grief is not overwhelming or unending.” Since [loss] “is a human experience… we are wired for.” Positive experiences can have an “affirmative impact not only on other people and may actually help the bereaved recover more quickly after the loss.”
As a therapist with many years of experience specializing in helping the bereaved, I found his findings and conclusions simplistic and unenlightening. I have counseling many people through loss of their loved one – widows and widowers, parents and children, siblings, lovers, and friends. How each person handles their loss is unique –in terms of the relationship they had with their loved one, the circumstances of their death, and the time it takes to recover.
What is more important to me is what the bereaved do with their grief. We acknowledge that losing a loved one changes most of us. Our lives can never be the same. We have to “relearn the world” (Attig, 1998). In my book, The Five Ways We Grieve, (just released in its second edition in paperback), I asked questions based on my own experience of losing my parents at an early age:
• How does the loss of a loved one transform those left behind?
• How do they honor their loved ones?
• How do they stay connected through memories, activism, or spiritual beliefs?
• What happens to those who have not resolved their grief?
The majority of those I interviewed demonstrate how resilient survivors act – how they make meaning of their loss in ways that provide them with more empathy, more appreciation for life, and often a new sense of purpose.
I have learned much from academic research such as Professor Bonnano’s. But as a clinician, I believe that my clients are the best teachers.

Lifelong grief unresolved

February 22nd, 2011

A woman came into my office yesterday. She looked exhausted, and explained that she wanted to consult with me about her 91 year old mother who had recently been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer ’s disease. She is the primary caregiver and had missed quite a lot of work recently due to her mother’s needs. She is a research biologist at Harvard Medical School working under a grant that will expire in a year. She said she didn’t know what she would be able to do. “I’m fifty-six years old, and I have to think about another career.”
I asked her to describe some of the problems her mother had been exhibiting. I inquired about whether she had a support system. She responded that her only brother lived in Connecticut and helped as much as he could. Her family, she added, consisted of only ”my mother, my brother and me.”
She went on: “My father died when I was seven. I was very close to him. My mother wasn’t very nurturing, but after he died, she worked hard and provided for us as best she could.”
As I continued our interview, I observed some significant similarities between her story and my own. I had lost my father at eleven and my mother had three jobs to support my brother and me. As a result, she had little energy left for us (a fact that my brother has never forgiven her for.) Like me, she had graduated from Harvard with a doctorate in her thirties. She worked successfully on grant funding until now when, in her fifties, she was faced with the possibility of having to re-invent herself because her field was becoming obsolete.
Although therapists are trained to limit personal information, I trusted my judgment in this case because of its possible therapeutic benefit. I shared with her the parallels in our lives – at her age, I had also experienced deep sadness and felt “lost,” not knowing who I was and what I should be doing with my life. (She waved her hand at this, identifying with my experience).
I suggested that she may not have fully grieved her father’s death, or her lost childhood. I suggested further that her exhaustion and obvious depression could be the result of unresolved grief. I explained to her that when I figured out how my losses had affected me, I found new direction for my career and felt fulfilled in my work. I assured her that she could do the same.
At the end of our session, she told me she would consider working with me on this issue. “You have given me hope.” The next day, she called for an appointment.


February 13th, 2011

Valentine’s Day is not universally enjoyed. We like to believe that most people are happily coupled through marriage, partnerships, civil unions, and other family configurations. Yet, the recent US Census revealed some significant discrepancies with these assumptions.
The reality is that 42% of the country’s population over the age of 18 is single. 54% are women and 60% have never been married. Twenty-five percent (25%) of U.S. singles are divorced and 15% are widowed. There are 15 million Americans over the age of 65 who are unmarried and single. They comprise about 16% of all unattached members in our society. It’s unlikely that these people have Valentines to share their love with. Some may have chosen not to the majority probably have had some kind of loss.

For example, widows and widowers, divorced men and women, parents who’ve lost a child, children who’ve lost a parent, and others, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, niece and nephews, are more likely to feel alone on Valentine’s Day.
While we have our parties at work, school, community centers, and other gathering places that share holidays, let’s be aware that everyone around us doesn’t have a special Valentine. We can give love in many ways to many different people who are in our lives – children and grandchildren, parents and grandparents, relatives, friends, neighbors and co-workers. What’s important is to recognize the possibilities of love, wherever we find it!

A New Year Can Bring Hope for the Future

January 12th, 2011

“Christmas Eve was the hardest,” I am so grateful for my friends,” “I made it .through.” “Thank goodness, they are over.”

These were some of the expressions I heard from my bereaved clients as we resumed our sessions after the new year began. Some described continuing the traditions of holiday parties with friends and family, a few escaped to places as diverse as Vermont and the Caribbean; several stayed home and spent “quiet time” alone or with immediate family. As these examples show, people find various ways to mark an anniversary of their loved one’s death. Regardless of when their loss occurred, however, the winter holidays are especially hard. Our society creates such high expectations for happiness during this time of year. Perhaps it’s to cheer us up in the dreary days of winter – darkness comes early, it’s frequently cold and cloudy; in fact, the Farmer’s Almanac reports that January is the coldest month of the year.

The new year doesn’t necessarily change things; we’re still alone, grieving. Yet, like the birth of a new baby, with its innocence and optimism for the future, the new year can signify a new beginning, a chance to start over, to improve ourselves and our lives.

January marks the end of the past year and the beginning of something new. Sometimes we need to stretch our minds and hearts to be open to new possibilities. I wish for us all the capacity to be open to hope; to be open to possibilities. I have learned from the losses I experienced since childhood, It is what Diogenes so simply expressed: “Nothing endures but change.”


December 24th, 2010

Is it possible to find happiness during holidays and family celebrations, while you are experiencing overwhelming feelings of sadness, anger, frustration and envy toward those who don’t share your pain?

If you have lost a loved one during the year, I think the five patterns of grieving I described in my book suggest some ways you can find comfort amidst your feelings of loss.

• Memorialists can preserve the memory of their loved one by lighting a candle, writing a poem, listening to some special music, or continuing a family tradition in honor of that person.

• Normalizers like to gather family and friends together as they always did when their loved one was alive. In this way, they

• Activists want to contribute to others as a way of giving back or paying forward. You might feel good about volunteering in activities that relate to your loved one’s death – a hospital, hospice, or charity that was with yu in the last days of your loved one’s life.

• Seekers may turn to spiritual thoughts. You may want to spend some time in contemplation at your church, synagogue, mosque or temple. Join with others in your spiritual community, connect with nature, pray, meditate, think about what is important to you in life and pursue it.

If you don’t relate to any of these ideas, create your own way to find comfort. Above all, be with others who understand your grief.

Tis the season to be jolly?

December 5th, 2010

This verse from the Christmas song “Deck the halls with boughs of holly” belies the sadness that many people feel during the winter holiday season.

Many folks are fortunate to be celebrating with family and friends. I wish you the best, if you are.

But, if you are among those who have lost your job, can’t find a job, or know someone with a serious illness, this season may offer little comfort and joy. If your loved one passed away this year, it’s probably difficult to celebrate.

Either way, I encourage you to look around and observe your co-workers, friends and relatives. Be sensitive to their actions – do they seem reluctant to participate in holiday festivities? Quieter than usual? Staying to themselves or avoiding the group? Don’t try to cheer them up! Just acknowledge their mood, and offer them an opportunity to talk if they want to. They will appreciate your sensitivity.

Honor the Veterans and their Families

October 31st, 2010

As Veterans’ day approaches on November 11th, our attention turns to the veterans of current conflicts as much as to those who fought for our country in the past.

According to an LA Times report on June 24 of this year, American military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan now exceed 500,000. While the total number of actual deaths are estimated around 5,000, casualties from serious injuries, traumatic brain injuries, PTSD, and other mental health problems constitute the vast majority of the half million military cited.

In addition, for every one soldier, it is likely that an average of four family members – spouses, parents and children—have also been drastically affected. They become the survivors – widows and widowers, children without parents, parents without children, lovers without partners, friends without friends. Countless others have given up their jobs, their plans, and often their hopes and dreams for the future to become full-time caregivers for those with physical and mental injuries from which they may never fully recover.

Perhaps Veterans Day should be renamed ‘Veterans and Their Families’ Day to honor all those who make huge sacrifices, not only during the war efforts, but throughout their lives. Families’ lives are transformed by their loss forever. They have to take on new roles and responsibilities. They have to live with their sorrow and find themselves through their grieving.

Honor them all; remember them all; support them all, as fellow citizens and as communities. The legacy of hope accompanies the grieving process. It belongs to them all.

Do people grief non-death losses?

October 12th, 2010

Recently, I received a series of questions from readers based on a review of my book in Bostonia, Boston University’s Alumni Magazine. A number of these were forwarded to me by the editor for my responses. The questions from readers covered a range of concerns, both personal and professional. The question below asks about grief from other kinds of loss:
“As a Clinical Social Worker myself, I work primarily with brain injury and stroke survivors who are clearly grieving their “loss” of self and working to find new meaning and purpose in their lives. Do you explore non-death related grief work in your book? Families too are grieving and need new ways to process this “living grief.”

Loss takes many forms in our lives besides death. This clinician recognizes that people who are disabled by brain injury and strokes lose their physical capacities. Often, emotional and cognitive functions accompany these problems. Their lives can be altered in an instant.

Many of the reactions I have witnessed reflect the strong emotions of denial and anger Dr. Kubler-Ross identified in her ground-breaking research: for example, one man, trained as an engineer, researched comprehensive studies of treatment for strokes, developed several adaptive devices to help him maneuver in his wheelchair.

Has he reached the stage of “acceptance?” Perhaps not; he refuses to give in to his disability. He is proactive in his hope to improve his own quality of life. By doing so, he has inspired other stroke victims he has met in his support group, and may have an even broader impact in the future.

How Long Does the Grieving Last?

September 26th, 2010

One of my clients asked me at her last session: “How long am I supposed to grieve? This is so painful.” She lost her husband of twenty-five years about thirteen months ago. They were extremely close, and she “misses him terribly”.

Her life is not empty. She goes to work at her highly responsible position every day. She has taken several vacation trips with friends. She enjoys cooking and has frequent guests — family and friends – for dinner on the weekends. She has several grandchildren who visit, and has recently recognized that she is the “matriarch” of her family, especially since her husband passed away.

Yet, she still feels very lonely. She has made it through the first year of grief, and admits that occasionally she feels “lighter.” Fortunately, she does not have the pressure many bereaved feel from others who want them to “get over it already!”

I explained to her that many factors influence how people grieve and for how long. I’ll discuss these in detail in future blogs. I believe the first factor is the nature of the relationship they had with their loved one. It always amazes me that people don’t seem to recognize that after living with a spouse for twenty-five years, forty, fifty or sixty years, their survivor is supposed to get back to “normal” and move on after a year, or two, or five years!

What experiences have you had with these kinds of expectations from others – or even yourself?

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