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Making It Safe to Grieve

by Ira Nerken

Ira Nerken, an attorney, is director of Widowed Persons Grieving Support Groups, a self-help organization based in Washington, D.C. This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 30, 1988, p. 1091. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


"I’m so ashamed," the young widow told me over the phone, weeping softly. She had called about a self-help support group I lead for the young newly widowed. Her husband had died of cancer at 38, after only three years of marriage.

Her tears were occasioned not by the pain of her horrible loss, sharpened by the shortness of the marriage, nor even the ubiquitous fears for the future that stalk the newly bereaved. The shame, embarrassment and humiliation she and others speak of, the "feeling that there’s something wrong with me," arose from her inability to stop grieving, no matter how much those around her told her she should.

Her parents and friends, she said, had grown impatient with her crying and her incessant talking about (and often to) her dead husband. She wanted to accommodate them, but the tears kept flowing, the "obsessing" continued and she saw no hope of it ending soon.

Given her mother’s and father’s exasperation, I wondered how long it had been since her husband died. Painfully she admitted it had been "over three months." Three months. "There is nothing wrong with you," I gently kidded her, "but I’d check out your parents."

The intolerance of family and friends for those grieving a deceased spouse -- even for those who have lost their spouse in the first years of marriage -- is more the rule than the exception. Parents, friends, relatives, clergy and counselors who offer support to the bereaved in the first weeks or months after the death soon begin finding "subtle but effective ways," as Douglas Manning puts it, "to take grief away" (Don’t Take My Grief Away [Harper & Row, 1979], pp. 64-65). A mother asks a grieving offspring if the crying "really helps." Friends suggest that it’s time to move on. "Neighbors take the new widow aside -- sometimes only minutes after the funeral -- and counsel her to "be strong," as though to grieve were weak.

William Sloane Coffin has talked of the reactions he encountered from some fellow ministers during his first months of grief over the drowning death of his teenage son. Many offered "comforting words of Scripture" to suggest he find God’s will or some blessing in the midst of tragedy. But "the reality of grief is the absence of God," he noted, and we must guard against words offered "for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness [we] simply [cannot] face . . ." ("My Son Beat Me to the Grave," A.D., June 1983, p. 26). Such attempts to soften grief show no regard for the magnitude of the loss the bereaved are feeling, at a time when they are sensitive to any suggestion that their grief may be exaggerated.

While efforts to reduce someone s grieving may seem justified as acts of love, and motivated only by a wish to minimize another’s pain (and thus are difficult, especially for the bereaved, to challenge), they fail the first test of love: they do not show respect. To assert that we know better than the griever, particularly one who is in a situation we cannot possibly comprehend, how she should feel, think, or behave is fundamentally disrespectful. Normally we would not so presume or condescend, knowing it to be wrong and fearing the other’s reaction.

Many people, however, consider the bereaved’s situation pathetic, her tears signs of helplessness, and her distress evidence of weakness and confusion. Such an attitude leads normally loving people to violate the griever’s self-respect and dignity. While their actions may leave the griever "wondering if [she is] weak or even crazy," Manning notes, they are sure they know better than the griever what is right for her, for they aren’t in as much pain.

The notion that people experiencing intense emotional pain don’t quite know what they are doing (or they wouldn’t be doing it) is the root problem leading to disrespect for grief and the griever. It is based on a belief, as firmly held as it is wrongheaded, that expressing so much pain is neither necessary nor constructive. Once you believe that the pain of grief is needless, it is hard to appreciate a process that is putting your loved one through such pain. And if one assumes that the pain is unnecessary, it is hard to appreciate your loved ones for putting you through it.

While Manning ascribes such hostility to general ignorance about griefs stages (shock, tears, anger) , it rests rather on prejudices toward the pain that are capable of withstanding considerable education about the grief cycle. Once the extraordinary intensity and longevity of grief’s pain is actually witnessed, many people (including not a few grievers) simply refuse to believe that an emotional response of this magnitude could possibly be healthy, or be what grieving books, counselors, etc., are referring to ("They told me you’d cry, but not this much!") It is also hard to imagine a purpose great enough to justify something so terrible to bear -- or to watch.

Those who hope to help the bereaved must respect her pain and accept the fact that it is necessary and vital. While suppressing tears, ruminations and painful feelings may expedite the bereaved’s effort to "function normally," it hinders the process of working through the loss. Acknowledging and expressing the pain helps the griever recover her sense of self and renew her sense of meaning and purpose so that she can again truly and joyously embrace life, though the love of one’s life is gone.

When a loved one dies, the blow to one’s sense of self and motivation to live is potentially mortal. This is no overstatement. In the first week of bereavement -- according to one study -- husbands whose wives died by accident or violence are 66 times more likely to kill themselves. Women who die of heart disease are six times more likely than other women to have been bereaved in the past six months -- and heart disease among widowers under 45 has been found to be ten times the rate among married men the same age. "In a sense," notes the Harvard Mental Health Letter (March 1987), "people do die of a broken heart." The well-known Holmes-Rahe scale classifies spouse loss as by far the most stressful of all events in adult life.

Pain’s first task is to demonstrate to the griever the seriousness of the situation, so that she will pay attention to it. Thus, whenever we encourage the griever to deny the pain ("crying won’t help") we are in fact inviting her to ignore herself. If she is wise, she will ignore us instead.

It is not easy for grievers to resist flight from the pain of grief, and it is a slander to suggest that those who refuse so stop grieving openly when most do so -- after the first few weeks or months – are somehow "weak." Anyone can walk away from pain, if she has hardened herself to love or become careless enough not to listen to a desperate plea for help from within herself. To risk feeling the pain is a sign of immense strength of character, not weakness. And it is an act of courage, for it means facing not only pain and a lot of work, but also fear.

Death’s most frightening message is found in the griever’s lament, "All is lost." All that was once important and meaningful, all that made life valuable, is gone -- hopelessly entwined with a love now past, and unrecoverable.

Grief is a challenge, and though confronting it is slow and painstaking, doing so is among the most creative of human activities. May Sarton puts it well:

The only way through pain, and I am thinking of mental anguish of which I have had rather too much this past year, is through it, to absorb, probe, understand exactly what it is and what it means. To close the door on pain is to miss the chance for growth, isn’t it? . . Even the most terrible shock has somehow to be built into the fabric of the personality [Recovering: A Journal (Norton, 1980) p. 13].

In reconstructing a new life the meanings, purposes and love once thought lost in the death are retrieved through arduous "grief work." The griever’s senses of meaning and purpose are translated into new and different forms, making them available for incorporation into the survivor’s present and future life. Unless processed through grief, pain will eventually find a way out in illness or depression, or will lead the griever to avoid all the deep feelings with which it is associated, preventing her from ever again feeling love or enjoying herself as deeply as before.

The self-healing process of reinterpreting and reintegrating the meaning of one’s life and love cannot be rushed, but it can easily be waylaid. The griever will experience a variety of feelings, and needs to hear from loving supporters: "Feel whatever you are feeling; I am listening and learning; I admire your courage." This encouragement affirms the grief process at a time when the slightest criticism can send it under cover, and offers certainty in the midst of doubt: this is the way to recovery. Those who speak impatiently to the griever are subtle collaborators in death’s message, and it is important for them to realize it. Their refusal to concede any meaning or purpose to the griever’s thoughts and feelings confirms that all that she once cherished is lost, irretrievably; what love now leads her to do will lead nowhere. Leave it alone, many say; time heals all wounds. But a shattered life is never fully recovered without work.

Pain will naturally dissipate as meaning is rediscovered. This takes a great deal of time. Progress may be hard to see, but is visible to loving and patient supporters. Bereavement scholars Colin Parkes and Robert Weiss have eloquently described why, when done right, the grief process moves almost imperceptibly slowly:

Emotional acceptance [of the death] can [only] be said to have taken place when the widow or widower no longer feels the need to avoid reminders of loss for fear of being flooded by grief, pain and remorse. For this state to be reached, there must be repeated confrontation with every element of the loss until the intensity of distress is diminished to the point where it becomes tolerable and the pleasure of recollection begins to outweigh the pain. The process is difficult, time consuming, and painful. It seems that emotional acceptance can be achieved only as a consequence of fme-grained, almost filigree work with memory what appears to an observer to be a kind of obsessive review . . . [But] if the process is going well . . . [there] are not quite the same thoughts and memories; there is movement [Recovery from Bereavement (Basic Books, 1983) , p. 157].

Their study of the younger widowed showed that recovery could usually be detected by the end of the first year, but the full formation of a new identity, the end point of the process, took at least two to three years.

Robert Veninga studied characteristics common to those who not only survive life crises but successfully recover full, rich, meaningful lives. In all cases, he found that these people first fully recognized and embraced the magnitude of the loss. To recover, he counsels the bereaved,

. . . you need to enter fully into your tragedy. You need to feel in the depth of your being what it is that you have lost. You should talk about your losses over and over again with a sympathetic friend. And you need to let the tears flow when your world is spinning out of control. In short, you need to acknowledge the enormity of that which has happened [A Gift of Hope (Little, Brown, 1985) , p. 66].

How we talk to ourselves, what psychologists are coming to call our "explanatory style," can be learned and changed, and whenever grievers indicate they are thinking self-denigrating thoughts ("I’m so weak I’m ashamed; I know I’m being foolish," etc.) the loving supporter should interrupt them. They are heeding internalized suggestions that addressing emotional loss is purposeless, inconsiderate and socially embarrassing. Until grievers learn to reject such attitudes, they will turn their anger inward, stifling that part of them still expressing love for their spouse, which they now blame for causing all their troubles.

The suppression of anger is also a serious potential stumbling block to full recovery. As the pain of grief signals the self’s violation, anger urges it to find redress. Griefs anger may first appear as only a means of placing blame -- on the doctor for a misdiagnosis, on the minister for not saying enough at the funeral, on parents and friends for failing to understand. But after the fury subsides -- after the reckless driver has been sued -- the bereaved is confronted with the fact that the person she loved is dead, and this unredressable fact is where the fundamental anger lies.

In seeking full recovery, the griever will use some of her anger to deter further violations of her life -- for example, by defending her grief process. A very serious difficulty is that so many people perceive anger as an ugly emotion they never learn to express it. And unless encouraged to learn how to do so when grieving, they deny themselves the stimulus necessary for the more assertive work of self-defense and self-caring required for full recovery. The griever who comes to see her grief as courageous and its violation a threat to the recovery of her life is more likely to see her anger as justified and right and to act on it.

When the pain and anger of grief are allowed to take their course, they will eventually join with the gamut of other feelings of grief, including joy and hope as well as sorrow, to focus on the true enemy, death, and the true goal, life. Recovery, after all, can be seen as life’s bold act, affirming itself in angry defiance against death. The pain that leads to anger at the violation inflicted on one’s meaning and purpose becomes the will to find a new meaning. Where death declared, "All is lost," grievers finally reply, "Not by a long shot," and go on to recover the very different, positive and constructive meaning that lies waiting for each of us, whenever we choose life.

Before meeting Pauline, I had survived a life of considerable loss ,first at the hands of parents who viciously abused all three of their children and then in a fight with cancer while in law school. After much confusion, suffering and a great deal of work, I had learned how to make it safe for myself to grieve. Then Pauline died.

A tenet of all major faiths is that suffering can redeem, and that if we take its lessons to heart, we will better understand not only the meaning of our own lives and the precious gift that is life, but how to bring the gift of meaning, life and love to others who suffer. Nine months after Pauline died, I began a self-help group for young widowed people like myself. The nearly 40 people with whom I have worked thus far have renewed their sense of efficacy as they worked through their grief and turned with excitement to the challenges of recovery and the future. This fall, one of our members, eager to share what she has learned, began a group for the widowed in midlife (ages 45-59) using our model. And so the chain of life and love continues.

The pain of Pauline’s death has not entirely faded, and I don’t expect it ever will. But with almost every passing day more of my emptiness and despair is translated into hope. Life is different and much more difficult than it would have been had Pauline lived, but I am infinitely enriched by her life having touched mine, and lam determined to find all the love, excitement and joy my wife would wish me. Even now, as I write, I hear her applauding.


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