Death. We all know that it will happen, to us and to everyone else. That awareness of death is, in fact, one of the existential anxieties that we as humans experience. But we are apt to turn a blind eye, get on with our lives, and maintain optimistic regard for those around us. When death does happen, we are always unprepared. The enormity of the event is overwhelming.
When someone we really care about dies, two things often coincide. First and foremost, there is the vacuum, the emptiness present in the face of that person being gone. This may be where most of our noticing is directed. Along with it, though, are all the things we never said, were unspoken, leaving a frustrating experience of unfinished business.
You might slip into feeling markedly different from your normal self. The consensus seems to be that an average of nine months is required for grieving. But everyone is different. The “five stages of grief,” as laid out by Swiss psychiatrist Kubler-Ross in 1969, simply don’t exist. We may experience denial, sadness, anger, bargaining and acceptance, or we may not. We might experience one or many of those states in no particular order, and perhaps even years apart. The experience of grief is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Grief is personal.
So let’s get personal. Think about the person who has gone from your life, and then think of a fond memory, or something they taught you. Consider writing an essay about that, or doing a painting, or even a monologue on stage before an audience. As you do this you’ll bring to mind specific encounters and ideas about your person that feel good, even gratifying. The person you mourn enriched your life, and that ultimately is what the pain and sense of loss are all about. So for a few moments, gratifying moments, you can feel relaxed inside and smile.
If someone you really care about is soon to die, think on those topics, and then share those thoughts with that person. Validate their lives for them: let them be acutely aware that their life has had a positive effect on yours. What a gift to give.
Grief can cause us to shut down in numerous and often subtle ways. A need to shift our state may develop. If we can purposefully add something dynamic into our lives, that shift will occur. The pain won’t go away, but for a moment our attention can be elsewhere, in a place that feels better. Writing, painting, and acting are all cathartic experiences that benefit us, but it’s in actively moving our bodies that we can truly shake things up. If you’ve been a runner in the past, begin running again. If you’re a swimmer, swim. The point is to engage in an aerobic activity for 30 – 40 minutes three or four times a week. Numerous studies have highlighted the interconnectivity of the mind and body. It may feel counterintuitive to get busy when our minds are otherwise engaged, but if we can initiate a state within our bodies, it will surely affect how we feel in our mind.
If we’re lucky, when death happens to a loved one, we will have a support system near us. That doesn’t have to be a group of people; it can be two or three, or even one person. Someone who supports us is someone who cares about our story and is willing to be present to, and validate our grief — just as we validate the life of our loved one who has died or is dying.
The Wellness Center will be hosting a 5-week art therapy group on grief & loss next semester. Call (240) 895-4289 for more information.