We hear a lot of talk these days about the “wounded child”, or references to “dysfunctional families”. There seems to be a growing trend for people to define themselves as “a survivor of …” something or other; or an “adult child of …” followed by a long list of traumatic experiences. Sadly, people often blame such situations as the cause of their perceived human limitations and misery, and use it as an excuse for their inaction, or worse, for their unacceptable social behaviour.
It also appears to me that for every addiction or ailment out there, there is a recovery program, a self-help guide, a book, tape or video offering to help solve “the problem”.
I am not criticizing the “Recovery Movement” with these remarks. It has helped millions of people around the world to acknowledge their emotional problems and discover possible solutions, and as a grief counselor, I am part of that movement. That’s the good news.
At the same time, however, I think many “self help gurus” make two fundamental mistakes. First is their tendency to “pathologize” situations by emphasizing dysfunctionality and maladaptive lifestyles as “illness”, resulting in people “blaming the disease.” “It’s not my fault; my parents or my environment is to blame”, is the often heard cry. Thus the responsibility for the problem and for the solution is often diverted.
Perhaps the second misconception in many self-help programs is to deal with human struggles in ways that are far too general. There are no generic cookie cutter solutions to the human dilemma. At the heart of every truly helpful, healing relationship (whether personal or professional) is the capacity for one person to genuinely listen and gradually come to understand the unique experience of the others. Pat answers, slick techniques and even good advice often don’t always help in the long run.
Serious mental illnesses do, of course, exist and need careful attention. But this myopic tendency to pathologize every single human problem may result in a failure to appreciate a most important truth: that most of us as human beings have tremendous adaptive resources. Many survived childhood, and their environment, sometimes, we could add, regardless. Millions of “Adult Children” of whatever today live satisfying, productive, healthy, functional lives, in spite of difficult early experiences.
This is not denial. It is instead a fundamental belief in the triumph of the human spirit. For when you look closely at many people whom others label as “disabled”, you most often see their strengths, and appreciate and admire their persistent, determined attempts to adapt and survive. (Terry Fox and Ric Hansen are just two examples) Once you understand where a person is coming from, you can begin to enable them to mobilize their inner strengths and resources. We may not be responsible for what happens to us, but we can, and need to, take responsibility for what we DO about it.
In other words, no circumstance, however tragic or difficult, has the power to define “who I am” unless we choose or decide to give it that power.
My commitment to the premise that “grief is not a disease or a ‘mental health disorder’”, or indeed an abnormal reaction, is well documented. I hold an unshakeable conviction that grief generally should not be understood according to a “sickness model”, but validated as a natural human reaction to any significant loss. As Queen Elizabeth wisely wrote to the citizens ofNew York on the anniversary of 9/11, “Grief is the cost of caring.”
The key for anyone seeking to support a grieving person is to be able to legitimize the process of grief, and to “normalize” (whatever that word means!) the reactions that grief manifests. When people realize that they are not “crazy” or “abnormal”, they are more willing to open themselves up to explore the feelings and discover how grief is, in fact, the very healing process they need. Admittedly, “normalizing” must never involve “minimizing”. Losing someone loved is a most difficult human experience, and nothing should take away from just how hard it can be.
In practical terms, “normalizing” the process of grief involves providing three things to grieving friends or clients.
Any model of grief support should involve providing information about what grief is and how it can affect people. In a death denying culture, where grief is often not validated, education as to what IS normal and how grief affects us is vital. The simple sharing of experiences or feelings without understanding them is futile.
The most recent attempts at “theories of grieving” are emphasizing the cognitive rather than the emotional aspects of the process. It is as we understand the cognitive process that we are set free to explore the emotional issues. This puts the familiar “phases” concepts into a completely new light.
Where education and interaction is combined, an environment is created in which grief is validated, where people can normalize their reactions which they may have felt were abnormal. With that information and in that atmosphere, they are set free to express and work through their own grief process. People need to know that the grief journey has a beginning and an end, and may require guidance to work through that complex process. Sometimes education is the best medicine.
Hand in hand with education is understanding. Grieving people usually identify with someone who has “been there”. Some might argue this point, but when people come seeking help, they want to know if anyone understands what they are experiencing. The underlying question is, “what do you know about this?” Many people say to me, “You know what you are talking about because you have been there.” That statement may not be true in every case, but this is the perception.
While it may seem basic we cannot overemphasize the importance of constant words of support and encouragement. Losing someone loved often causes the survivor to feel a loss of confidence. They wonder how they will manage, how they can survive, where they will find the strength and resources to do some of the simple things of life they may have taken in stride before. The encouragement and patience of friends and family can not be underestimated in helping people find the confidence to “go on.”
The ‘Top Ten Tasks’ of the Caregiver:
- Give the person “permission” to grieve
- View the loss from the griever’s unique perspective
- Listen nonjudgmentally with acceptance, and recognize the value of “the gift of presence”
- Provide the griever with information about the grieving process
- Ensure the griever understands their grief reactions will be unique
- Assist the griever in identifying, accepting, and expressing their feelings of grief
- Allow the bereaved to cry and cry, talk and talk, review and review
- Remember that no-one can take away the pain
- Help with practical problems that develop as a consequence of the death.
- Convey the expectation that the griever will successfullycomplete the tasks of mourning and that the pain will subside.