December 25, 2012

Grief, The Mourning After

Grief and loss are part of the human condition.  The price of loving is loss.  The only people who do not experience grief are those who are incapable of love.  If we are caring humans we always risk the tragedy of losing those we care about.  The recent events at the Sandy Hook school and the resulting media attention force us to consider the intense pain that we can feel if we lose one of those we love.  In a media age, this public mourning helps us to cope with our grief.  Even though most of us do not personally know the children or adults who were lost, their traumatic deaths can cause any of us to think about how terrifying it would be for us to lose the people who matter the most to us.



Modern life in the United Sates inoculates us from death in many ways.  Life expectancies are in the mid seventies for men and in the early eighties for women.  This becomes the natural order of things and our primary expectation.  We are liable to feel the greatest impact of grief when death comes earlier and unexpectedly.  The loss of a child, especially in youth, is the most difficult loss for most people to cope with because it is exceedingly rare in our modern life, occurring at a rate of .001  In earlier times, the loss of a child was much more common. Accident and disease took children frequently.  Large families were common because most families depended on their children for labor and the loss of some of those children was anticipated.  The rarer and more unexpected an event, the more difficult the psychological ability to cope.  Because an early loss is frightening and unexpected in our country, many people are unsure how to react and may withdraw from the family that experiences the loss.  This happens at a time when the bereaved need the most support.  With the decline of community and ritual, especially in urban parts of the United States there can easily be a lack of adequate support for those experiencing a loss.  Grief is frightening.  A natural tendency is to withdraw from those experiencing it but that is when they need us the most.  People commonly will mention, “I don’t know what to say.” What is said is not important, we don’t have to try to express the enormity, the bereaved one understands that very well.  A hug, expression of concern and care are what are most helpful.  Nothing needs to be said beyond, “I am so sorry….I care about you…I am concerned.”


If you are married or live with a partner, one  day, one of you will lose the other person.  This is an unavoidable reality, yet many people attempt to avoid thinking about this inevitability and find themselves completely shocked and unprepared.  The more sudden and unexpected the loss, the more difficult the level of coping.  Thus people who lose a spouse in youth or middle age as well as older couples who lose a partner unexpectedly may have the greatest difficulty psychologically.  Many older adults can lose a mate unexpectedly through a heart attack, stroke, or untreatable cancer.  With age, the incidence of these problems increases in frequency and while heart disease and cancer can frequently be treated successfully a certain percent of those diagnosed with these  illnesses may die abruptly.  When this occurs the partner left behind will often have a much more difficult time than one who has seen their loved one decline gradually over a period of many months or years.  A longer time frame gives one a better chance to prepare and adapt mentally and emotionally.


Anyone capable of experiencing the joys of love and closeness will one day experience loss and grief.  It is only those profoundly lacking in empathy and the ability to care who will never suffer the pain of loss.  It is the price we pay for being human.  If we love, we cannot escape this risk but awareness of this possibility can help us to love more fully and with greater appreciation.  The best way to cope with loss is to remember the joy and happiness our loved one allowed us to experience and to remind ourselves of the many ways in which we enriched their lives.

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