Saying ‘Dead’ won’t Kill You
Thursday Feb. 25th, 2010
When I was very young, one of my dearest friends committed suicide. For the longest time, I could not say the word “dead.” I would use words like gone or passed away. When I was eventually willing to admit to myself that he killed himself, I would say we lost him to suicide, or that he had a fatal case of depression.
I remember that when I received the call in the middle of the night from our mutual dear friend Anthony, he was crying into the phone.
“Anthony, what’s wrong?”
“Michael’s gone.” In shock, I thought, ‘Where did he go?’ And a snap shot of Michael trekking across Europe passed through my mind. Delete, rewind: he died. He’s dead. Dead.
Mourning the death of a loved one is an eerie thing for many reasons; it takes much longer than the allotted time we give ourselves, it forces us out of our daily worries and trivial needs, wants, and cares, and because it never really seems real.
Many years later, after I safely moved through the mourning period in a healthy manner, I decided to become a counselor. When my clients discuss the loss of a loved one with me, my goal is to help him or her move through the loss. This includes addressing the unfinished business in the relationship, the process of detaching from the dead, and re-engaging with life and all it has to offer. Moving in a healthy manner through the mourning allows each person to emerge from the initial loss wiser and more mature.
With the passage of time, mourning and grieving can open the door to a deeper wisdom. According to my mentor, Dr. Irvin Yalom, M.D., mourning the death of a loved one can be a boundary experience. We cross the boundary from “everydayness” to “being” itself. In other words, we transition from focusing on our daily to-do list to focusing on the present moment: on who we are and why we are here. We see the bigger picture. And with this shift in perception, over time, we grow more appreciative of what we have and who we are.
How do we move through the loss of a loved one? According to the prominent psychiatrist, medical doctor, and internationally known thanatologist Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., there are five stages to death. And as research continues, we learn that these stages work in cycles but do not always operate in the same order.
The usual first stage is denial and isolation. Denial and isolation are followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. Denial entails the “where did he go?” reaction, or the belief that you have seen the loved one in a crowded street for a second. The anger stage can be overwhelming. There is anger at the person for dying, at life and its stages, at yourself, and at others connected to the person. And then the bargaining… for example: if I had only done this, he or she would still be alive. The natural depression arrives when we feel the completeness and totality of the loss. Finally we find acceptance. That the loved one is dead: not passed away, not gone, not taking a nap. Dead.
A belief in an after-life can also help to comfort the loss of a loved one. Dr. Kubler Ross elegantly writes in her book On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Stages of Loss, “death and birth are points on a continuum of life, death is not the end and birth is not the beginning.” This thought may soften the initial grief, allowing us to process the death more easily and begin to accept the loss. Though this belief is in no way necessary in order to pass through mourning and bereavement in a healthy and healing manner, it is important to recognize that we all process and accept loss in different ways.
At times, the death of a loved one is so shocking and saddening that we plummet into a deep depression and feel there is no way out, or we leave the mourning period feeling empty, numb and exhausted while every one else seems to have gotten over it… somehow. In Hope Edelman’s book Motherless Daughters, the Legacy of Loss, she addresses a child’s loss of a parent. She emphasizes the importance of a healthy mourning period, explaining that the child runs the risk of creating a relational pattern of loss in order to move through the initially traumatizing loss of a parent. The child can become hypersensitive to abandonment and inappropriately attach to others, inadvertently re-activating the cycle of loss.
There will be times when the death of a loved one will be felt more than others. Birthdays, holidays, and major life cycle events such as weddings will always remind us of our loss. This is a normal part of the grief process. But during these times especially, it may be beneficial to speak to a counselor. Therapy provides the time and space to process the loss in a safe, confidential, and healing manner.
Bereavement in and of itself is something that cannot be cured with a pill. Bereavement cannot be fast-forwarded, it takes time; and that time is never pre-determined. The death of a loved one is painful and through that pain, we can heal and grow wiser and more generous, caring, and creative.
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” -Albert Einstein
Zoe Hicks, M.A. works at Sano Connection in Bozeman, MT at http://www.counselingandbodywork.com/. Zoe will be facilitating a monthly support group for motherless daughters. Feel free to contact her at 599.9250.