I’ve had multiple losses in my life and not one of them has had the same impact. Yes, there are similarities, but there are lots of differences, too. As we navigate our grief journeys and support others in the journey it is helpful to be mindful of these differences.
The main difference for me has been whether the death was anticipated, like the passing of my parents and grandparents, or sudden, like the recent death of a good friend. The grief is profound in both cases, but we have to appreciate their differences.
Well meaning adults sometimes exclude children from anticipatory grief, thinking they are protecting them. The opposite is often true, as at some level the child may not only be surprised, but resentful for being excluded. Even when an adult or child is “prepared,” it is important that we not minimize their pain or need to mourn by saying such things as “Well, it was expected after all.” Or, “It’s behind you now and you can move on.”
The more sudden the death, the more likely the shock and the disbelief that it happened. Some try to push away the pain at first. Older teens and adults may plunge into activities at a frantic pace and avoid being alone with their grief. The young child may respond by going outside to play in the only way he or she knows how since “play is a child’s work.” We know the path to healing is to allow ourselves to move toward the pain and visit those dark feelings, but for some it is very difficult to do. Being patient with ourselves or with others who experienced the loss is an important part of coping when death is sudden and unexpected and feelings are very raw. Refrain from telling the person, “You need to snap out of it.” Or, “At least she didn’t have to suffer long.”
Whether the death is anticipated or sudden we may feel culpable in some way. I personally wish I had been more assertive with my father about his heavy drinking and smoking which contributed to his death. It may or may not have made a difference, but I’ll never know since I only tried once. Guilt can raise its ugly head in many ways. An unresolved argument, an ill-timed vacation, work priorities, a missed opportunity…
A tough lesson for me, but I eventually learned that I cannot undo the past. I can learn to forgive myself and I can live forward being more mindful in my relationships.
Losses also differ based on the age of the person who died. When a person is older it is easier to understand death is “the natural order of things.” That’s not to say it makes the loss easier. But, when death happens while a person is young, it feels more tragic – a life that has been cut short.
Many of the differences between a loss of an elder loved one and a young life are similar to those of anticipated and sudden loss. It is key to understand the difference, yet appreciate the grief both cause.
Some deaths have a stigma – suicide, drug overdose, murder, AIDS, for example. Society responds differently to these loses, and sympathy is not as readily available from outsiders. That often brings additional feelings of shame, embarrassment, loneliness and/or hurt with the grief of a stigmatized loss.
The more stigmatized the death the more isolated the survivors may feel. There certain things we “just don’t talk about” in our society. Without very sensitive friends and family members, professional help, and/or retreat experiences that provide an opportunity to mourn with those who understand, healing may be difficult, and the consequences long lasting. Fortunately there are many organizations that provide that special touch and/or connect those who can truly understand and care.
We must always remember that every person’s situation is different, and every person’s unique experience and personality plays a role in their grief.
There’s no time limit for “getting over it,” and “moving on.” I’m still amazed at how prevalent this view is in society, and also how limiting and damaging it is for those who need to mourn in order to heal and create a new life out of their experience of loss.
To quote from Mary Oliver’s “The Uses of Sorrow,” as I’ve done before in Hello Grief:
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this too, was a gift.
The new life we create after loss doesn’t put the grief behind. If we are wise, in time, the experience of loss softens and changes us, and our “gift” is helping others through the “darkness.”