Boston Women’s Journal - October/November 2006

The Last Taboo Topic?

We now feel free to talk about things the last generation would have considered uncouth or just plain rude: menopause, medical issues, even birth control choices, but the topics of grief and mourning remain taboo. We avoid the topic, sanitize it, and hide it in the hushed atmosphere of funeral rituals.

In my last article I wrote about getting through a marathon of personal and family trauma. My father died June 25, and my brother died July 23. I would like to share my new learning about grief with you.

How do we mourn? There is no guidebook and most of the self-help guides are full of platitudes, none of which were helpful to me when I sampled them. As a therapist, I deal with these issues all the time, for others. The do-it-yourself journey was a bit different. So here’s my best shot at a “Primer on Dealing with Mourning.”

Everyone feels grief and mourning at different intensities. Don’t assume that a pet or a distant friend dying won’t cause deep grief. People are as different as the colors of the rainbow and what causes anguish for one person may pass more lightly for another. We have no right to judge that anything causing grief “isn’t that bad,” or “you had a difficult relationship, so why are you so sad that he’s gone?” Sometimes the most difficult relationships are the hardest to grieve because there is so much unfinished business. Let yourself or your friend or relative speak the truth about their feelings, it is their pain, and we lighten the load by listening.

There’s no timeline for mourning. Death, even if expected, is always a shock. A therapist friend of mine said a client of his described her current feelings about the loss of her husband 10 years ago as “chronic grief.”

My own experience was that it took about a month to really have the time to begin to grieve. There were too many life actions requiring my attention. As women and as caregivers we often make sure everyone else is OK before we give ourselves permission to feel. Often people are present to help initially, then move on and expect the same from the mourner. It was after most of my kind friends and relatives stopped “checking in” that my real work began.

I just came back from a week alone on the coast of Maine where I spent my time crying, writing a journal, praying, and meditating. My 83 year old mom thought I was falling apart, while in fact it was just the opposite. I was finally able to allow my feelings to surface, and many of them were not pretty. The key is that I needed to break my daily routine to focus on letting myself FEEL in a safe place. This is very important. I know that a week is only the beginning of my journey of loss, but trusting my feelings honored my way of processing them.

Buried feelings don’t go away. I often say to my clients in therapy, “There is no way around it, you have to go through it.” Find your safe place and turn off the world, even if it’s only for hours, and focus on your grief. For some that means working with a therapist, joining a support group, or going to the mountains with a trusted friend. Taking the time to focus on your feelings in a concentrated way is key. Avoidance will rear its ugly head in many different ways, sickness, crankiness, unstable emotions, anger, and mood swings. I experienced them all.

There is nothing wrong with sadness, and sadness is not always depression. If depression is present it should be treated, but I have found that plain old sadness is hard for us to experience and for others to tolerate. What is wrong with a society that has to be “upbeat” all the time? Plain old vanilla sadness is human. As I mourn people keep asking me if I am depressed or angry at God, and I keep saying “No, I am just sad.” I have said that 100 times. Sadness is healthy and normal. Let yourself be sad, and respect and honor the sadness in others.

It’s important to celebrate the memory of the lives of those who have died. I remember joy-riding with my brother Keith on a friend’s motorcycle at 16, and hiding the dog in mom’s bed to hear her scream. I remember my dad waking me up in the middle of the night to tell me terrible stories about his WW II fighting when he couldn’t sleep. All memories, good and bad, are part of our ability to be human and slowly and gently learn to live with the loss of those we love.

In loving memory of Martin and Keith Marks