The Good in Grieving

The mourning process is as individual as we are.

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Much like love, grief is the most human of emotions. But we never know exactly what it is until we experience it.

When the act of mourning proves treacherous, we often abandon ship for safer shores. We want to become only “acquainted with grief,” as the early poets tell us—to endure it and live through it, but rarely become intimate with it.

Bereavement is defined as the period after a loss when acute grief and mourning occur. The death of a loved one can take an especially devastating toll on older people—especially spouses, who typically have to contend with a shrinking social circle, a new identity as a single person, and financial and medical issues.

Today’s holistic approach to looking at grief is one reason why professionals in this area draw from diverse backgrounds that include psychology, social work, family therapy, the clergy, meditation, yoga and more. Bereavement, after all, is a complicated process. “Go out to lunch with friends and ask them a random question about the grief process, and I’ll guarantee they’re going to get it wrong,” says Joseph McBride, a clinical social worker who lectures at the University of Pennsylvania.

Growing up in a family that owns a funeral home in Paulsboro, N.J., McBride became interested in how the treatment of death—and its effects on grief—has changed over the past century. In ensuing years, he’s experienced firsthand how people react differently to death, from the families of crime victims to those who lost loved ones in the 1988 Pan American jet explosion over Scotland.

The loss of a longtime spouse poses a unique set of problems. Call it the “What’s next?” dilemma. The one left behind is typically faced with an empty house, a loss of income and the dissolution of a longtime shared routine. In cases where the couple followed traditional roles, confusion and anxiety only exacerbates the difficulties of grappling with new skills and a new identity.

Isolation is one reason why counselors stress self-care, treating yourself as if you’re preparing for a marathon or an arduous journey. Simply put, you need to eat well and stay in shape.

“Speed grieving” is a popular term these days. It refers to the tendency for people to curtail their sorrow or to let others persuade them that they need to move on quickly. Grief, in turn, becomes a kind of personality defect. McBride is troubled by the way our self-help culture encourages us to live life to the fullest and yet denies death, tolerating expressions of grief only during the funeral or perhaps a few months afterward.

At issue is the difficulty people have in normalizing grief and redefining closure. “Not everyone needs therapy, but everyone goes through the process in their own way,” says McBride.

Only the bereaved knows how—and how long—to grieve. Mourners in the Victorian era were particularly adept at expressing their thoughts, but that changed over time. Indeed, experts say it was our misguided attempts to explain things in simple terms that has led us to the place where we are today.

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