I Don't Know What to Say

I Don't Know What to Say (Part 1)

Grief recovery is a process.

Rae Lee and her husband live in Maryland where she works as an emergency room nurse, teaches music, enjoys aerobics, reading.


I remember when Sandy's father died. She and I were classmates in the tenth grade. Every day we rode the bus to school, attended classes, talked and laughed like school girls do.

Then one day Sandy wasn't on the bus. I overheard my classmates talking about Sandy's father. He had a heart attack and died just after she got home from school the evening before. I wondered how Sandy felt. I tried to imagine how I would feel if my father died and my heart ached for my friend.

It was more than a week before we saw Sandy climb on the bus at her stop once again. She looked different; pale and quiet. The girl on the front seat made room for her and she sat down in silence. We were all silent. We didn't know what to say or do. For the next few days we kind of stayed away from Sandy. It was strange because we felt bad for her but didn't know how to go near or reach out to her.

Since that experience in my life, I have, on a number of occasions, come in contact with people who have suffered major losses in their lives. As their friend, I too, experienced their deep sorrow, but have felt so inadequate in knowing what to say or how to help them. More often it's just easier to stay away and yet I know that really is not right either. What can I do to help people in these circumstances?

Let's bring this closer to home. What happens to us when we experience a painful loss? When a well-meaning friend tells us to "snap out of it," how do we do that? Can we ever expect life to be normal again? Is there life afterloss?

Through my studies and per­sonal reading time I have learned some important concepts which have helped me in ministering to grieving friends, It gives me great pleasure to share some of this information with you through this publication.

There's no such thing as a minor loss.

From babyhood to old age mankind suffers loss. The baby loses the security of the womb. The child loses close communion with parents when he is left at home with the baby-sitter or servant. The teenager's identity is lost during rapid physical and emotional changes. Young adults lose lovers during their search for a life companion. Then they lose their parental home. Middle age brings loss of children to school and marriage. Late life brings loss of health, independence, mobility, and future. While we go through these stages in the life cycle, we may also experience a number of unexpected losses.

Often we associate loss and grief with a lost relationship. But there are numerous ways in which we can lose and suffer because of it. A simple definition of loss is to be without something we once had that indicates a change. Some significant losses could include:

  • imminent death of self
  • death of another
  • loss of health
  • loss of a limb
  • loss of some body function
  • loss of a meaningful item
  • loss of employment
  • birth of defective child
  • birth of an unwanted child
  • multiple losses of aging
  • divorce
  • abortion
  • separation
  • children leaving home
  • financial loss
  • moving
  • loss of freedom
  • loss of property
  • loss of authority
  • loss of position
  • loss of ideals
  • loss of parental home
  • loss of lifestyle
  • loss of a career (retirement)
  • career change
  • loss of a childhood belief
  • loss of communication
  • loss of a dream
  • loss of reputation
  • loss of a pet

Sometimes we see someone feeling very badly about something which seems such a small thing to us. We can even become impatient and think that person is overreacting. We might say they just want some attention or are being unreason­able.

However, it is important to remember that no loss is minor to the person experiencing it. We can slow down, and, in fact, damage an individual's recovery ability by encouraging him to forget his grief, or to "snap out of it." We might react in this manner more com­monly with children. But their grief and tears over a seemingly small loss is no less real and heartfelt than ours might be in the event of a perceived major disaster in our lives.

Grief is a healthy process

"You may think I'm a very weak person for coming to see you today," Beth said to her church pastor, "but my son told me I need to see a psychiatrist. Before I do that, I thought I'd come and talk to you. Please tell me, Pastor, do you think I'm crazy? Do I really need a psychiatrist?"

"How long has it been, Beth, since your husband died?" asked the pastor.

"Five weeks last Thursday," she quickly reported.

"Tell me some of the feelings you're having," he gently urged.

"Well, I cry a lot. I can't go out anywhere for fear of breaking down. And I have this terrible fear that something else is going to happen. I went to the shop to buy a few things I really needed, when suddenly a terrible fear came over me. I had to get out of there immediately. I ran out of the store to my car. You know, I used to be able to remember things really well, but lately I forget everything. Not only that, but I get a pain right here in my chest, and it moves up into my throat. I've also had some awful dreams. Wally's in them, but I never hear him say anything. Lately I've gotten angry a lot. I can't tell you what I'm angry about, but I know I'm lashing out at some of the people I love the most. The children notice it. I'm embarrassed. I've never been an irritable person. I did everything I knew how to do for Wally, but I've been thinking that maybe I wasn't fussy enough about how hard he worked. Some­times I just wish I had died instead of Wally. I know it's terrible for me to feellike this, but I can't help it." Beth sighed and reached for a tissue to wipe her tears.

Many times people treat grief like it's a disease. We see a grieving person's reactions and feel uncom­fortable around them. We wish their grief would go away like a headache in the path of a pain­killer. We feel their unusual behav­ior must be emotionally unhealthy so we encourage them to get professional help to get them straightened out. However, fear, anger, guilt, p/oor memory, empti­ness, and long crying spells are normal reactions for someone who has lost an important relationship. These reactions are a healthy attempt of the entire being to adjust and heal.

There are three types of losses. The first is situational loss. Perhaps we have to watch someone die of disease. Sometimes we might have a choice regarding the medical treatment he or she might receive. Maturational loss is what we expect to experience, like our hair turning gray. The third type of loss, accidental loss, always comes un­expectedly and suddenly and is beyond any control.

Loss is easier to adjust to when we have some degree of control or choice. However, there is pain in loss even with control or choice. I may choose to take a new job in a different locality, but the loss I feel when I leave my friends and family behind is still significant and I have to deal with it.

Grief pain is three-fold:

I. Emotional pain. This can include sadness, guilt, anger, con­fusion, fear, despair, lethargy, boredom, and depression.

2. Physical pain. An indi­vidual could suffer from fatigue, insomnia, loss of memory, loss of concentration, pressure in the chest and throat.

3. Behavior pain. One could experience discomfort promoted by doing things he or she used to do with the person who is now missing, such as going back to laces they used to go together.

No two people grieve in the same way

There are five stages in the grief process.

1. Shock and denial. This stage is the body's helpful reaction which delays the full awareness of the situation until the person is strong enough to face it. It can last fora few minutes or for longer time, as in the case of Karen.

"I believe I'm finally beginning to heal," Karen quietly told the group.

"What makes you think that, Karen?" the counselor asked.

"Well, my husband died of cancer eight months ago over in the Dalton City Hospital. Every day since he died I have called the head nurse on the cancer unit and asked how my husband was doing. Every day the nurse has reminded me that he has died. This week I haven't called the hospital once. That's howl can tell I'm beginning to heal."

Whenever I recall the above episode, I feel admiration for that head nurse who so patiently dealt with Karen. She must have been a very patient and understanding person. Maybe she understood that it takes some people longer than others to accept a loss.

2. Anger. In this stage the grieving individual has acknowledged the loss but so keenly feels their helplessness in the situation that they become very angry. This anger is vented toward family, friends, church and/or God.

3. Bargaining. This stage is most evident in situational losses. 'The individual will bargain with God. They pray for a miracle promising to be good or to do good. Sometimes, as in the case of a person who is dying of some disease, relatives will spend a lot of time, effort, and money to try out unusual cures, hoping to prolong the life of the sick person.

4. Depression. As the sense of loss becomes greater and more real, depression sets in. Feelings of despair and disorganization sweep over the person. They may feel they are losing their mind. It seems like life will never be normal again. It is during this time that relatives and friends become worried and en­courage the grieving individual to seek professional help.

It is very important, as it is with each stage of the grieving process, that the individual be allowed to go through this phase. It is true that in some cases a person seems to become "stuck" in one stage and remain there for a long period of time. They aren't able to successfully resolve that phase and continue on towards healing. However, in most cases the person will come through if given the support they need.

In the stage of depression, it is as if an individual is sliding downward on a steep hill. In order to come out of this phase, they must be allowed to go clear to the bottom. We must not place roadblocks in their way as we try to "help." A grieving individual must be allowed to cry, to talk, to remember, to sit in silence, to do whatever they need to do. All we can do for them is to simply be there—to listen, to weep, to encour­age, and to understand. They will go clear to the bottom, and then come up. They will rise to a level of normal living that is on a higher plane than previous to this experi­ence. As they come out of depres­sion, they move successfully into the final stage.

5. Acceptance. The person becomes quiet, reflective, and at peace. The loss can be recalled without extreme pain. New rela­tionships are formed. With a strong support system, the person can become a strong witness of faith, often cheering those who come to visit.

No two people respond the same to a loss. Reactions can occur in various combinations and de­grees of intensity. God made no two people alike and we must allow for individual difference even in the process of grief recovery. All people have the same needs. However, the most important need a person has during a time of loss is to be understood, loved, and supported. Without these elements of care, the grieving person may run from the pain. They may turn to drugs, withdraw, exhibit angry behavior, become extremely bitter or reckless. It may take years for their grief to be finally resolved and for them to be able to live at peace with themselves, their family, and community. Loss potential for destruction can be turned into a source of healing and growth if support is there.

Loss or change + pain = sickness, destruction, breakdown

Loss or change + support = growth, healing, peace

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Personal nate: My appreciation to Larry Yeagley for kindling my interest in grief recovery minis­try through my attendance of his seminar at the GC session. Some of the material and stories used in this article are adopted from that seminar.