When the Hurt Won't Go Away

Part two in the "Loss, Grief, and Recovery" series.

Rae Lee Cooper and her husband live in Maryland where she works as an emergency room nurse, teaches music, enjoys aerobics, reading, gardening, and talking an the phone to her children in California.

If you were to visit Mary in her home, you might find it hard to know what to say or how to react. You see, there's some­thing strange about Mary. Oh, I don't mean she's ill or hard to get along with. No, there isn't anyone sweeter than Mary. She is loving and friendly to all she meets and is completely devoted to her husband.

About a year ago Mary's little two­year-old son was found dead in the garden water tank. It was a terrible shock to Mary and her husband for this only child was greatly cherished by his parents. Family and friends rallied to the situation and in due time it seemed to everyone that Mary had come to terms with the tragedy. Well, maybe it looked like that on the outside, but what about on the inside? That's where the strangeness comes in.

If you did visit with Mary in her home, one thing she would do is take you on a tour of their pretty little house. A special room she would be sure to show you is a certain bed­room belonging to their dead son, still kept just as if he were alive and occupying it. You would also notice that Mary speaks of her son in the present tense only.

Mary's husband and some of her close, concerned friends have tried to talk to her about these things, but Mary stoutly states that she has accepted her son's death and there is no problem. She seems most reluctant to even discuss the matter. On the outside she appears to be going about her normal life, but on the inside there is still a carefully guarded and maintained relation­ship that Mary is holding on to with her little son.

There's only one you

During the past few years there have been many studies regarding the emotions of grief. Research has shown that everyone basically goes through somewhat the same process of recovery: 1) shock and denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression, and 5) acceptance. However, research has also recognized that people cannot all be placed in the same emotional boxes.

There is no one way to grieve over a loss. In fact, there are as many ways to grieve as there are people who grieve, because each person is created unique. The feelings, the intensity of one's grief cannot be compared to someone else. Should you and I lose our mothers through some tragedy, your reactions would be totally different to mine. Nobody has the right to judge you for feeling the way you do. And I could not truthfully say to you, "I know exactly how you feel.'

You feel the way you do because you are you. These emotions and feelings are not wrong or harmful. What you do about your feelings, however, is a different matter. Deny and hide them, and you may delay grief and also create emotional problems for yourself like in the case of Mary.

Sometimes we can get "stuck" in one area of grief recovery and remain there for a long time, maybe permanently. Have you ever met someone who became an angry person after losing something important in his/her life? Have you known of an individual who never came out of depression over some major loss? It happens all too often.

"What can I do about my feelings?" you ask. "Is there anything that I can do when the hurt just won't go away?"

Believe it happened

A mother of a World War II pilot said, "Nobody will ever convince me that my boy is dead. If his plane was shot down, he survived. He was such a self-reliant young man. He'd find ways of surviving in enemy territory. Maybe he settled down in Europe after the war and has a family. Some of our friends told us we were foolish for holding out hopes, and we finally cut ourselves off from them because they just didn't understand."

A person who refuses to believe that a tragedy happened can remain in their grief for a very long time. We have to admit to ourselves that it happened in order to recover from the pain of loss. Sometimes people will avoid facing reality by taking on extra work and keeping very busy. Some may travel extensively; others will join in on many social events, adopting an active lifestyle through which they can run away from reality for years.

As in the case of Mary, refusal to believe death happened often takes place when a person insists on keeping the relationship with the loved one alive. Much energy is expended in doing this; talking of or to the person, washing and rewashing their clothes, keeping things just as they were in an effort to keep the relationship alive.

A certain amount of this behavior is normal for a short time, but when it goes on indefinitely and becomes distorted, it can throw a real blockade against the door to adjustment. There is a price to pay for the emotional stress which is usually :Jemonstrated in physical illness, emotional exhaustion, broken relationships, disrupted families, shattered careers, and callousness.

Grieving is a time to cry out for help. Friends, family, neighbors all can be a strong support to us in time of loss. Disclosure of inner feelings to another human being is indispensable to recovery. Sometimes even this good support isn't enough and we ma)- need more professional help. Consulting a physician or chaplain may guide us to someone who is trained to help in specific problems.

The sooner you hurt, the sooner you heal

Occasionally we may hear a well-meaning friend advise some grieving person to stop thinking about the loss. Such counsel is not wise. Thinking about and talking about the relationship with a loved one is important to the healing process. Expressing some feelings about the loss confirms the reality of it and facilitates the experience of pain which produces a mellowing effect. It's much better to think and talk about the loss immediately after it occurs. The pain will be intense, but it won't be dragged out unmercifully.

"I've been struggling with my 19­year-old son's death for 12 years. Even though it's been 12 years, it hasn't gotten any easier," Jane told her counselor.

Jane presented a picture of a perfectly controlled individual. She was a quiet person with a rigid posture with a muscle-tensed appearance which seemed to defy anyone who might invade her shell.

The counselor advised Jane to "Co on memory trips." He told her to remember every facet of her relation­ship with her son; drive by his school, go back to the places and events connected with his life. He told her that it would be painful—just about as painful as going through his actual death again. Then he advised her to record her feelings in a journal and to talk about them to a friend. He said to cry freely as the tears make their way to her eyes. Don't fight the pain—let it happen because with every tear wiped away, also wipes away a little bit of the hurt.

A week later when Jane returned, she looked more relaxed. She reported that she had relived the whole experience during the past week. At first she was afraid to open it up again after closing the door on her feelings for 12 years. She had done a lot of thinking and a lot of writing and had come out of the experience feeling lighter and at peace with herself. She had started to heal at long last.

Say goodbye

Have you ever gone to a train station or an airport to see some loved one off? Until it's time for them to leave, you all stand around talking about many different things: the weather, business, relatives, plans, etc. Suddenly the time comes for the person to part from you. The pretense at merriment suddenly stops. Tears come to the eyes as there are hugs and last words of love and good wishes. Why is saying goodbye so difficult?

Saying goodbye means separation, deprivation, loneliness, and change. It means losing control over a part of life together. It's a painful reminder of reality.

Similarly, saying goodbye after a person dies is an extremely painful reminder of reality. It's impossible to do so until you establish in your own mind that the life of your loved one was of value. You can do this by deliberately reviewing and reconstructing your relationship with your loved one. Reminiscing about every aspect of your life with that person is important. In addition to reviewing your relationship with your loved one, take every opportunity to learn about that person's relationship with others.

We can never say goodbye to our memories of loved ones. We can only say goodbye to the relationship we had with them. That relationship can never be reestablished in this life. In fact, as in the case of Mary, trying to sustain that relationship can only result in frustration, making it impossible to invest in meaningful relationships in the future.

Refocus your life

Just about the time you think life is bearable, an anniversary, a holiday, a favorite song, or a familiar place does strange things to your emotions. You spend months and years discovering the full significance of a lost relationship, but unexpected events and places can trigger a deep sorrow and a flood of tears.

Don't be alarmed. You haven't slipped back to the emotional state you were in during the first few months of grief. Experience the pain that has been aroused. Let the tears flow. Say goodbye to the relationship that is so spontaneously brought to your attention. Regression is common during the time of refocusing.

During the months of intense grief there are enough activities to absorb your time and energy. After you move toward refocusing, the mask falls away and suddenly you feel extremely exhausted. It would be well to have a good examination by your physician. Get plenty of rest and be sure to eat a balanced diet. Make time every day for some exercise, even if it is only a relaxing walk. Try to avoid major changes in your life the next year or so. Conserve your energy.

In early grief, all your memories are tied to the person or situation you have lost. You have not developed a history apart from that relationship. Meaninglessness persists. Refocusing is the time when you begin creating a history that does not include a relationship that you formerly had. You may find yourself in a quandary—unable to make decisions. The forward movement of life has ceased and meaning is non­existent.

Give yourself time—time will enhance the chances of a satisfactory outcome. For some it takes more time and they can become discouraged. Each person must refocus life in a unique way because no two people grieve alike,

Grief has a way of reducing your support system. You realize that the world you were accustomed to has disappeared. Loss always changes things—it changes you. If you remain open to new relationships, you'll find people with whom you can develop a strong level of trust, Losing a few friends in the process of grieving is not unusual. Some people just do not feel comfortable around those who grieve. That's why it's so important to be open to new relationships. Enlarging your family of supportive friends can make up for the loss of friends who can't relate to you in your grief.

For some, looking beyond their own pain and getting involved in helping someone else makes the pain easier to bear. Andrea learned this lesson a few years after her husband died in a motorcycle accident. She desperately clung to the relationship until she was about to destroy herself with anger. She knew she had to do something to change the picture.

With the help of a close friend, she slowly cut the emotional ties with her husband. After a series of good­byes to the relationship, Andrea took time to notice other widows who were struggling like she had and organized a monthly luncheon for her hurting friends. Healing happened and Andrea discovered that she was healed in the act of healing others.

In summary

Feeling hundreds of emotions, painfully coming to accept reality, saying goodbye to relationships that are no more and refocusing—these are the ingredients of resolution. No two persons put the ingredients together in exactly the same way. Allowing for personal differences is essential if adequate adjustment is to occur.

Rae Lee Cooper and her husband live in Maryland where she works as an emergency room nurse, teaches music, enjoys aerobics, reading, gardening, and talking an the phone to her children in California.