“Grief and Healing” – a Review

March 24, 2009 brought “Grief and Healing” to the Torrance Memorial stage. This was the sixth and last class in the 2009 “Create Better Endings” series presented by H.E.L.P.

Rev. Dan Hudson set the stage – sharing the story of a very recent loss within his family (his son being cut from the club soccer team), and very effectively making the points that we suffer losses, we often try to use control in response, and that there are many ways to deal with loss and grief, and to heal.

Claire Towle, LCSW, shared a thought-provoking presentation, educating us in the language (for example, grief is the experience of loss, mourning is the outward expression of grief), reminding us of today’s context (we’re constantly exposed to death via news, TV, Internet, etc.), and pointing out the changing models (from Jackie Kennedy’s stoicism in 1963 – to Nancy Reagan’s and Tiger Woods’ more recent openly mourning). She also reminded us that it is normal for grief to cause attention, focus and memory to temporarily “go out the window.” Claire turned to how best to help a grieving friend or family member – bottom line: “companioning” or being side-by-side with the berieved – not trying to fix it.

After intermission, the program featured Corinne and Linda, two women who taught us by sharing their experiences with the deaths of their respective husbands.

John, Corinne’s husband, was diagnosed with ALS in 2003 – their children were ages 6 and 8 at the time. ALS is a progressive, incurable disease that attacks the nervous system controlling one’s voluntary muscles. John fought his ALS for 40 months, until his death – he strove to be the first person who would beat ALS. Huge stresses arrived, John’s insistence he would beat ALS (and denial that he was dying), Corinne’s desire to support him, the underlying almost-certainty that ALS would kill him – were eased by the constant support of friends and neighbors. As Corinne said – her children didn’t have any parents for 3 years – but did well thanks to the help of those friends and neighbors. When John died, Corinne (who had been a successful businesswoman) found that she had lost her self-confidence, and felt she had nothing left inside her. On reflection, she feels she lost John before he died. She recalls that for the first year (although she quit her job) she kept very busy with her children and home – the second year she started feeling her grief, and also started getting some confidence back. Corinne felt that her young children were a large part of what got her through — they get you up and going. Today, Corinne and her children talk about John, and not long ago they surprised her by remembering their parents’ wedding anniversary. Corinne is sad, however, that today she doesn’t seem to remember John as well.

Scott and Linda had been married 27 years (with a 24-year-old son) when they received very bad news. They learned (after painful confusion and unresponsiveness in the medical system) that Scott had what turned out to be an inoperable brain tumor (cancer). Scott lived only four months after receiving the diagnosis. Scott opted out of radiation and chemo, choosing instead a better quality of life for his remaining time. Scott and Linda talked openly about his dying – about assisted suicide – about when to stop treatment – discussing even plans for his ashes – and Linda felt that the last four months were the best months of their marriage. During those four months, friends came and reminisced, and laughed and cried with Scott and Linda – and recorded conversations. Scott chose the day he died – by choosing when to stop taking the medications that were keeping him going. After Scott died, Linda reports that her grief was physical, she felt her heart breaking, couldn’t concentrate (took three years before she could sit down and read a book). Linda had never been able to ask others for help, but she did then (reaching out to a friend) – and she found a “loss of spouse” support group. It’s been four years now, and the first was the hardest (with first times missing birthdays, etc.), in the second year the finality of Scott’s death set in (she still talks to him), and Linda doesn’t like living by herself. Linda reports “four years later, I’m a whole person again.”

Dan thanked Claire, Corinne and Linda, shared experiences in spirituality (which, like grieving, is unique to the person – and can be an important part of grieving and healing), and brought this excellent program to a close.

Among the take-aways for me: we each grieve in our own way, on our own time, there are no rules; helping people grieve is about being there with them; the death of a spouse or other close loved one can suck the energy out of a person, and make them feel incompetent and hollow; with time (and especially with support from others) we can heal.

Many thanks to Dan, Claire, Corinne and Linda for a strong and helpful class.