In a society whose people have been inclined to avoid the issues around death and dying, survivors often are left with unwelcome feelings stemming from unfinished grief.
Although everyone has his or her own way of getting through loss, we are learning that there is a basic process that can ease the pain. The style of that process is not nearly so important as the completion, which means full acceptance. And to complete the process, the benefit must be involved as much as possible in the events surrounding the loss. Lack of participation can lead to anxieties that linger until the issues are confronted and worked through.
These anxieties are manifested in many ways, but generally they have to do with a constant fear and expectation of another loss that will again be unresolved. They can have extreme effects on the physical and emotional health of the continuous griever because they are usually on an unconscious level.
This kind of anxiety can be very tiring. It can interfere in the development of important relationships. Most of all, it can inhibit the ability to enjoy life on a day-to-day basis due to fears about the future. People who have experienced the stages of bereavement are much more inclined to be free of such anxieties.
We can hope that this theory is sufficiently widespread to help those who are going through their first loss today. But what of those of us who were "protected" from the very emotions we needed to experience by some well-meaning family member or friend?
An approach for those who are interested in finishing some grieving from a past loss involves writing, but requires few writing skills. One can begin this project with the knowledge that somewhere inside us is a full account of what happened, no matter how difficult it is to rememberr. And the ability to find peace through full acceptance of our loss is there as well.
The process begins with the full documentation of what happened around the loss. All that can be remembered should be recorded, as well as what others can contribute. This allows the writer to relive the situation as realistically as possible even though it may be years later.
For example, as a 36-year-old single mother, I found myself filled with anxiety based on the possible loss of my children, or their loss of me. Of course, a certain amount of this anxiety is normal and predictable. But I was unable to live comfortably with my fears. I was far too protective and resisted being away from the children more than absolutely necessary. When I was away from them, I was plagued with vivid fantasies of various accidents resulting in their deaths.
Although I appeared to be functioning well, these thoughts were beginning to take their toll on my health. I became determined to overcome this behavior.
During some undergraduate course work, and with the help of my faculty adviser and my therapist, I realized I must carefully explore the past, in particular the circumstances surrounding the time of my mother's death, when I was 7 years old.
Although much of the ritual around my mother's short terminal illness had been avoided in our family, I recorded all that I could remember from the first knowledge of the illness through the aftermath of the funeral. This required many questions of other family members as well as long and painful exploration of my memory.
This documentation provided me with a sense of reliving the sadness and directly experiencing the loss. Because those feelings had been avoided in the past, they had remained locked inside me, unreleased for years.
When the documentation of the reality was finished, I then wrote a piece on "How It Might Have Been." This fantasy served as an ego-maintaining device, allowing me to step outside myself and objectively view the pain of the grieving process.
In reality, there was only a brief mention of my mother's illness, leaving me with many unanswered questions. My family's inability to respond in an open and honest way to those questions kept me silent. When I asked specific questions about the seriousness of her illness, they wanted to protect me from the sadness rather than to help me, and themselves, confront the truth.
In my fantasy, I had long conversations with my father at the onset of the illness. He was able to explain what the illness was and what it meant. He and other significant family members encouraged my questions and my full expression of emotions.
In reality, my mother spent her last two weeks in the hospital where she died. In fantasy, I brought her home for her last days, I helped care for her and spoke to her of my sadness and fears. She assured me that she was very sad to leave her family but relieved to be free from a painful death. Throughout her dying, I was surrounded by family and friends who expressed their emotions openly.
In reality, through the years following my mother's death, I was aware that conversations about her made my father and other family members unhappy. So I joined in the protection from sadness and just didn't talk about the issues that remained with me.
In my fantasy, because those conversations were encouraged, I was able to relate realistically to my mother in terms of the person she was and how she felt about me. Even in the fantasy, the loss was very painful and left a void that could never be filled.
The process of writing this documentation and fantasy helped me, for the first time, to thoroughly grieve and accept the finality of my loss. It enabled me to confront my own mortality and that of my loved ones. Now I can recognize the importance of the past yet I can live in the present with a more comfortable understanding of death.