Monday, December 20, 2010

"As Long As It Takes” - Sorry, Not the Right Answer

I have two friends that lost their spouse this year.  They are only two people in the world – but their reaction to the loss has been worlds apart.

Joe (a fictional name) lost his wife of 25 years earlier this year.  His wife’s death was sudden and unexpected.  He has had no counseling, he is taking no drugs.  He is “putting one foot in front of the other” every day and working on the “new normal” (whatever the hell that is, in his words).  He is dealing with the pain of loss head on and he’ll talk about the fact that it hurts.  But, he also says – “I may live another 30 years. I have to take care of myself and keep my life going and keep healthy.”  When he’s lonely, he picks up the phone and calls someone and will talk for hours, but he’s not a downer – all the time - because the phone calls don’t exclusively dwell on his grief.

Jenny (a fictional name) lost her husband of 30 years a little over a year ago.  His death was not sudden, it was a prolonged illness.  Since his death she has seen a grief counselor on a regular basis, joined multiple grief groups at church, and goes to church several times a week for some type of function.  She is also on three medications to regulate her depression.  She will go weeks without opening the curtains in her house.  She eats, she sleeps, she goes to church – but that’s about it.  She’s unhappy and lonely all the time, her health is deteriorating and she struggles to make it through each and every day, sometimes she talks about wanting to die.  Her kids are backing away from her – I look at the caller ID and decide whether to take the calls, because she talks almost exclusively about her grief.  She’s still deep into her grief and it’s taking a toll on her relationships.

So what?  Well I keep coming back to the same questions when I think about the way that Jenny is handling her grief, questions  that haunt me.  Some reading this may say if I have these questions, I’m probably not a friend (oh, well).
  • Do men and women process loss differently (most, not all)?
  • Does prolonged use of drugs really help when you are dealing with a painful loss?
  • Does prolonged use of drugs become detrimental in the “processing of grief”?
  • When do grief counselors tell their patients, “What you’re doing isn’t working we need to look for a new process”.
  • Does grief therapy work for only a certain percent of people?  When do grief groups say “This process doesn’t appear to be working for you, we need to look for a new process for you.”
  • Does spending the majority of your time with others who are also grieving and talking about grief all the time – really help ----- if its long-term?
  • What responsibility does the surviving spouse have to get their life back on track after the loss of a spouse?  Or is it only the support of friends and family that brings them back from the edge of grief?  Or does society accept that they may morosely grieve forever?
  • As a friend, what is your responsibility long-term to help and be there for the grieving person?  I don’t mind taking calls from Joe – but after about 4 months I did start monitoring my calls from Jenny.  I don’t look forward to spending time with Jenny – as an old friend of mine use to say “She’s sucking the marrow from my bones” with each phone call and each visit.
All rhetorical questions – really - as each person on this planet will have their own opinion or experience and no one would be able to supply me with the wisdom I really need.  And eventually, I will take the path that I feel I need to take – ‘cause that’s who I am and I have to look out for myself in the long-term.

I’m not na├»ve when it comes to loss.  I’ve had a lot of loss in my life.  I know pain – I know what it feels like to have your heart break – literally.  But right now I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the “loss process” of Jenny and I keep wondering how many more times am I going to have to deal with “her type of grief” with other friends and what should I be learning from this experience with Jenny to prepare me for the future?

As part of a management class I use to teach we would discuss the difference between sympathy and empathy.  Here’s a one hour lecture/discussion in two sentences.  With sympathy you see a drowning person in a well and you get in the well and sympathize with them and eventually, drown with them.  With empathy you see a drowning person, you empathize with their situation and your throw them a rope and help them to get out of the well.

I realize that loss is painful.  I realize it can take time to get over a major loss in your life.  But, realistically folks – what do you do when the person in the well won’t grab the rope?  How long are friends (and family) expected to sit in the well of grief and almost drown?  I guess that’s my real question of this entry – and “as long as it takes” is not an answer that I can accept – it just seems like the wrong answer for all parties involved, really wrong.

Tags:  Grieving, loss of spouse, after the funeral, grief groups, grief counseling, depression and grief

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