Grief Counseling Groups

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Halloween once marked the beginning of the holiday season that stretched from October’s end to the New Year.

When I finally became a homeowner in the summer of 1997, I felt free to decorate and celebrate with abandon. I dressed up for Halloween to hand out candies and had pumpkins and lights.

And it only became more awesome when Will and I became a couple the following fall and the tradition of building and working the Jaycee Haunted House began.

I was a Corpse Bride long before Tim Burton thought of it. In a tattered white gown with a purple-streaked black wig, skeleton mask and black leggings, I sprayed my exposed arms with white hairspray and slipped skeletal gloves over my hands to slink along the hallways of a pitch dark maze, scaring the bejeezus out of teenagers.

Hand me a chainsaw (defanged, naturally) and I floored them literally. There is nothing like that revving roar to turn people around and create a terrific panic.

By the time Will was too sick to notice Halloween, there was Dee to consider. While our friends reared their kids in the corridors of the construction of the haunted house and had them running about during the running, Dee has always been too .. tender … for that. Her dad’s illness aside, we would have ended that tradition anyway.

So this naturally shifted to fairy and princess costumes and Trick or Treat. Beggar’s Night it was called in Des Moines. An odd tradition of kids telling jokes for treats and the celebration was never held on the 31st. Don’t ask me why. I tried to ascertain the rationale for shifting it to the 30th but never heard the same explanation and as nearly as I could figure it grew out of a mixture of the rabid Christian culture and a misguided notion that teens would be less inclined toward mayhem if it wasn’t the actual Halloween date.

And then we came to Canada.

The first year I suggested decorating the yard as a cemetery, but Rob wasn’t keen even though he’d once endured the scorn of his Bible thumping Kansas neighbors over a fake cemetery he erected in their yard when the older girls were a bit older than Dee.

Shelley, I am told, loved Halloween and dressing up in elaborate costumes. She’s passed this along to both Edie and Mick. This year, for example, Mick designed and sewed costumes based on Alice in Wonderland. And Mick always had multiple costumes a year as they make the rounds of the various to-do’s in the city.

Dee also has a box of costumes that she adds to every year. She is a huge fan of dress up play anyway and I have done nothing to squelch this instinct. Her scariest costume is a ghost number that I picked up at Walmart a few days after Dad died in ’08 and we Trick or Treated old school suburbia with DNOS, BIL, our two and a gaggle of neighborhood kids.

Day of the Dead, however, is not Halloween. Even Halloween is a corruption if original intent counts for anything.

The 7th grade team I worked with in middle school got it into their heads to construct a cooperative unit around Day of the Dead one year. One of our teachers was enamoured of the Hispanic tradition and being a former nun had more affinity to the November 1st Christian observance than the 31st.

At any rate, we weren’t allowed to celebrate Halloween. Our population had a sizable number of extremely wing-nut Christians. One of the local churches actually bordered scarily on “cult”, so my co-worker pushed the Day of the Dead idea, which is ironic because it is more objectionable than costumes and candies on many levels.

I was lukewarm.

First, it’s a tradition that is not symbolic and one really needs to be raised in it to not find it distasteful and/or morbid. North Americans are death fearing to the point that most of us see death as a personal affront that simply should not happen in our modern times. That death is the natural progression and that much of the early death that occurs is due to modern times collateral damage – we simply don’t want to acknowledge.

Second, I loathed dealing with the family trauma that bubbled like toxic sludge just below the surface of most of our students’ lives. Parents who would be skeptical or hostile and require much coddling and cajoling* also factored into my reluctance.

Finally, Day of the Dead is religious. There is no getting around it and we were a public school. Separation of church and state and all that entails. If we weren’t studying the traditions surrounding death in all cultures in addition to Day of the Dead then what we were doing was highly questionable.

But, we did it anyway.

And it was a minor disaster that dredged up emotional muck, angered some parents, offended the über-Christians and was a small joke to a small segment of the students, who insisted on honoring their dead pets.

Traditions that honor the departed are widespread around the world. The more death-fearing a culture, however, the less likely one is to find them. What one notices instead is a fixation on the grisly and horrific.

When I was young, November 1st was the anti-climax. We went to mass. It was boring in comparison to the evening before which meant running the neighborhoods in costume with hordes of other children, trailed by uninterested parents or older siblings. In my family, the dead were considered honored through masses and living our lives to their full potential. They also endured through the wonderful memories passed along through stories.

So here is one for you:

My dad and his siblings had a couple of horses they shared between them. Co-ownership was not unusual. The family was poor and there were five children. For example, they had a single pair of skis that they took turns with out in the pasture until my dad’s oldest brother collided with a pig and broke the poles.

One of the horse’s was a gray mare named Blue. Dad’s youngest brother, who died when he was 39, took Blue one day when he and a neighbor were heading to the creek – probably the one at my now departed as well Great-Uncle’s place down the road. When they arrived and dismounted, my uncle left Blue standing by a tree.

“Aren’t you going to tie him up?” his friend asked.

“Nah,” he replied and continued walking.

The friend ran to catch up, casting a glance back at the horse which appeared to be content and uninterested in wandering off.

“Well, aren’t you afraid she’ll run off?

To which my uncle said, “Blue’s blind. She don’t even know we’ve left.”

There is no record of what the friend thought about having traversed a good mile up and down hilly fields and narrow dirt paths on a blind horse that my uncle barely bothered to “steer”.

A happy and peaceful day of the dead to you and yours.

Update: This post was linked by a reader over at the YWBB (aka widow board) in response to someone asking if it really takes 3 – 5 years to “get over” the death of a spouse. I read the responses, and while everyone who replied made a point to stick to his/her own experiences, there was still a bit of self-serving justification going on and the real issue was never addressed.

You don’t “get over” the loss of someone you love. Over time it becomes a part of you like every other experience you’ve ever had – good, bad or unexpected. And as someone pointed out here in the comments, life is not a process so it makes sense that grief – like joy – is not something we 12 step through. Loss is an experience. More quickly than most people realize, we move on from even the worst events and back into the mainstream of life. And life changes. Even if my first husband hadn’t died, I would not be the same person today as I was the day I met him. Life is change.

It’s disingenuous to say that it takes years to find happiness, meaning or a new life. That happens quickly and in spite of ourselves. Whether or not a person chooses to cling to grief or not is the heart of the so-called “time line”. Bonanno makes this point himself in the book. People who chose to hold onto good memories and push on for the sake of the lost loved one generally are back to whatever normal means sooner than those who cannot get past the event or the feeling of unfairness. He also points out that people who experience complications in grief usually had underlying issues to begin with that the loss simply made worse.

I won’t post on the widow board, but if I were to answer this poster I would say this:

Life is what you decide to make of it. We carry loss with us always but whether or not it defines or dominates you is up to you. And even in the first months to the end of the first year, most people experience happiness and find meaning. Anyone who tells you it took three years or more to feel anything other than misery or that year two was worse than year one either had issues before or is not being all that honest – with you or with themselves. You can be happy. The choice is yours.

I just finished reading The Other Side of Sadness by George Bonnano, an associate professor at Columbia. It basically sets the record straight on all the ridiculous notions that surround grieving.

For example, “grief work”, the idea that grieving requires a thoughtful and painful laundry list of activities that a person must do before he/she can move on with his/her life. The notion exists thanks to a throw-away idea by Freud. How he can be the father of all that is counter-intuitive and the father of modern psychoanalysis at the same time is one of life’s minor mysteries, but essentially he briefly pondered the notion that in order for a grieving person to move on in life, that person must “detach” from the deceased and that this process was “grief work”. And that’s about all he said on the subject but those two words have been a millstone for me. I’ve been told more often than I can count that my wanting to move on was keeping me from grieving properly and wasn’t possible.

Bonnano has done quite a bit of research over the years, and he has discovered that pretty much the opposite of “grief work” is not only the norm but is healthier.

People who endeavor to move on and be happy – usually because they feel the deceased would have wanted that – have better lives and outcomes than those who succumb to the idea that grief is a process that must be worked through.

“Do you feel vindicated?” Rob asked me after I told him about what I’d read.

And I do.

Take that widow board with your nonsense about distractions and “grieve now or grieve more later”.  Neither of those things is true. Distractions are what healthy people do to keep from being overwhelmed in the beginning. It’s about balance. And the notion that grief can be suppressed and come back to cause havoc later? Based on a flawed study back in 1944 that was later proven to be wrong in its conclusion.

The book acknowledges that grief has ebb and flow and never completely disappears, but it debunks the notion that a person can’t get along without grief counseling. In fact, it says that 6 months should be the cut-off point as far as seeking help for complicated grief goes. Before that, sadness and emotional swings are normal.

And that’s the heart of the book, that grief is normal.  Human beings are built to grieve and if we simply followed our natural instincts, we’d be better off.

So, there is no grief process. No 12 steps. Distractions are good. Being determined to move on is the norm.

Any questions?

As we were driving back from the hospice last evening, Rob asked me how I could have been so upset with the grief counselor on Wednesday night for suggesting that I needed to go through her 10 week grief and loss workshop and then turn around and dig through such painful memories at the parents’ session at Pilgrim house. It was a good question and I needed a bit of time to work out the answer into words and sentences because though I could feel why, it was hard to articulate even to Rob – who knows the answer already.

But the answer, when it came, was quite simple. What was being proposed in the workshop was purposeless digging. Like taking a butter knife to excise an scar. What would be the point? I understand that introspection is a useful tool in getting to the root of problems one might be having in their daily lives but when no problems exist than it is little more than emotional navel gazing. The topics that come up at Pilgrim house aren’t scripted really and they usually grow out of our conversations about our children. That we are there at all is to help our kids learn to cope with and integrate what has happened in their lives.

The subject came around to the genetic legacy that Katy was left by her dad. She is a carrier of what killed him and this will have to be addressed and dealt with at some point in her teens and then again when she decides to have children or not. It could even end up effecting her physical in middle-age if she happens to fall in the unlucky 10% or carriers who end up with dorsal nerve damage, so this is something she will have to plan for – the possibility of eventual physical disability. I try not to dwell to much on this. It is the future and who knows what that holds really, but they are things that sit in the corners of my mind, out of sight but never truly forgotten. 

Talking about that last night was good for me in the moment. There was another couple there who have lost children to a genetic illness. Are carriers themselves. Have been through the diagnoses and the doctors and hospitals and long, slow declines to death. I seldom meet people who really know what that feels like firsthand. It was like finding my first widow board. The MerryWidow, and feeling for the first time that I was not a freak. Grief and worry are lonely enough without that sense of being only.

Not so ironically, anymore, our evening was book-ended by death. Rob’s father-in-law has not been well and went into the hospital Sunday complaining of heart trouble. He’d been in all week and the doctors hadn’t been able to pin point a root cause although he did have heart issues. I got the first call from one of Rob’s nieces in the late afternoon. She hadn’t been able to reach either of the girls and wanted to let us know that things were deteriorating. She sounded very small and lost when she told me that her grandfather reminded her of the way her grandmother had been at the end back in December. I remember from all those months Will was in hospice that you come to know the signs of impending death. The way it sounds and looks. There is a feeling in the air even. I felt badly for her. No one should have to watch a loved one die and she was bedside at her second such loss in just a few months. At one point in the conversation at group, a widow who’d lost her husband suddenly in a car accident remarked that she felt that her despair over not having had a chance to say good-bye was small compared to what I and the other couple had gone through watching the death process. I remarked that I had always been envious of those were widowed through sudden death because I would give much to be able to erase the memories and purge what I know. I sat and saw and still didn’t get to say good-bye. Not really.

Shelley’s brother, Jay, called shortly after we’d gotten home last night to let us know that Frazier had died a few hours earlier. The doctors still weren’t sure of the cause, but it’s not uncommon for elderly widowed people to follow shortly after their spouses and I suspect this was the real root issue.

I didn’t know Frazier but for a few visits to Grande Prairie and the first time I had met him in the city here after Leona’s surgery in August. He was nice and friendly and didn’t have to be and I still appreciate that. He was always after us to come and stay at the farm. We didn’t and I am sorry about that a bit now. Rob was asked to give the eulogy and he asked me what exactly goes into one. I only know Catholic funeral mass really, and eulogies are always given by priests. They usually talk about the person in general terms as they often didn’t really know the person, but if they did they would tell stories to try and paint a mental image for the congregation. They would recall the things about the deceased that brought home way he or she was loved. And they would try to comfort with images of heaven and God. We don’t believe in heaven though and my views anyway on what/who God is or may be are still evolving.

In all likelihood Rob and the girls will go to Grande Prairie without Katy and I. I have mixed feelings about this. I think that the family will expect to see us as we went up for Uncle Raymond’s funeral in September and again fro Leona’s in December. We are family. On the other hand, I have problems taking Katy to yet another funeral. It is the only reason we have ever gone up north and seen everyone. She is just five. Too knowledgeable in my opinion and maybe in need of more sheltering than she has gotten in the past. She will also plague her sisters with questions about the situation and how they are feeling. Farron bares up quite well and handles Katy and her curiosity without any visible effect but Jordan is far more fragile and I worry more about her. And Rob. I worry about Rob. He is the rock. The spoke in the family wheel. Both for Shelley’s family and for his own. Not to mention for me and our girls. Too many people lean on him and expect him to fix things and be there and hold up. He will need me because I am the only one who sees that he is not superman. 

It would be nice if people would stop dying, but as I reminded Rob when he brought this up, we know too many old people. My own reprieve from death on a family level has stretched out to two years now and I wonder how much longer the luck will hold given the age and physical infirmities of my parents, aunts and uncles. Still, I was reminded in a letter from my cousin yesterday just how fickle death is when she mentioned that our great-aunt will be 100 years old on March 5th. No rhyme or reason but yet rhyme and reason.