myths about grieving process

Pearl S Buck house .

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“Life without idealism is empty indeed. We just hope or starve to death.” – Pearl S. Buck 


A friend told me last week that I should stop trying to create an “ideal” world. This was in response to a note I sent him about his reply to one of my last posts on the YWBB. He was critical of my stance on the negativity that finds such an easy foothold on the board in part because of the grief but also because those of us who know better are too slow to correct the naysayers and voices of despair. I told him, no, because I am not going to stop trying to share my own experiences or hoping the world will become a better place. I am not going to let darkness prevail. To which his response was that I was going to do well in Canada.


Americans and their right-wing ideas about Canadians aside, this got me thinking about whether I am truly an idealist or not. I have certainly copped to the Pollyanna label but rose-colored glasses might not be true idealism.


The googled definition of an idealist reads like this:


“One of the seven attitudes. Its positive pole is coalescence; its negative pole is abstraction. Idealists view the world in terms of how it could be changed for the better.”


Rob thinks that I fit that definition but that I haven’t really had much of an opportunity to action simply because I haven’t had a solid foundation from which to work for a very long time now. I would agree that on my good days I generally am trying to rally the troops (interesting analogy – would an idealist use a military analogy?) to a common cause and that at my least focused I tend towards the unrealistic in terms of ideas and implementation. But to just give in to the general malaise and admit defeat in the face of odds small or overwhelming is not something I can do. I don’t deny my own dark moments when it seemed to me that I would never feel anything but misery again. It’s disingenuous to tell someone that tragedy won’t affect us and change who we are, but Anne Frank wasn’t wrong when she stated her belief that deep down people are good. And I am not wrong when I add that the world is a good place too.


I think that grief makes it too easy for us to quit. We say to ourselves that since life will never be the same then it will never be as good either. This allows us to not even try because if we try and fail then that is a reflection on us, but if we give ourselves permission to not try at all then we can hide in our widow weeds, safe from self-loathing and worldly expectations. There is a reason that society both close and far puts pressure on us to “get over” our spouse’s deaths and it is not just to ease their discomfort. It’s not good for us to bog down. Get stuck. There is nothing emotionally healthy in viewing life as having been spent and seeing the time ahead of us as something to merely be marked. In encouraging us to look to a brighter tomorrow and to lay aside our negative feelings and outlooks, we are being urged to embrace life. And is life perfect? No, and it wasn’t before, but it is and always has been a product of hope, imagination, and some effort.


From time to time I need to step back from the idea that I can make a difference on my own. Teaching is an example of that. After 20 years I have resigned from my current position and will not be teaching when the fall finds me in Canada. Teaching is a profession that demands a lot of “give” on the part of the instructor and very little “give back” from the students, but if you are doing it correctly you should burn out periodically and need to change venues by way of changing schools, grade levels or subject areas. If you are passionate about what you do, it should show. I am probably a little past my prime when it comes to letting my love of a job consume me. I have other more important things in my life, but I still think that what you choose to do for a living should matter and make a difference in your little acre of life. You can’t make anything or anyone be perfect but you shouldn’t settle either.


Could it be that my unwillingness to settle is what others call idealism? Even when faced with ample evidence to the contrary, I have still found it hard to accept that people can’t change, the world might never be a better place and that tomorrow isn’t another day. My Scarlett side, I guess. Because if we all just gave up, decided nothing we could do or say would make any difference or improvement, wouldn’t our world just spiral – negatively – into a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom and gloom?

James Tissot - A Widow

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The link at the bottom of the page is to a column in the local newspaper. My personal opinion of the paper and its editorial writers is fairly low. The newspaper itself is generally light on actual news, and whatever course reporters take in journalism school to learn about bias and the importance of neutrality and fair and balanced reporting is evidently not a required one judging from the slant in most of the news articles I have read. Columnists are generally exempt from being non-judgmental. In fact they are paid o be opinionated. Infuriating columns are read by those on both sides of the issues. Employing an irritating columnist or two (or all in the Des Moines Register’s case) is good for the business of selling newspapers. Newspapers are not in the business of reporting news these days, or maybe ever, as an educated and informed populace is not the point. News is entertainment and going strictly by the number of talk news shows and the heads that populate them, some people are being entertained at the expense of those who need to be informed.

Although it is hard to pick a least favorite member of the Register’s editorial team, Rekha Basu probably ranks close. She favors heavy-handed liberal social agenda stuff. Her style is fairly dry, and she is preachy. Her late husband was a much better writer. His style was personable in a story-teller way and had he chosen heavier topics, I think he would have easily proved his superiority. My dislike of her is personal though. It goes back to the early days of Will’s illness when I was trying desperately to get him on SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance). Having been told by the kindly young man who walked me through the application process that it was fairly likely that Will’s claim would be denied, I was willing to try anything to call attention to our plight and elicit some help in getting him accepted. At this point I had already sent emails to both state senators and several legislaturers. I would eventually receive help from the Republican Senator, Charles Grassley, but at this point I was desperate.

Someone I knew thought that I should contact Ms. Basu. This person was a fan of her writing and thought that Will’s story was the kind of cause that Basu usually took up. And I have to admit, she does use her column to point out social inequities and injustices an often uses real life stories of Iowans to do this. Not feeling I had anything to lose, I sent her an email as well. Within a few days I returned home to a message on the answering machine from her and asking me to call. I did. I never heard back from her.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned, through her husband’s column, that she had joined me in the widow in waiting club around this time when he was diagnosed with ALS. Will was in a nursing home by then. It was closing in on the last summer of his life. I don’t think I paid much attention to the news coverage and columns that followed but to note that it must be better to be famous when you were terminally ill because you seemed to get more help and support that way.

She lost her husband the June after Will died. There was a lot of press coverage. She was sainted. Shortly after she began writing her series on Surviving. In her widow’s zeal to make sense of her tragedy by helping others, which many of us do early out, she wrote about all forms of loss as though they were equal. Any widow can tell you that in no way does losing your spouse compare with divorce or unemployment, but she was very early days and, evidently, number than most at that point.

There was a message board attached to the series. It invited people to comment and tell their stories. I was just coming out of the fog at that point, and shy I am not when it comes to sharing my opinion and feelings in a message board forum. Let’s just say, I could have employed more tact. But since no one ever responded to me, I quickly lost interest and went elsewhere.

A couple months later, Ms. Basu wrote a column about the WET group, Widows Experiencing Transition, that was active in the metro area where I lived. I had been trying desperately at that point to find a support group that wasn’t online. The only ones I could find though were mixed groups, not just for those experiencing the death of a spouse or for groups or widows and the divorced which I couldn’t fathom attending. Thrilled to know of a real live widows’ group I sent her an email. Judging from her reply, she had read my posts to her message board and apparently I was not someone she wanted to hear from. She sent the contact information for the group but wrote also that she didn’t think I was the kind of person who would benefit from it. Ouch. I wrote her an apology and then scurried off the the UK widows’ board to flog myself for having hurt her feelings. It was only then occurring to me that as the further out, I should have been more cognizant of the tone of my posts and more supportive of her efforts. It was a mistake I have since strived to avoid in my dealings with “younger” widows.

I don’t read Rehka Basu’s work much anymore. I find her writing clinical and self-righteous still though I was impressed by the piece she did on profiling when her son was victimized by it recently. I also read her column about the death of her mother-in-law which kicks off her semi-dormant surviving series was again. The link is below.

Statue of (a) mother at the Yasukuni shrine, d...

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Interesting article on MSNBC today by Wray Herbert who writes the “We’re  Only Human…..” blog. The title was Psychology: Time Only Heals Some Wounds. In it he talked about a research study by Michigan State University psychologist Richard Lucas.

Lucas questioned the idea that people have set-points for happiness in much the same way people seem to have set-points for weight for instance. It is the idea that some of us are just unable to sustain prolonged states of melancholy or conversely happiness. We are divided it seems into glass half empty or glass half full camps. What he found, however, was that people’s feelings are effected by life’s stresses and turmoils and that whether or not a person can adapt or overcome them is not predictable or even predetermined by personality. The stressful event has much to do with it.

For example adjusting to divorce is not the same as adjusting to being widowed. Widowed people, according to the study, seem to “get over” their grief though it appears to take about seven years on average* for this to happen, but the divorce appears to leave permanent emotional scarring that affects divorcees for the course of their lives. The reasoning behind this rather odd finding is that it may be easier for  people to adapt to an event that is a one time hit of “bad luck” than to adjust to a “chronic condition” like divorce.

They liken divorce to that of a chronic illness whose reminders are constant and go on to further postulate that people who get married and stay married until” death do they part” were actually happier people anyway whereas divorce seems to strike those who tend towards misery normally.

The widowed are able to reframe their thinking and adjust their goals/expectations and “escape” their misery and the divorced are trapped because the lack of real resolution makes it impossible for them to do that.

An interesting theory.

A poster at YWBB today,  Jenna, posted today about being irritated by the board and other widows. I could relate. Can relate. There have been more than a few instances when I have been “irritated” to the point of snarkiness at the defeatist lifer attitudes of another widow on the board. But what makes me, or Jenna, fight and “reframe” and others content to put on the black weeds of acceptance? Why are some of us “Scarlett’s” and others “Aunt Pittypat’s” or “India’s”?

*Update – Recent studies have found the time limits on grieving to be rather arbitary and anecodotal at best. Researcher George Bonnano has found that the vast majority of people, who have no underlying mental health issues, take on average 6 months to a year to leave active grief and begin to move on with their lives.