Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I am talking at a “town hall meeting” this evening. I thought (and had been told) I would talk about the effects of alcohol and drugs on the adolescent brain, but the agenda I got yesterday says I will talk about “emotional consequences of death” in addition to a role in the “welcome”. Whoa, that’s a bit of a change. I’d been prepping my talk on the adolescent brain under construction and the actions wrought by alcohol and drugs.

I do know grief (personally and professionally) and dealing with grief is an aspect of my job, so sure I can talk about it (and I excelled in extemporaneous speaking in high school).

Grief (Webster’s has such a terrible definition I won’t use it) to paraphrase someone: change leads to loss leads to grief, so grief is our reaction to loss and change. It is a normal response, it is an individual response, and it is complicated and multi-dimensional.

To understand grieving first forget Ms Kubler-Ross. She wrote about an individual’s coping “stages” to dying, not to another’s death. Her “5 stages” are the usual reactions to getting “really bad news” (like you have a terminal disease).

Grieving begins after you have gotten over the “really bad news” of someone’s death. Grieving (the work of grief, so that the following can be thought of as the “tasks of grieving” (William Worden)) begins with acceptance, accepting the reality of the loss/death. The second “task” is allowing yourself to feel the pain of the grief. The third “task” is adjusting to life without the person who died; your entire self-concept and/or world-view may have to be altered. The final “task” is developing a “new reality”, making your emotional energy available for other “investments”, opening you to the future. With the final task you don’t get “closure” or “get over it”, but you do move forward. As someone once said “Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship.” Grief is never finished; it is a part of the life cycle. You develop a new relationship with the deceased, but the relationship does continue and often continues to change over time. (This is where memorials and rituals may serve their function for the individual experiencing the loss as well as the community.)

Grief is hard work. To feel is to heal. The way out of grief is through it.

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