Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD
Many people working in the general field of thanatology write about bereavement, commonly considered the period of mourning after the death of a loved one. Often in those writings, we find that the expectations for healing and recovery are unrealistic. Writers indicate that the bereaved will one day return to his customary pre-loss level. That is, the bereaved will think and feel as he did before the loss. Then, life will feel “normal” and good again. In the real world, the human mind just does not work that way.
After the loss of a loved one, our lives do not return to pre-loss ways. Loss changes us. That is inevitable. It is required in healthy grieving. Love and attachment are part of the self. Loss makes a difference to the self, the self-image. It changes the self permanently. We struggle to keep the loved one fully alive in our mind. We transform the loved one into a mental image without physical presence. That is a fundamental change in ourselves.
We define ourselves in part by the company we keep. This definition starts in earliest childhood, with family and those living in the same intimate household with the child. We are formed not only by heredity but also by our social surroundings, our social environment. When we are very young, we know who is there to provide care – and who stands in the way of the care we want and demand. Full attention goes to this life-sustaining social environment. For instance, the child might say, “Here at home, I have a mother, a father, and a brother. My mother and father give to me, but my brother steals away their love and attention.” These three figures are defining. They are part of the child’s self-definition. They give life to the self. This definition of the self by association continues throughout life. “I have family.” “I have friends, neighbors, colleagues,” and so on. We tend to use strongly possessive language when naming such connections. These are life roles, and they are defining. They contribute to our overall self-image. They are also part of what gives meaning and purpose to our lives.
Loss of a loved one changes us. It is the loss of a life role, an old self, a sense of purpose, direction. It changes our self-definition. It changes our image of who we are. It is wrong to suggest otherwise. It gives the reader or the bereaved a false impression, a misguided hope that life will someday be again as it was before, pre-loss. Impulsively, in our minds we seek comfort and shelter from the grief pain by returning to the familiar past. We need the encouragement of others not so much to move backward but also to look forward.
Perhaps the terms “healing” and “recovery” are misleading. On the surface, both imply a return to pre-loss life, something we do not do. A recovery is a return to a normal former condition, something restored. We don’t. Healing implies a cure. There isn’t. However, healing also implies that a scar may be left behind, a permanent physical and visual reminder of the wound underneath. That is closer to the psychosocial truth of bereavement. A psychic wound also leaves a “scar” in the mind. Death is a psychic wound to the bereaved. It is always important for us to give careful attention to our choice of words, especially with people who are emotionally vulnerable because of bereavement.
The self is permanently changed by loss. In good and healthy grieving, the changes occur gradually, over time and certainly with the effort of grief work. They cannot be rushed. Changes occur beyond pain. There are lessons in each death, beyond the pain.1 Memories forever present, a firm and haunting guide. From Elie Wiesel: “Without memory, there is no culture…there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” The past informs the now and future self. This is growth for the bereaved. Maybe there is still value in one version of the old Friedrich Nietzsche adage, “That which doesn’t kill us might someday make us stronger.” The changed self will be stronger, wiser, finally better prepared to manage future losses – and perhaps also to empathize with other mourners.
Mark D., a man who lost his wife of 28 years, says it this way:
“I understood the person I became after my loss…I learned that grief and trauma alter our self-perception in ways both subtle and dramatic. It changes who we are. We can either become that which loss, grief, and trauma created, or we can pad in our bare feet down the darkened hall and find who we were and integrate what we’ve learned post trauma to discover something new.”2
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte studies people in their post-traumatic phase of development. The research group coined the term “post-traumatic growth,” or PTG. They define PTG as a “positive change experienced as a result of a struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event…The idea that human beings can be changed by their encounters with life challenges, sometimes in radically positive ways, is not new…What is reasonably new is the systematic study of this phenomenon.”3 They make a special notation that such growth does not imply the absence of suffering for the growing individual. For some people, one outcome of life crisis is greater appreciation for life in general. Another outcome is an increased sense of one’s own strength. Other researchers note that PTG and optimism are overlapping concepts.4
We find PTG not only in individuals but also in human groups. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “Like Nietzsche and Freud, I am fascinated by people and groups with the capacity to recover, who, having suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, are not defeated by them but fight back, strengthened and renewed…The Holocaust, in human terms the worst tragedy of all, led to the single greatest affirmation of the collective Jewish will to survive: birth of the State of Israel.”5
Out of nothing often come strength and growth, unplanned, unwished, unwelcome, but rising to the occasion. We meet the challenge and dare to change forever. It is the radical insistence that others shape and sharpen our selves, our self-image. We need others. When they die, we find ways to preserve their lives for always in our minds and our deeds. We become the keepers of the image, keeping alive what would otherwise be lost. These are mental representations of the lost loved one. They belong uniquely to the bereaved. So important. They are the transformation of the loved one and of ourselves. They no longer require the physical presence of the loved one. They are the continuity of relationship. They are the “always” factor in promises made. The self does not return to who it was. It changes. Death of a loved one changes who we are. The change is healthy and necessary.6
Seen this way, it becomes clear why we never “get over” the death. We don’t “snap out of it.” We don’t get over it. Getting over it is not an option because we are already permanently changed by death.
From the ever-popular biography of dying, Tuesdays with Morrie, here is the insight and foresight of Morrie Schwartz in the days before his death:
“As long as we can love each other, and remember the feeling of love we had, we can die without ever really going away. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on – in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here…Death ends a life, not a relationship.”7
We do not stop loving because the loved one died. We change our minds to make way for a rearranged relationship. The self changes this way. We defeat tragedy this way. We change it into ongoing love and relationship. It is who we become. It is who we are, then.
A broken heart can inspire new life.
Death redefines us; it does not annihilate us.
We do not need to go backward to find peace.
Posted by SOSL with permission.
References:1. Monica Williams-Murphy, MD, e-mail communication, 16 November, 2013.2. Mark D., “Caregiving, loss, grief, and recovery: a journey,” blog at The BioContinuum Group, Inc. (BCG), a medical communications company, http://bioc.net, 11 November, 2013.3. University of North Carolina, Charlotte, Department of Psychology, Posttraumatic Growth Research Group, http://ptgi.uncc.edu .
4. Gabriele Prati & Luca Pietrantoni, “Optimism, social support, and coping strategies as factors contributing to post-traumatic growth: a meta-analysis,” Journal of Loss and Trauma: International Perspectives on Stress & Coping, volume 14, issue 5, 2009, published online 27 August 2009. See also,
T. Zoellner & A. Maercker, “Post-traumatic growth in clinical psychology – a critical review and introduction of a two component model,” Clinical Psychology Review, volume 26, 2006, pp. 626 – 653; and
R. G. Tedeschi & L. G. Calhoun, “Posttraumatic growth: conceptual foundations and empirical evidence,” Psychological Inquiry, volume 15, 2004, pp. 1 – 18.
5. Rabbi Jonathan H. Sacks, PhD, To Heal a Fractured World: the Ethics of Responsibility, New York: Schocken Books, 2005, p. 181.
6. Here is the beauty of a professional grief counselor’s words well chosen. Death changes our thinking and our worldview and our selves. Memories are important and distinctly, individually our own.
“One of the greatest myths about grief is that, if we let enough time go by, the day will come when we “get over it.” Grief is a normal reaction to a significant loss, and it’s something we all get through and learn to carry with us as we go on to live our lives, but we never, ever get over it. And there is no time frame for grief. The bond you have with your mother will continue as long as you hold the memory of her – or at least the memory of who you’d like to think she was – alive in your heart.” *
* Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC, “Mother loss and the grief of abandonment,” blog: Grief Healing, www.griefhealingblog.com , Nov. 2012.
Please see also the profound and transformative life’s work of Joanne Cacciatore, PhD, founder and chairman of The MISS Foundation, www.missfoundation.org and the Kindness Project™. Her bereavement blog is: http://drjoanne.blogspot.com .
7. Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie: an old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson, New York: Doubleday, 1997, p. 174.