The Pain of Grief – the price we pay for loving!

The Pain of Grief  – the price we pay for loving!

Grief – our emotional response to loss – is directly connected to our attachment to the people, possessions, pets, causes, body functions or ways of life that are important to us. The grief we feel when any of these are lost – through death, divorce, illness, the process of ageing, natural disaster or other causes – will invariably be proportionate to our level of attachment. Put another way it can be said that grief is the price we pay for loving!

Stress and trauma are inseparable companions of grief. Health professionals and others who work in ‘caring’ professions – or those such as life story writers – who become closely associated with people suffering trauma, are also at risk of becoming ‘casualties’ of stress.

Many such workers will not have extensive psychological training. Yet in the course of their work, they are required to deal with troubled people on a daily basis. Stress is a reality. The eminent American psychologist Eugene Kennedy has written, ‘like love and electricity, stress is difficult to define… yet unmistakable in experience’.

No helping individual or empathic life story writer can escape the special stress that is inextricably linked to focusing on the lives and problems of others. Avoiding the sting of emotional involvement is unavoidable. The situation for such people is as Kennedy has put it … ‘what black lung is to coal miners, an inescapable risk that cannot be separated from their occupation’. Accordingly, unless we learn to deal with such stress in a healthy, sensible manner then it will deal with us. Often harshly.

We are all called on to respond to grieving clients, family members or friends – some more often than others. We need to provide our presence, empathy and understanding. A listening ear and a shoulder to cry on should always be part of the first line of response.

It should be remembered that tears and emotional outpouring – sometimes referred to as ‘breaking down’ – is OK. When a car or an appliance ‘breaks down’ something has malfunctioned. But when a grieving person ‘breaks down’ absolutely nothing has gone wrong. Rather, something has occurred that is healthy, normal and often cathartic. The cliché ‘time is a great healer’ should also be avoided. For it is not the passage of time that heals but how constructively time is used that helps facilitate the healing process.

Carers should be aware that silence is also OK and every moment spent with a grieving friend need not be filled with words. The value and comfort of one’s presence and unspoken support cannot be overstated. However, assuring a griever that we know ‘exactly how they feel’ is rarely, if ever helpful – as is regaling a grieving person with one’s personal experiences of grief.

But understanding is helpful. Again as Eugene Kennedy has written ‘Understanding is at the heart of all good therapy…it is a quality that cannot possibly harm others and is something of which all humans are capable’.

How can ‘care givers’ take care of and protect themselves as they respond to those living through grief and/or those in extremely stressful or traumatic situations?

Many would benefit if they learnt and practicised their ‘minimum requirements of self care’ a concept championed by the American author and personal growth practitioner Jennifer Louden. We all have things we need to do (or avoid) that help us live healthy and engaged lives. Knowing what they are is one thing. Putting them into practice as part of a daily routine is something else again.

What are some of the minimum requirements of self care that might, could or should be followed?

For some this will involve their minimum amount of sleep each night, their intake of sugar and alcohol, their exercise patterns – walking, yoga or cycling, and their engagement with significant others, friends and pets. For others the focus may be on having a regular massage, setting aside time each day to meditate, read or listen to music or to take part in regular sports activities. Regardless of what we do the focus should always be on self-care or what some people call ‘me-time’.

A Life Stories Australia colleague who follows her personal MRfSC routine has observed ‘how well my life goes when I meet my MRfSC’. And she adds ‘the more that our MRfSC are in place when life is going smoothly, the more it’s possible to live well throughout the ‘pain of grief’ in any of its forms or anything else that life throws at us’.

While the sting in the tail of emotional involvement can be vicious it can be mitigated against provided we get the balance right. We need to recognise the importance of being in the moment. When at work BE at work. When not at work BE where we are. Fully. Not always as easy as it sounds however.

Remember that exercise is important and fresh air is free, necessary and renewing. Friends to share a coffee or chat with are nourishment for the soul. And time to relax, release and renew is like discovering gold.

The Irish balladeer Mary Black addresses the struggles of relationships in her song ‘Trying to get the balance right’. The lyrics also symbolically address some of the issues that confront carers.

We don’t always live in harmony
And often there are times when we are enemies
I fight with you, and you fight with me
Trying to get the balance right.

Sometimes we cause each other pain
Sometimes our wills are not the same
And often we tire of the strain
Trying to get the balance right.

We don’t always live in harmony
And often there are times when we are enemies
But I love you and you love me
When we get the balance right.

Like a circus pair, high up in the air
Working on their act, we need that kind of pact
High above the ring, watch them balancing
See how they unite – we too can get it right.

And so too can we!

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