Mourning and the Holidays

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The Holidays are here and I’m mindful of the fact that I’m not the only one grieving this year.

Feeling the need for someone wiser than me to escort me through the confusing process of mourning, I recently began seeing a grief counselor – a wonderful woman in her 70’s who has experienced some profoundly painful losses, personally (she lost a child, for one, which I imagine would be unbearable). She has taught me a few things about grief that have been very helpful. Since I’m told the Holidays can be a particularly rough time for people who’ve lost someone special, I want to share that information with you.

I am compelled to share it for two reasons.

First, to my surprise, almost none of the people in my life who have suffered a painful loss have sought the help of a bereavement group or grief counselor. Before calling a therapist myself, I asked several friends and others close to me if they had gotten any professional help for their grief. Their answers were almost always the same: “No. But I wish I would have.”

The reasons why we hesitate to seek this kind of support are probably complex and varied. Speaking for myself, right now, a group therapy setting sounds draining; too close to a social event, which is something I’m not always up for these days. I also had some fears about individual therapy, even though I’ve seen therapists in the past and had very positive experiences. Some of my feelings are really unpleasant and very, very messy. Eventually, the potential benefits of counseling outweighed my fears and I made the appointment, but not everyone makes that leap.

Second, until now, I have understood so little about grief (and I still have a lot to learn.) I knew about the Seven Stages of Grief and that grief was “a process”.  I also had a vague idea that grief can do odd, surprising things to our minds and bodies.  I’d heard the same stories you’ve probably heard, too: an elderly man dying within days of his wife for no medically obvious reason, a middle aged woman thrust into early-stage dementia after losing her husband, a hysterical mother who insists on believing her deceased child is still alive.  I believed people when they said that death and loss have powers we can’t always explain.  But my education ended there.

Why not let my $130 per hour therapy sessions provide you or someone you love with the gift of understanding, awareness, and compassion?  Please share this on “Appropriate Expectations of Grief and Tasks of Mourning” with anyone who may be grieving this holiday season.

Even the little I knew turned out to be at least partially wrong.  For instance, I had always envisioned the Seven Stages of Grief to be linear, beginning with denial and ending in acceptance, in an orderly, predictable fashion.  Wrong.  They are not linear at all.  They’re incredibly fluid and what I call “cloud-like”, with one stage morphing indecipherably into another within the span of a few minutes.

By way of example, two weeks ago, despite all three of my kids Parent-Teacher conferences being firmly scheduled on my calendar from 6 p.m. to 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday night, I missed all three of them.  The babysitter had been lined up, the report cards set aside to bring along, and I had even arranged rides home for my kids from their respective sports practices.  Unfortunately, this was all scheduled for Thursday instead of Wednesday.  The world did not end and I was able to reschedule the meetings, but the error was unbelievably uncharacteristic of me.  It was quite unsettling.  What else have I forgotten without even realizing I have?

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When a person experiences a loss, a hormone called adrenocorticotrophin hormone (ACTH) is released in the brain.  When ACTH is released, it travels to the adrenal gland and causes a chemical reaction that signals the body to produce high levels of cortisone.  High levels of cortisone interfere with the function of the thalamus which regulates white blood cells, causing the thalamus to produce fewer or no white blood cells.  No white blood cells means no defense against germs, viruses or infections.  In other words, persistent or unexpressed grief can literally make us sick.  Allowing ourselves to face our grief directly is the best way to release the tension caused by grief and reduce the chain reaction set off by ACTH.*

You may have some of the same misconceptions about grief that I’ve had.  Whether you’re grieving yourself or someone you love is grieving, knowing what you’re experiencing – maybe even years after the event you’re grieving over occurred – is normal and universal is reassuring and a tremendous relief.

NOTE: Any major change in your life can be considered a loss, not just the death of someone special.  Divorce, a career change, illness, moving to a new place, even an unexpected Presidential election result!  Loss takes many forms and none of them should be minimized.

I wish you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving.

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*Your Health and Grief from PsychCentral.com

Everything is Subject to Change
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