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705 Grief & Loss Talk-DRM
A lecture by Dally Messenger (1979) ©

Sooner of later tragedy, loss or death meets every one of us in some degree or other.

The human reaction to loss, or the special kind of loss we are talking about in this talk - death, is well documented. Most of us and I say most very carefully, have similar reactions to similar situations. This is why those who have lost a loved one and have experienced the terrible emptiness known as grief, can best understand and so assist someone else in the same situation.

The way we feel, our emotional reactions, the ways life's circumstances affect our behaviour comes under the science we call psychology. Psychology studies human beings and makes general statements about the way they behave in various circumstances.

So now for the word of warning - the laws of psychology are not like of chemistry or physics. Whereas water always boils at 100oCentigrade (a law of physics), not all criminals return to the scene of their crime ( a law of psychology). Because we may have noted that many criminals return to the scene of their crime we make the rather silly statement, "Criminals always return to the scene of their crime." In psychology, there is no such thing as always.

I labour this rather simple point because I have known people with a little knowledge of psychology - a little knowledge of human behaviour to miscalculate a fellow human being in a crisis and thus become extremely offensive. It is most helpful to anyone to know the general process of loss and grief as it helps us understand our fellow human beings better. If we understand, we tend to become more tolerant and sympathetic and are in a much better position to assist during crisis periods or depression. Nothing, on the other hand, is more objectionable then the amateur psychologist who, say, would want to push a grieving person into a screaming room, when they don't feel like screaming - or who comes out with those objectionable clinical analysis statements like, "You don't feel anything now because you are in the "frozen emotions stage" or "You should feel really angry about this time next week."

On the other hand a grieving person may feel guilty because he has given way to anger at the person who has died. If we can truthfully tell him that most people get these feelings we may be able to give re-assurance to the person. Our study of grief has then contributed to that persons inner process of adjustment and his general morale.

So the emotions, feelings and thoughts we are about to discuss are not like the laws of chemistry or physics, they are not rigid and there are often exceptions - it is ordered information for us so that we can become more understanding and thus more helpful to the bereaved.

We should first of all realise that grief and loss is part of life. There are many losses which we can experience and they all bring the reaction of grief - smash up your car, lose your job, move to a new district, have your garbage can stolen, back a loser, or go through a relationship break up and you will experience in greater or lesser degree - grief. Grief is the natural process by which we "get over" things. We all know we must get over things so that we can start acting normally again. It is good that we do act normally again otherwise people who are close to us suffer and we do not make our contribution to life and society. When the death of someone we love occurs then the shock and the loss is great and it does take some "getting over". The truth and tragedy is that sometimes people do not want to return to normal; or well meaning but stupid people obstruct the bereaved from grieving, or the bereaved themselves do not understand their own feelings so that in addition to grief their suffering is compounded by feelings of guilt, doubts about their own sanity and an inordinate fearfulness about coping with life and so on.

A friend with a sensible and sensitive knowledge of the process of grief is much better equipped than anyone else, to, in a humble, low key and non-chemical way, reassure and comfort.

We have a saying that "it is an ill wind that blows nobody good." The reaction of grief within a person can have a good aspect. It can be a means of growing in oneself and a person can obviously become much more mature and deep as the result of such an experience. But it also can destroy, though it rarely does, and it can be impeded, which often happens and thus normal re-adjustment does not take place.

I would now like to briefly mention stages in the grief process which the average person may well experience after the death of someone close to him.


As Lynn Caine says in her book, "Widow" - "The first stage of grief is merciful - a numbness that comes with shock." (p.93)

As the body comes out of the shock defence mechanism it allows itself fully or partially to release its emotions eg. the person then usually cries, weeps, sometimes screams or wails.

The emotional push and pull usually will have some physical manifestations eg. sleeplessness, inability to concentrate, lassitude, pain.

The person feels isolated that no one else has ever experienced a loss like this. No one can possibly understand how he feels.

Deep in the culture is the feeling that when bad things happen we must have done something to deserve it. Real inadequacies get out of perspective. Some guilt is also false and neurotic. The bereaved magnifies all the lost opportunities of showing loving care, attention, helpfulness and understanding to the one who is now dead.

Person feels they are losing their mind and their grasp of what is going on around them.

The bereaved experiences at times feelings of hostility, not only to the loved one, but to family and friends, institutions and circumstances. The eighth element in the process is what we could call -

The tendency here is to over idealise. Everything when the love one was alive was perfect. Nothing will ever be the same again. Paradise existed but now it is over.

The slow struggle to get moving back into work, life and activities.

The person is back to normal activity and normal responses - perhaps better activity and responses - the memory and the hurt is still there but it is under control.

These ten elements, perhaps we could say, stages in the grief process are, of course, just one of many ways grief can be analysed. There are no fine lines between the stages and several can at times co-exist. Such an analysis is helpful, however, in that we know how grief usually proceeds. We need not be shocked therefore, when the bereaved in a close family seem to show little emotion before, during or after a funeral service. Nature, as it were, has frozen their emotions to enable them to get through the immediate pain of the procedures necessary after death.

In the same way, we should not conclude that they are "all right" and do not need the strength of friendship and company weeks after the death. They may need it much more then and probably will.

One of the worst things we all see well meaning but ignorant people do is not allowing the bereaved to grieve. Emotional release at a certain point is almost physically necessary. As Tennyson said in his famous poem - Song of the Princess:

Home they brought her warrior dead;
She nor swoon'd nor utter'd cry.
All her maidens, watching, said,
She must weep or she will die.

Yet we hear people say - "Be strong, dear, don't cry - he would not want to see you carrying on like this" and so on. Pressure from these people frustrate the good flow of emotions. To so pressurise anyone into suppressing emotional release can be extremely harmful. The best thing we can do is to encourage the bereaved to let themselves go. Sometimes a quiet word to those who are attempting to so suppress the bereaved can be helpful. To put it simply, they are trying to protect themselves from sharing in another's pain and anguish - an understandable reaction but a destructive one.

It is universally acknowledged that it is good for the sorrowing to talk. As we say in everyday conversation - we ought not to "bottle things up". The bereaved ought to talk about the person they love. All feelings seek to find expression in words. So memories ought to be given full rein in conversation. Preparing for the funeral is an obvious time but anytime is good. A well prepared funeral service can be a help here. If the comments and quotations are accurate, family and friends here have a subject to discuss at a time when everyone feel award and incompetent.

The grieving person often finds it hard to realise that the one loved has gone. They tend to deny the reality of the event. It is here that we see the wisdom of the culture in developing full funeral rites and ceremonies. Perhaps the basic value of the funeral service is to help the bereaved face the reality, or at least help them begin to face the reality. The practical help those involved can give then means encouraging the bereaved to go through the customary procedures discussing and deciding on arrangements with the funeral director, viewing the body, attending the body to its final place at the cemetery or crematorium.

To shorten or avoid any of these procedures, unless there is a good and obvious reason, many seriously impede a person’s re-adjustment to reality. On the other hand and as I have said elsewhere it has never ceased to amaze me how much assistance an accurate well prepared funeral service gives to the grieving. It is in this context I should mention that it is the general opinion that children should attend the funeral. They too have the need to face and accept reality, grieve and adjust to reality.

The process of grieving is often compared to a physical wound. The healing process can be interfered with or hindered by ill-informed interventions, or by the lack of provision for the best healing conditions, or because the person’s resources are unable to provide what the healing process required. Just as the physical wound heals with proper care and attention so does the mental wound of grief.

This analogy is used for another reason. The process of healing is always a gradual one and cannot be hurried.
So something else we should learn from this analysis is patience. Two years for example is not an abnormal time to work through the stages of grief I have noted. The grieving person should be encouraged in the ways we have discussed but not pushed too hard or too far.

The knowledge of what is normal in the grief process helps us too in another way. By knowing what is normal we are able to identify the griever who is really approaching mental illness, whose grief, in other words, is not normal, and who needs specialist help. The regrettable fact is that some grief is pathological - in other words, some people never work through their grief and become a permanent burden to themselves and their families. A perceptive friend recognising extreme responses can assist in getting specialist assistance and hopefully avoid further tragedy.

I cannot emphasise too much the importance of sustaining our awareness that this talk is about people - human beings who are real, who love, and who suddenly find the closeness of a rewarding and happy human relationship shattered and over.
A great void and great emptiness comes into the consciousness and they meet tragedy for death is a tragedy. There is nothing that can be done to bring back the loved one. Tragedy is tragedy because we can do nothing about it.

This talk is a mere introduction to a knowledge of the grief process in attempt to ensure that tragedies are not increased or multiplied. The mourner experiences a painful void - a voice which he may cope with, adjust to, but one which will never extremely leave him.

The process of grief ordinarily takes over a year. When the mourner is in a mental state whereby he remembers the lost child, wife, father, friend or whomever with realism, good points and bad then normality has re-asserted itself in his life.
A consideration for every one reading this paper is embodied in the words of the Desiderata:

Nature strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.

There is no doubt that recovery from grief as indeed from any other physical or mental onslaught depends on one’s general good physical and mental health.

There are many good books and articles written on Loss and Grief. Any one wishing to deepen their knowledge of this area of psychological knowledge will have no difficulty finding sources of information.



© D. Messenger