Those in grief need our understanding and support

    By now, just about everyone has heard of the five stages of grief made famous by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
    But according to two licensed professional counselors who teach at the University of Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond, La., that rigid framework doesn’t perfectly capture the experience of everyone suffering the loss of a loved one.
   “There is a validity to that, but we don’t think it’s a lockstep, linear process in which people go through this, this and this,” said Dr. June Williams, interim head of the counseling department at SLU. “Some people experience some of that, but it’s not as though people experience that in the same way. If it’s an older person who has died, you’re probably not going to go through the bargaining as you would if it was a child who has leukemia and you want to trade places with that person.”

Dr. Paul “Buddy” Ceasar, the former president of Our Lady of Holy Cross College who now teaches counseling at SLU, said the grieving process varies greatly from individual to individual, and the age of the loved one and the factors leading to the death play an important role in how someone will grieve.

Differs by age, circumstance
    For example, Ceasar said, if someone dies of a long-term illness, it is far different than a young person who dies in a traumatic accident or commits suicide.
    “Some people have a long-term illness, and you are somewhat prepared for the death,” Ceasar said. “When you have tragedies that happen to young people, that’s a whole different perspective.”
    Williams and Caesar recently conducted a stress and grief workshop for priests who may have felt burdened in the last several months with the losses related to Hurricane Isaac. For the last five years, Williams also has taught a pastoral counseling class for seminarians on how to help individuals approach death and dying.
    “For the person who has lost somebody, you have to understand that grief is like a roller coaster,” Williams said. “You’re going to have good days or bad days – and maybe even good moments and bad moments. There’s a cycle to that, and that’s a normal part of the process. It’s OK to be sad; it’s OK to cry.
    “For friends and the community, it’s important just to be there. Even many weeks or months after the loss, it’s important to acknowledge to the person that you understand they are still in grief and to check in on them occasionally. It goes back to the idea that everybody recovers in their own time and  their own way.”

How to tell if you’re ‘stuck’
    Ceasar said warning signs that a person who has experienced a loss might be stuck in the grief process are not being engaged in the activities that used to give the person purpose or pleasure.
    “That can be work or your interaction with other people such as family and friends,” Ceasar said. “When you withdraw to the point that you’re not able to function in terms of health, there comes a time when you do need outside help.”
    That unique grieving process is more complex than the Kubler-Ross scale would indicate, Williams said.
    “Sometimes people think it’s a magical year, because they go through every mark or event in a year,” Williams said. “Some people may go through the process more quickly.”
    A person’s faith can be a healing agent, Williams said, but there are also cautionary tales.
    “It can go one of two ways,” she said. “One way is that they rely on their faith and their faith community to help them get through. The other possibility is that because of the trauma and perhaps the senselessness of the death (of a young person), they may blame God and they may have a crisis of faith. They will have a lot of anger to work through. At those moments, that’s where people seek out and really rely on their faith community a lot more.”

Guilt involved with suicide
    One of the toughest things any family must deal with is suicide, Williams said, because so often the survivors blame themselves for not seeing any warning signs and doing something that might have prevented the death.
    “There’s a lot of guilt that the survivors feel,” Williams said. “But you have to be gentle with yourself and not too harsh and recognize you can control only so much.”
    Many decades ago, the Catholic Church would deny a funeral Mass to those who had committed suicide, Ceasar said. That situation has changed completely.
    “In the old parlance, they couldn’t be ‘passed through the church,’” Ceasar said. “That has changed so much. The church in its wisdom says that it’s not up to us to make the final judgment. God knows what is in people’s hearts and knows what people struggle with. That gives the people who are living some consolation, just knowing that the person was not acting totally out of free will.”
    Williams said friends of a person in grief can help the most by not avoiding the subject of the departed loved one and, more importantly, by bringing up personal memories of the person.
    “There is so much support in that first week or so, and after about two weeks or a month people tend to forget,” Williams said. “I tell people it’s important to remember and talk about the person who has died. I have a good friend who lost her mother a few years ago, and she told me, ‘You’re the only person that talks to me about my mom.’ She has told me how much that means to her. Don’t be afraid to tell stories and say the name of the person.”
    It is important not to compare someone’s grief with another’s. Two people may have lost a father, “but my experience of that and my friend’s experience of that will be very different. It’s who we are and the relationships we had.”
    Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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