Majorca Trip: Some years ago, I was on holidays and met a woman who was staying in the same hotel. She was interesting (smart and a good listener) but overall seemed a bit down and I didn’t want to pry. Over the course of the week, our paths crossed a number of times and she eventually shared her story. The back story was that she’d had a miscarriage, lost a baby and was grieving about this. Understandable? For sure. Timeline? The miscarriage had occurred 11 years earlier. If that tone sounds judgmental, let me explain. I know a tiny bit about this particular loss. My wife became pregnant 3 times and none of those children were born (our kids are adopted) so I’d some experience to draw on. Of course, people argue that this particular loss is something that a man can never truly understand and perhaps there’s something in that.
Ongoing Grief: Coming up to date, I know another person who is currently grieving about the loss of a close family member – which occurred circa 10 years ago. On Facebook, notices are posted (typically birthdays and anniversaries) about the ‘loss’ and the negative impact it’s had on this person’s life. A range of people typically ‘comment’, saying nice things about the deceased and recognizing the difficulty for the person posting in ‘getting through this.’ Now, to all intents, this person has established an outwardly happy and successful life. They have their own children and tons of other good stuff on the career and financial fronts. So, here’s the question. Should there be a sort-of ‘statute of limitation’ on grief? On face value, the question may seem crass. If everyone grieves in his or her own way, why would there be a ‘set time’ to work through this?
First Year: Historically, the thinking was that ‘loss’ took a year to purge from your system i.e. when you’d been through the 1st Christmas, birthday, anniversary, the expectation was that you would ‘move on’. Indeed, the tradition in Ireland was that widows would sew a piece of material (a black diamond) onto their coat to signify the loss – and this material would be removed after 1 year. Other commentators suggest that the depth of the loss can be (sort-of) mathematically determined. The formula is the quality of the relationship multiplied by the level of day-to-day interactions you previously had with the deceased. All other things being equal, the loss felt by the death of someone ‘close to you’ will be more acute. In practice, it’s a bit more complex.
Abnormal Losses: Tragic deaths (a younger person, a suicide), seem to plumb a depth of sadness well beyond the ‘norm’. And, sometimes loss can encompass grieving for a relationship that never took hold, like giving up a child for adoption or the sense of abandonment that an adopted child can feel – without in any way ‘lessening their love’ for adopted parents. Overall, debating which type of loss causes the most grief seems pointless. Each of us could cobble together a ‘worst scenario’ list. So, without any definitive answers, why even raise this sensitive topic? There are two reasons, both worth exploring.
Not Wanting to Forget: On one level, a public demonstration of grief on social media can be misdiagnosed as attention seeking behaviour. Outwardly it can seem like some people want others to acknowledge their loss, because this conveys a sort of ‘status’, the grief offering a sort-of ‘badge of honour’. Seeking a public acknowledgement of pain may be misinterpreted as the ‘flip-side’ of posting something along the lines: “At Dublin Airport right now. Sipping a Pina Colada and heading to (somewhere exotic).” When expressing grief on social media, is the person simply seeking to draw sympathy or attention to himself or herself? I don’t think so.
Underpinning Fear: When you drill beneath the surface, the usual fear is that the person does not want to ‘forget’ the deceased – as if forgetting signals that the person didn’t really exist. The person posting often wants to ‘hold onto’ the memory of the loved one, helping themselves and others to ‘never forget’. This fear can be very real – an anxiety around forgetting what the deceased looked like, things they said, mannerisms and so on. In a sense, Facebook has become the Memorial Card for the current generation. For many years, I carried memorial cards in my wallet with photos of my mother and father – perhaps to unconsciously address the exact same anxiety. Classifying grieving as ‘attention seeking’ is often a misdiagnosis of what’s actually happening for the person.
Moving Forward: So, it’s OK to ‘grieve for life’ then? Well, not exactly. When people become ‘stuck’, counselors and psychotherapists label this as complicated grief. While there are no absolute rules about timelines, generally counselling is not provided until circa 2 years after a loss. That’s the ‘expected time’ for a person to resolve this issue internally i.e. to be able to think about a new future. So, what does the term stuckness imply?
Life Stalling: By staying ‘in grief’ some people effectively give themselves permission to put their life on hold. Indefinitely. The loss could be a death, the break-up of a relationship, even getting fired from a particular job. The negative here is that some people allow this ‘external’ event to hit the pause button on their life and they become frozen, unable to move forward. The blame for this stuckness can be outsourced. It’s something that happened, something they could not control and can result in a vicious ‘spiral’ of never-ending repeats (Groundhog Day).
Human Programming: The human condition is littered with loss. We say goodbye to romances that literally leave us ‘heartbroken’. We lose our parents (sometimes quickly to death, sometimes with a long-goodbye to dementia). We say au revoir to older (sometimes younger) siblings. Eventually we bury our friends and peers. And, not always in a logical timeline order. For people who experience loss, their old life has changed and can never be fully recreated. It’s like a sad scenes from a movie where the spouse sets a table for 2 when there’s only one coming to dinner. Sometimes, those losses are truly brutal e.g. the death of a child. But, through all of this, the human brain is programmed to move forward, to grieve deeply but to eventually overcome. We are not hard-wired for ‘stuckness’. Where this happens, coaching/counseling can be the ultimate form of ‘tough love’. Sometimes it’s a professional relationship. Sometimes it’s a family member or a friend that helps the person to re-think their stance: “Would Tony/Toni want to see you suffering like this?” The person acting as a catalyst asks us to take a brutally honest look in the mirror and question if our ‘loss’ has somehow become our ‘gain’. A gain that absolves us from taking responsibility for moving on with our lives. Becoming stuck can convert an initial loss into a full–blown tragedy. If any of this applies to you, consider talking to someone externally who will be able to help you navigate this complex and difficult journey. Sometimes we need a Sherpa to help us climb back onto level ground.
Lighter Note: Kevin Griffin keeps sending me politically incorrect jokes. I told him that, given the sensitivity of the blog’s readership, we just can’t keep publishing this stuff. Particularly after addressing such a sensitive topic as loss. But, Kevin is a very insistent guy – so here goes…
I saw my mate Geoff this morning, he’s only got one arm bless him. I shouted: “Where you off to Geoff?”
He said, “I’m off to change a light bulb”
Well I just cracked up, couldn’t stop laughing, and said: ”That’s gonna be a bit awkward init?”
“Not really” he said. “I still have the receipt, you insensitive bast**d”
I’ve accidentally swallowed some Scrabble tiles. My next trip to the toilet could spell disaster.
Out on the town last night and got really wasted. Then woke up this morning next to a big, fat guy who was snoring and smelly. … Well, at least I got home OK.
As the coffin was being lowered into the ground at a Parking Warden’s funeral, a voice from inside screams: ”I’m not dead, I’m not dead. Let me out!” The Vicar smiles, leans forward, sucking air through his teeth and mutters: ”Too late, the paperwork’s already done.”
Here’s one for Donald Trump: “Jesus Loves You.” Nice to hear in church but not in a Mexican prison.
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