Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
A man wrote me a while back telling me the story you are about to read. He gave me permission to share it if I omit his name. Here it is:
“More than 30 years ago, 2 ½ years after Mom died, Dad put a gun to his head and ended his life. We were extremely close, so I simply couldn’t face the pain. I successfully “buried” the incident, refusing to process the grief for all those years until my wife died of a sudden, totally unexpected intra-cranial bleed. The parallel with Dad’s situation brought the unresolved grief of his death flooding back, further complicating what was already a difficult transition.
Only recently, with much of the work on my wife’s death behind us, have we (myself and those supporting me) fully appreciated the impact of that unresolved grief…I remember like it was only yesterday. Dad’s landlady phoned to tell me something had happened to him and that I needed to come home immediately. Dropping everything, I made the six-hour drive home, reviewing in my mind all the terrible things that could have happened, never imagining suicide. She met me at the door with the news, mentioning how terribly bloody the scene had been. Because I had a background in such events, I simply went into “autopilot” in which one suspends feeling and thought while carrying out emotionally difficult tasks such as removing bodies from a car or house. I spent the next week that way. Friends later told me how amazed they were at how calm I appeared at the funeral….I left town as soon after the burial as possible. On the drive home I recall repeating to myself over and over: ‘It was his choice. I must respect the wisdom of his decision.” I was at work the very next day and did my absolute best to put this whole incident behind me. And I succeeded for about 30 years.
Then, my wife died. I found her when I came home—unconscious on the floor. Nine hours later she was dead, without regaining consciousness. Once again, autopilot was a saving grace. But this time the loss was too great to ignore, and memories of Dad and his loss surfaced frequently to compound the grief. I couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t focus, and suffered all the symptoms of bereavement. I finally realized how he had suffered after Mom’s death, and truly wondered if I could endure my own grief for another 2 ½ years as he had. Fortunately, I found a support group and a counselor who specialized in grief. The climb back has been difficult and isn’t over yet. Recently, I finally realized how significant a part of Dad’s suicide had played in delaying my efforts to work through my grief. In a way, it has been like I lost both Dad and my wife at the same time and must work through those two losses before “getting on with my life.”
What a powerful story, don’t you agree? One of the many questions that stands out from this man’s reaction is: How can someone suppress their grief for so long? Let’s look at some possible answers.
1. Some people are wired that way: What this means is: some people’s brains are wired in such a way that they can “think away” from memories and thoughts that are too painful to revisit. Research on the brain has not yet discovered the brain mechanisms that enable people to do this.
2. Previous experience: This man had years of training on how to “get the job done” in the midst of a terrible tragedy.
3. Avoiding triggers: One of the contributing factors to “stuffing grief” is to avoid reminders such as music, mementos, pictures, videos, the place where the person lived or where the death occurred, and so on. The man in our story lived a few hundred miles from his father. Because of the distance from all the physical reminders of his father, the reminders that could trigger a grief response were largely absent. Interestingly, the research is absolutely clear that an encounter with a triggering item, even decades later can elicit a grief response. It’s like the trigger sits there for years, waiting to do its job.
4. Self-talk: Repeating phrases over and over such as, “It was his choice” in an attempt to soothe the harsh reality of the death can take some of the edge off the pain of grief.
5. Workaholism: Channeling one’s focus and energy into work affords a way to distract a person from the pain of grief and, at the same time, provide a sense of control.
6. Not talking about it with others: With his mother dead, this man was able to avoid frequent talks (and reminders) with the very person who would have been most affected by his father’s death.
7. Not joining a support group or getting counseling: Some bereaved people have little need for a support group or counseling. However, those who attempt to stuff their grief would, of course, find it difficult to avoid the reality of the loss and attend a support at the same time.
8. The pain is too great: One of the major functions of our brain is to find any way it can to reduce pain—whether it is physical or emotional. For many people, the loss of a loved one ignites the most excruciating pain of their life. Therefore, it makes sense that some people make every attempt to “put it behind them,” “move on,” “distract,” “not think about it,” and so on.
Given these various modes of grief-avoidance, there is a bigger question to ask: Will people who avoid confronting the reality and feeling the pain of a loss (known in the death education business as Griefwork) inevitably lead to problems later in life? In other words, is it possible for some people to avoid Griefwork and do just fine? Research published in 2005 by Strobe, Schut, and Strobe challenged the idea that, in order to effectively cope with loss, people must do griefwork. By looking at cultural and individual differences in the ways people cope with loss, they concluded that some people appear to effectively cope without having to do griefwork.
So, how does this finding match with our story of a man who clearly paid a price by avoiding his own griefwork? In fact, if you ask most people, they will tell you that the man’s story is proof that griefwork is necessary to effectively cope with a loss. Which is correct? The answer is: they both are. The researchers would be the first to tell you that some people can apparently cope just fine without griefwork. The answer, of course, lies in individual differences; and we see it all around us when a significant loss enters our life and the lives of those around us. Some people need to confront the reality and experience the emotions by revisiting again and again the moment they knew their loved one died. They do it by reviewing the life that was lived, by shedding buckets of tears, by going back to places full of memories, by feeling the thousand emotions of grief, and by desperately missing that person every moment of the day. Others manage to weave their way past some or all of these land mines and find ways to move on with life. For some, it works. For others, like the man in our story, grief eventually catches up with them, grabbing them by the throat saying, “So you thought you could get away from me? You’re mine, now.”
A final question in all this is: Can we predict who needs griefwork and who doesn’t? Right now, the answer is “no.” Someday the research will have become sophisticated enough so that we can tailor the exact amount of griefwork each of us needs to do. Until then, all you can do is let yourself grieve in whatever way works for you and not let anyone tell you how to do it. They are not you and their grief is not your grief. That’s one thing we know for sure.