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That One Person Who Doesn’t Rationalize or Deny Our Grief

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

Highline College

Des Moines, Washington

Since the day your life changed forever, have you noticed that people seem to say a lot of things that lead you to say to yourself, “What was she thinking?” or “Where did that come from?” You’ve probably wondered why people would say things to you that make no sense and, in some cases proved to be hurtful. Well, the answer lies deep in that three-pound organ—the brain. On one hand our brain can solve complex problems, invent new things, and create wondrous works of art. However, in responding to people and events, our brain is sometimes quite simple in the way it works. Think of your brain as having two major functions: (a) to reduce pain and (b) to make sense out of the world around it. A lot of what we do each day stems from these two functions. When we’re uncomfortable or in pain, what does our brain do? It cries out to stop hurting. When we encounter physical or emotional distress, our brain insists, “Stop this discomfort and stop it now!”

The death of a child is not only painful, it makes no sense. When people hear of this tragedy, their brains may attempt to come to the rescue by finding something—anything—that will give this horrible event some meaning, some reason for existing. In the midst of its discomfort, pain, and confusion our brain does whatever it can to reduce it. As a result, the brain quickly invokes phrases such as, “It was God’s will.” “Everything happens for a reason.” Or “God needed another angel.” Upon uttering such words, the brain concludes, “Yes, that’ll help make sense of this tragedy.” And, here’s an added bonus for the brain: it will also reduce some discomfort. So, with one phrase the brain has dealt with its two major functions: reducing pain and making sense of the world.

In response to the grief of another person, the brain finds a way to soothe itself by what psychologists call Ego Defense Mechanisms. They serve the dual brain function by simultaneously reducing pain and making sense of a situation. Let’s look at two of the more popular Defense Mechanisms and how they figure into the unhelpful things people say to us in the midst of our grief.

Rationalization—the queen of Defense Mechanisms. Why? Because people use it all the time in an attempt to feel better. Its function involves the use of false excuses for one’s behavior. When a person is confronted with the question: When you were face-to-face with a person in grief, why in the world did you offer a cliché? the rationalizing answer that bubbles up is, “Well, I was only trying to help.” When asked, “When speaking with your friend, why don’t you bring up his son’s name?” rationalization again comes to the rescue with, “Oh, I didn’t want to make him feel bad by reminding him what he lost.” Are you getting the picture? Until people know better, they will protect their brain by rationalizing their actions (or non-actions).

Denial—The amount of pain you have experienced since the death of your precious loved one is immeasurable. The people around you can only imagine how much you hurt on a moment-to-moment basis. Instead they will look for clues that suggest your pain isn’t “that bad anymore.” For example, when they see you laugh, they may convince themselves that things are getting better—that the old you is coming back. As the weeks turn into months and then into years, the person may deny that the pain of the loss can, in an instant, still return with a vengeance. They may find it hard to believe that, even years later, your heart skips a beat when you suddenly see a person who appears to resemble the person who died. Because these folks are not living your nightmare (not that you would want them to), they don’t understand how crazy grief can be. Because they’ve not walked your path nor lived your story, they cannot understand that grief is not a “getting-a-little-better-each- day” voyage but instead a roller coaster journey of ups, mostly downs, with dark tunnels and out-of-control feelings.

That One Amazing Person—The people around you may be well-meaning, caring individuals. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen for many of them, their brains get in the way of really helping. What we need are people who are capable of staying with their own pain and who are not tempted to make sense out of a senseless situation. What we need are people who are brave enough to fight against their own brains. Of course, this is asking a lot.

However, you know someone who has done this very thing after your life changed forever. Someone who let you hurt, permitted you to cry, didn’t try to make it better, offered no clichés, and just listened. These are the people who gave us hope. Hope that, as they sadly watched us succumb to feelings of bleakness and despair, they realized that they couldn’t “fix it.” This person somehow knew what to do because they have walked a similar path or because they took the challenge to learn how to help. These rare people are precious humans who have been able to do what few have dared to do—they have stayed with you through your painful journey. Despite the fact that their brain has been pleading to reduce both their pain and your pain, they resisted the strong temptation to use Defense Mechanisms.

When was the last time you really thanked this special person for all the many little acts of kindness they have done for you? It doesn’t have to be a gift, or money, or a big kiss (but it could be). As you finish reading this article, ask yourself, “What little thing can I do for this person to convey how thankful I am?”

Death has taught you that you don’t have forever, that tomorrow is not guaranteed, and that people we care for can be taken from us in an instant. So, don’t wait. Call, email, text, mail a card, or personally deliver a note.

And when you do it, you can rest assured of one thing: your brain will thank you for it.

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