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Did you read the title correctly? What could it mean and what does it have to do with grief? I don’t have to tell you: when a loved one dies, we are forever changed. The world is different and, although we don’t like the fact that the world goes on, it does. The words, “That was now and this is then” tell us that our present moment has merged with our past. At the moment someone we love dies, grief comes in and demands/requires/mandates our attention—putting our “now” into “then.” All we can do is think about the past. During most of our waking moments our brain ls forced to return again and again to the horrible fact that someone we love has died, is dead, is never coming back. Another part of our brain fights this fact in every way it can by denying, avoiding, and attempting to reinterpret what the other part of our brain knows is true. Our “nows” are filled with “thens” of the moment we learned of the death. Our brain forces us to replay the harsh fact again and again throughout the day. We awaken the next day only to continue this endless cycle that always ends with the same harsh fact: our loved one has died.

How can we get out of this vicious cycle? For many of us, denial is our only friend. We say to ourselves and others, “I just can’t believe this.” “I feel like I’m dreaming.” “I’m numb.” Why this happens to most of us following a death is explained by the following fact: At the moment we discovered our loved one died, our brain was chock full of thousands—hundreds of thousands (even millions?) of memories that tell us our loved one is alive. Then, new information comes into our brain: he’s dead. So, in a large part of our brain are “he’s alive” memories and in a tiny part of our brain are newly forming “he’s dead” memories. You can see why denial is such a common response. However, as you well know, as the “he’s dead” memories continue to grow, denial cannot last. Our moment-to-moment existence is filled with “this is then” as our brain replays memories of what used to be.

If denial eventually fails us, what’s left? Well-meaning friends will offer us useless and maddening cliches such as “Life goes on.” “You’re strong.” “Things will get better.” Eventually some (or many) of these friends will fade out of your life.

Another way that some people attempt to cope is with alcohol or drugs. The pain is only temporarily diminished. You know how this story ends.

Other people turn to their spiritual beliefs. Their faith gradually helps sooth the excruciating pain of the loss. However, for others, their faith does not help and they feel more distant from their beliefs than they ever have.

So, denial doesn’t work, friends leave, drugs fail, faith leaves. What is left?

Support. Support from those who’ve been through some of what you are presently experiencing. Support itself is certainly not a cure-all. However, in my work over the years with bereaved people, virtually all of them say to me that the care and love they received from a support group has been a blessing, even a life saver. When a person in grief tells their story of loss, when they cry so hard they can hardly breathe, when they attempt to describe their agony, hopelessness, confusion and when people in the support group say, “We get it. We’re going through much of the same thing” it is a powerful moment of validation. Thank goodness for these wonderful support people. Through the listening, care and comfort a support group provides, you gradually begin to turn “This is then” into “That was then.” You find yourself slowly beginning to integrate the reality of the death into your life. In addition, you begin to turn, “That was now” into “This is now” as you begin to notice that you are living more in the present moment in which you enjoy sunsets, family get-togethers, and precious memories of your loved one. As you read this, you may be saying to yourself, “What is he talking about? I will never enjoy life again.” All I can say in response to this is, after meeting thousands of bereaved people, I can promise you this: You will never, ever forget this precious person; but you will reach a day when you will enjoy life again.

You will.


Dr. Bob

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