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The Many Faces of Grief


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The news this past week has been dominated by the remembrances and funeral of our former president George H. W. Bush. As the tributes and memorials have poured in for a man so obviously loved by friends, family, and people all over the country, I’ve been struck by how composed and calm (largely) most of those eulogizing him have appeared. Maybe that’s a function of years of public speaking, or the fact that the president’s age made his passing less of a shock, or any number of other factors, but nonetheless, I find their composure in the midst of their deep sorrow impressive. Frankly, it’s not something I myself have managed, in similar moments. All I keep thinking is how impossibly difficult it must be for those grieving to hold back their tears when I imagine all they want to do is cry.

When I was a little girl, I lost my grandfather. I remember so clearly my intense confusion at the gathering at my great-aunt’s house after his funeral. Everyone was smiling and laughing and drinking, looking like they were at a party! I hid under the table in the kitchen, so upset because how could all those people be laughing when my beloved grandpa was gone? Weren’t their hearts broken, too? In my little girl mind, I thought for sure they must not have loved him after all, or they’d surely be crying, not laughing.

I don’t remember which family member found me there and talked to me, but I do remember being told that it was okay for everyone to be laughing and smiling, because we were sharing all the joy my grandpa brought us when he was still alive, and that being able to gather together and remember that joy was just as important to healing as our tears. I’ve had that same experience (minus the hiding under the kitchen table, of course) many times over the years since, and I’m seeing that dynamic play out this week with President Bush’s tributes, too.

Twenty-two years ago, when my own mother passed away suddenly, I remember barely getting through the memorial service at her church. Toward the end, the pastor invited me and my three siblings to the back of the church to pull the bell rope together and send out a final peal of bells in her honor. In that church, you cannot hear the bells ringing inside when you pull the rope (at least, I couldn’t hear them that day). I pulled the rope harder and harder, trying to make that bell ring, but I just couldn’t hear it. I grew more and more frantic with each pull. Finally, my brother touched my shoulder and said, “Hey, it’s okay. They’re ringing, come on, let’s go sit down. It’s okay.”

Was my frenzy at that moment because I thought the bell was broken? Of course not. My sudden, intense focus on that bell rope was, in that moment, a pure expression of grief. My siblings didn’t experience that specific response, not because they were not grieving, too, but rather because grief—how we experience it, how we respond to it, how we move through it—is one of the most personal things we will ever experience as human beings. No two people will ever grieve in exactly the same way.

If you asked someone to show you a picture of what they think grief looks like, it’s highly likely he or she would show you a picture of someone crying. That’s perfectly natural, because when we’re sad, we often do cry. When my children were younger, I used to tell them that tears are kind of like a safety valve—they help us release some of those harder feelings inside, cleansing us and emptying us, if only for a moment, of our sorrows, making room for joy to fill us up again.

But grief doesn’t always manifest itself in tears. In fact, grief reveals itself many different ways. Some people bury themselves in their work or hobbies, keeping for a time a frenzied pace of activity—that’s how they cope, by “staying busy.”

Some people channel their grief into memorials and tributes. One of the most beautiful traditions surrounding the loss of a loved one I’ve ever seen is the creation of ofrendas [altars] as part of the Día de los Muertos [Day of the Dead] celebrations, where families set aside a special display with photographs, flowers, and some of the loved one’s favorite things in life—chocolate or brandy or favorite books or such—as a loving remembrance. I found that tradition so comforting I worked it into a lesson plan for the high school Spanish classes I was teaching at the time of my mother’s death; my students and I all created ofrendas that year for people we’d loved and lost, and many parents told me they’d found it extremely comforting, too.

Not everyone delves into remembrance as part of their grieving process, either, though; some people prefer to tuck those photographs and memories and mementos away and never, ever look at them again. They prefer instead to focus on the new, forever-altered reality of their life as it is now, today. They do not wish to, as they might say, dwell on what they have lost.

The most important thing to remember as you or someone you love is working through his or her grief is that there is no “right” way to grieve. Some will laugh, some will cry, some will hide it, some will talk about it, some will bury it. There are as many different ways to grieve as there are humans to grieve. It’s important, especially with a loss in the family, to respect each other’s way of grieving—it may be quite different from your own. But just because it is different, doesn’t make it any less valid or necessary. We all must work through our losses in ways that work best for us.

Of course, that is not to say that all grief responses are healthy. Managing one’s grief via alcohol or substance abuse, unhealthy eating habits, or other risky behaviors is definitely something that needs to be addressed with a medical professional; in addition, intense grieving that does not lessen may deepen into depression, and may also require medical intervention. If you are not sure if you or a loved one may be experiencing depression, rather than just a “normal” period of grieving, please check out this article from Psychology Today that addresses some of the critical differences between the two, and follow up with a medical professional.

The worst part of that moment in the church during my mom’s service, or when I was hiding under that kitchen table as a little girl, was feeling like I was the only one who couldn’t hear the bells, like I was the only one who was crying, like I was alone in that church full of people. My brother’s hand on my shoulder, the gentle talk with the family member who coaxed me out from under the table, brought me out of those feelings of aloneness, grounded me with gentle, compassionate response that said, loudly and clearly, “I hear you. You’re not alone. Let me sit with you for a while.” No matter how someone is grieving, sometimes, the best way to help them as they mourn is just to let them know that you hear them, that you are there, that they are not alone, no matter how their grief manifests itself. That is one of the greatest gifts we can give to those who mourn.

As always, if you have any questions or concerns about this or other topics, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our office at (301) 588-9710. We’re always here to help.

MORE INFORMATION & LOCAL/ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Home Instead Senior Care of Montgomery County, MD
Home Instead Senior Care’s Senior Care Resources
Caregiver Resource Center, Holy Cross Resource Center; Sister Kathleen Weber
Maryland Senior Resource Network
MD Department of Aging
Montgomery County MD Senior Services
Montgomery County MD Department of Health and Human Services

Sign up for Home Instead Senior Care’s free monthly newsletters, Caring Connections, Senior Care Insights, and Alzheimer’s Reflections, offering tips and advice for caregivers of elderly loved ones. (To find these signups, please scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page, under “Looking for advice?”

By Julia Tagliere, Communications Specialist, Home Instead Senior Care

Since 1998, Home Instead Senior Care has provided companionship, meal preparation, laundry/light housekeeping, incidental transportation, medication reminders, and personal hygiene assistance to seniors in Montgomery County and Northwest Washington.  For information, please call (301) 588-9710; HomeInstead.com/197.

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