Shades of Grief: How Personal Traits Influence Our Grief

handprint

 

The popular press is full of articles about how your personality type affects your happiness and success. Please ignore them–also the official diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric Association. A technical diagnosis may help a professional help you, but to look it up may be confusing and do more harm than good. Everyone is different.

Your personality is the sum total of all the habits of behavior that you’ve learned during your lifetime. Some are just little mannerisms and others are complex, aesthetically and morally chosen responses to major life events. The number of possible habits, or traits, you could choose is too large to count, and each of us learns a unique selection. Our traits are determined by our culture, genetics, and our choices, and tend to cluster around various themes. If we consider these themes to be personality types, your type is the theme your unique selection of traits matches most closely. Even though other people get the same label in this system, no two people carry exactly the same selection of traits.

So, if no one actually fits any personality diagnosis, how do personality types influence grief? Actually, they don’t, but some traits do. One trait is the number and intensity of emotional bonds we’ve formed. They result from our habits of communication. Our bond to a person grows stronger the more we communicate, the more emotionally intense it is, and the more import the relationship seems to us. To lose someone we’re strongly attached to is intensely painful. Another trait is the amount we indulge in denial. The more denial, the more slowly we become aware of our pain, and the more prolonged it may be.

Some people don’t talk much, live isolated lives, and don’t form any strong bonds. They may have suffered social isolation as a child and learned poor social skills, and/or suffer a little brain damage, or a little autism, or schizophrenia, or something. The psychological life of such a person is unimaginably different from most of ours.’ Even one of them would struggle to understand the experience of another. You might do better with your neighbor next door, if you’re both still healthy, went to the same schools, still work in the same office, and were equally close to a person that died. But, did your neighbor ever tell you what happened to him in Vietnam?

Our worldview also strongly influences our experiences. Imagine you were the mother of a young man who’d been diagnosed “sociopathic” and had just been executed for the rape and murder of a teenage girl. Imagine it was one of those botched injections. Would that change things?

We’re all born with intense motivation to move around and do something–to accomplish something worthwhile. But, we’re not born knowing what’s worthwhile. Once we learn that a lot of things are worthwhile, we must choose one, and put some effort into achieving it. That’s a hard choice and lots of us never fully commit. If we don’t do it consciously, we unconsciously choose goals as needs and opportunities arise. When we finish one we go on to another. Nothing wrong with that except without conscious intent we miss the experience of our achievements. And we may miss an opportunity to make the most valuable choice. To have a worthy goal clearly in mind leads to satisfaction from nearly every experience of life.

How can a friend’s death be a satisfying experience? Well, we have to back up a bit and think a little more about our worldview. As we’re learning what’s worthwhile we should also be getting a general education including not only morality and history, but also a little physics and biology. We need to understand that a person is a physical being, in a physical world, in a physical universe, and that all three of these are alive in the sense that they’re continuously moving, changing and growing. But a person does more. A person also thinks, feels and experiences. We would be nothing more than Google Self-Driving cars if not for our ability to think and register conscious experience.

Our cars wear out and we junk them. Our bodies wear out and our friends bury them. As an educated adult we know that death is a normal part of life. So, when our friend dies we focus not on our self and feeling sad that we don’t have a friend, but we honor our friend by focusing on his life and his worthy accomplishments. It’s no sin to feel a little sad, as we might if he moved to another state to take a better job, but in that case we’d as likely be jealous of the new adventures he might have there.

Physical contraptions like cars and bodies can’t last in a physical world–too much friction and rust. But thoughts and conscious experiences aren’t physical. You’re not just a body; you have thoughts and experiences, right? You can communicate what you thought and what you saw to any other person, right? So, they’re just as real as your hands and feet, but they aren’t physical and they can exist independent of your body, unlike your hands and feet. They’re even independent of the body you communicate them to. It can send them on to another, who might write them down, so they could last forever, or at least a trace of them, so they’re even independent of time.

So, as an adult, educated to the degree possible in our culture, you’re wondering where your friend’s thoughts and experiences might be now, and whether they’re having a better day than you, and whether they’re still doing something worthwhile; and thinking that to figure that out might also be a worthy accomplishment.

“Do not stand by my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep….”            Mary Frye 1932

 

C W Patterson, MD

Copyright©July 18, 2017

Tehachapi, California

Charles Patterson

More Articles Written by Charles

I was born in Santa Monica, California, earned a BS degree in biochemistry at California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo in 1962, and an MD at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in 1966. I completed a psychiatry residency at Rollman Psychiatric Institute in Cincinnati in 1970. My working career consisted of private practice in five locations, six fulltime employed positions, and included eighteen hospital staff memberships, sixteen professional titles, and membership in twelve professional organizations; and unintentionally grew into a nomadic life style. My career goal was to learn as much as possible about normal human nature, in addition to make a living. Now my goal has extended to understanding as much as possible, especially life and death. I wrote a newsletter about psychiatry for the general reader to support my practice in Arizona, and consolidated it into my first book in 1984. From that my interest in writing grew along with interest in horse care that was stimulated by my wife’s interest in endurance riding. We enjoyed the sport together during our thirty years of marriage, until we retired in 2008 to an equestrian community near Tehachapi, California, with three horses, two dogs and four cats, and a plan to rejoin the sport, but without realizing they all had become too old. The subsequent loss of my wife to ovarian cancer in 2010, and much of the animal herd, reawakened my interest in the process of death and the potential for “life after death,” that continues to motivate my writing and study.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *