Why do we grieve? If loss is a part of life; if death is normal, why do we mourn? I’ve heard grief described as being similar to withdrawal from drugs. We physically crave the person we are missing. Our brains have gotten used to their feel, their smell, everything about them. There is something their physical presence does for us that we become addicted to. When we lack that, it triggers a reaction not unlike drug withdrawal. I believe there is something to this theory, but it doesn’t explain everything associated with grief.
Grief and Hope are Linked
We don’t grieve when people leave the house for a few hours, go on vacation, or even move for months or years at a time. We are just as separated from a loved one on a long trip as we are from a loved one separated by death. When they are on a trip, there is something about knowing they’re OK and they will return that gives us comfort. We know the separation is temporary and we take solace in that. We miss them, but we don’t grieve them. Grief happens when our mental image of what should be doesn’t line up with what is. Grief happens when we lose hope of seeing them again.
There are 360,000 births and 150,000 deaths every day in the world. Both birth and death are common occurrences. We know that every person who is born will eventually die. Yet, death seems to shock us. Birth is celebrated. We invite others to participate in our joy of bringing a life into the world. On the other hand, we fear death. We avoid the very thought of it, until it comes. And then, often, we grieve alone.
Death is a Stranger
There was a time when people saw death all the time. Growing up on a farm, people saw the natural cycles of life and death in the farm animals. People used to die at home surrounded by family instead of in hospitals or nursing homes. After death, the body would be kept at home until the burial. Now, death is hidden away. Bodies are quickly whisked off and handled by professionals. Most of us have never seen a person die.
We think death is what happens to other families. When death comes to one of our loved ones, we are unprepared. After the passing of a loved one friends and families often avoid us as if death is contagious. Because we are so uncomfortable with death, what it is, and the fact that it’s inevitable, we grieve harder than we need to.
Knowledge is Power
The more we know about a condition like grief, the better we can cope with it. Death is an unpleasant subject. Grief is an uncomfortable subject. So, we tend to avoid both. Lack of knowledge leads to fear. Fear keeps us from seeking knowledge. The fear and ignorance play off of each other in a destructive cycle. We put off things like buying life insurance, funeral planning, and preparing a will as if they will cause a death.
Parents don’t expect their children to pass before them. We are particularly unprepared for the loss of a child. We would like to believe this is something that never happens. I certainly felt both my girls would live longer than me, even though my father’s mother lost two children before the ages of twenty-two.
You might be surprised to learn that for people over fifty years old, almost 12% have lost a child. For black people, this figure is nearly 17%. For white people, it’s roughly 10%. One in eight people over the age of fifty has lost a child. Even if your child is ill for a prolonged period and you know she’s going to pass, you spend time caring for her, not studying grief. There’s the anticipatory grief you have to deal with before her crossing.
Grief Changes our Chemistry
Then, there’s the grief after. Learning about grief while we’re grieving is difficult. Our brain is rewiring itself during this time. Our brain chemistry is out of balance Grief causes short-term brain damage. Grief has a tremendous impact on the memory, learning, perception, and communication areas of the brain. It’s difficult to concentrate. It’s nearly impossible to retain things. For many people, reading is painfully difficult.
Education about Why We Grieve
Without the ability to focus and remember, we will read paragraphs or even pages and not remember what we just read immediately after. Sometimes we will have to read and re-read a passage and still have difficulty retaining it. We operate in a fog. It’s for that reason, I am presenting this in audio form as well as in a text format. Grief skews our perception of what is going on around us. We become hypersensitive. We often project bad intentions into other people’s actions. This can cause fights among families. If a sibling wants a piece of Mom’s jewelry, we might see them as greedy; when during any other time we would see they simply want a keepsake.
Educating ourselves about why we grieve can help us cope with it. For me, actively dealing with my pain was the only way to go. I immediately immersed myself into studying and actively confronting the grief. I read, listened to, and viewed everything I could find. Later, I will share some coping mechanisms that worked for me. Learning that the feelings I was having were “normal” relieved the isolation. Friends were OK, but I needed new friends. People who hadn’t gone through what I was going through could never understand. Surrounding myself with people who were one year, two years, ten years into their grief gave me hope. I modeled my life on theirs, and I thought “If they can do it, I can do it.”
This is excerpted from Brian Smith’s book, Grief 2 Growth: Planted, Not Buried. How to Survive and Thrive After Life’s Greatest Challenges – Kindle edition by Smith, Brian D. Health, Fitness & Dieting Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
Read more by Brian Smith on Open to Hope: Crisis is a Chance to Address the Big Questions in Life – Open to Hope