Grieving People Have All the Feelings

Sometimes a death impacts a school or community organization, like a church or Boy Scout troop. A child or teacher dies, and I am invited to facilitate a one-time grief support discussion with children or teenagers. It’s a very condensed experience.

I start with establishing rapport and gradually (but also quickly) move into talking about death in movies and books, the difference between grief and mourning, and the person who died. We start with the person and their life because while their death and how they died was very important, even more important is the fact that they lived.

After we paint a picture of the person, including both the good stuff and imperfections (because nobody’s perfect), we cover the basic facts of the death. Next, we brainstorm and discuss a list of how people feel when someone dies. Then we talk about things people do for themselves that help a little bit.

No Agreed-Upon Answers

After this discussion, they write questions about anything we’ve talked about. I read the questions aloud, offer answers to the ones for which there may be an answer. I acknowledge that some questions have no agreed-upon answers, even among adults.

For each question, I’ll say something like, “That’s a good question,” because it is, whether or not there is a good answer. As we come to an end, I share with them a Liberian folktale about the importance of remembering those who have died.

In recent years, I was with a church youth group following the accidental death of one of their members and friends. As is almost always the case, I was impressed by the courage of the group to talk about painful things. It was heavy, and I had to remind myself that it’s important to accept the heaviness. Grieving people—children, teens, and adults—need a safe place to feel as bad as they feel.

No Pat Answers

A few weeks after the meeting with the church youth group, a mother of one of the teens shared what her child expressed when asked how the meeting went. “It was awful, but it was good.”

Awful and good. Not one or the other, but both. In grief as it is in much of life, the reality is usually not “either-or” but “both-and.”

Grieving people too often get messages that don’t leave room for both-and. When feeling sad or angry or depressed, caring friends and family encourage them to feel otherwise.

“She wouldn’t want you to feel bad.”

“He’s not suffering anymore.”

“They are in a better place.”

Both-and, Not Either-or

All of these well-intentioned but misguided statements contain an unspoken message: Don’t feel as bad as you feel. Understandable, perhaps, but not generally helpful.

A few years ago this restrictive type of comforting pushed me to share this thought-experiment:

One summer when our daughter was in college, she toured several countries in Eastern Europe with a professor and several fellow classmates. Supported by her college, the next summer she returned to those eastern European countries by herself to conduct research for a senior project.

So let’s imagine that while she was traveling, I received a phone call and the caller told me something like this: “Mr. Adams, first thing, your daughter is just fine. She is OK and she is not suffering. However, you will never see her in this life again and you can have no contact with her. No phone calls, no texts, no letters, no video calls, no visits. She will never come home and you cannot come to see her. But don’t feel bad, because she is fine.”

How do you think that I would feel about that? I would be glad, of course, that she’s not suffering (if I could believe the caller), but I would be deeply disturbed and upset. I had hoped for a very different future, one where our relationship would continue, grow, and deepen. One where I could see her, interact with her, hug her neck, and continue watching her bloom into a middle-aged adult and perhaps have a family of her own. How ridiculous to tell me that I shouldn’t feel bad.

More Than One Feeling at a Time

And how ridiculous it is to tell a grieving person to feel only glad that one’s suffering is over and that they are in a better place. How, by the way, can it be a “better place” if we are apart, and why was death the only way for suffering to end? What’s the hurry, too, to be in that better place—how about a little while longer here? More fundamentally, who says that we can only have one feeling at a time? Can’t we feel relieved that suffering has ended and heartsick that the person died and we are apart?

Grieving people, meaning you and me, need to experience permission within ourselves (and also from others) to feel as bad as we feel. And we also need to experience permission within ourselves (and also from others) to eventually feel better without feeling guilty.

When our son was five years old, we moved houses. At first he was reluctant, but after he saw the new house, he felt some excitement about the move (the new house had stairs!). I asked him at one point how he was feeling about moving. He said something like this: “At first I was sad. Then I was happy. Then I was sad again. That’s two sads and one happy.”

No either-or for him. He could be both sad and happy. We all can and we all are. Awful and good, sad and happy, relieved and heartbroken. Permission for all of it, and then we go from there.

Greg Adams

Center for Good Mourning

Arkansas Children’s Hospital

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Greg Adams

Greg Adams is a social worker at Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH) where he coordinates the Center for Good Mourning, a grief support and outreach program, and works with bereavement support for staff who are exposed to suffering and loss. His past experience at ACH includes ten years in pediatric oncology and 9 years in pediatric palliative care. He has written for and edited The Mourning News, an electronic grief/loss newsletter, since its beginning in 2004. Greg is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Graduate School of Social Work where he teaches a grief/loss elective and students are told that while the class is elective, grief and loss are not. In 1985, Greg graduated from Baylor University majoring in social work and religion, and he earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Missouri in 1986. One answer to the question of how he got into the work of grief and death education is that his father was an educator and his mother grew up in the residence part of a funeral home where her father was a funeral director. After growing up in a couple small towns in Missouri south of St. Louis, Greg has lived in Little Rock since 1987. He married a Little Rock native in 1986 and his wife is an early childhood special educator and consultant. Together they have two adult children. Along with his experience in the hospital with death and dying and with working with grieving people of all ages, personal experiences with death and loss have been very impacting and influential. In 1988, Greg’s father-in-law died of an unexpected suicide. In 1996, Greg and his wife lost a child in mid-pregnancy to anencephaly (no brain developed). Greg’s mother died on hospice with cancer in 2008 and his father died after the family decided to stop the ventilator after a devastating episode of sepsis and pneumonia in 2015. Greg has a variety of interests and activities—including slow running, reading, sports, public education, religion, politics, and diversity issues—and is active in his church and community. He is honored to have the opportunity to be a contributor for Open to Hope.

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