On January 11 at 1:25 PM my father-in-law, Joe Enneberg, passed away. I have asked my wife, his daughter, for permission to use his passing as a baseline for a discussion about managing grief. In our overall effort to manage life, we are forced at times to manage death and grief. The elements of family functioning provides a good framework for a variety of grief management.
My in-laws have lived in the same small remote town since 1956, a year after they were married. They raised two children and were active in the community in a number of ways. Their daughter, my wife, had lived out of the immediate area for about nine years and then moved back until she moved about 200 miles away about 15 years ago. Her younger brother has lived about 150 miles away from the original home for approximately 25 years. Two-and-a half years ago my father-in-law began residing in an assisted living facility within about 1 mile of his home. His wife has been a daily visitor and care provider during practically every day of that time.
In this particular case my father-in-law had demonstrated the symptoms of dementia prior to his move to the assisted living facility and it was anticipated that he may not survive more than several months after the initial move. His mental decay was slow and painful to observe.
On January 8 he was standing next to his bed when his right leg gave way and he fell. A broken femur, at the ball of the hip, was confirmed by x-ray and he was returned to his bed. Had he lived, his prognosis was for a great deal of pain and discomfort until his bones healed and then he would be unable to walk at all.
All of the family agrees that, as difficult as it is to deal with his passing, to watch him deal with his pain and suffering would have been far worse. That being said, there is still going to be a significant change in the family’s daily schedule. It seems that one of the predictors of grieving is the amount that a person’s daily schedule is altered.
In my conversations with people I tell them that there are a number of circumstances that will likely predict the course for their grieving. I believe that everyone must grieve and I would recommend a review of the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross entitled “On Death and Dying” for people to acquaint themselves with the various stages of grief. Beyond what Kubler-Ross says about the stages I believe that grieving is largely impacted by the amount of change in daily routine that the passing of an “entity” creates.
I use the word “entity” because I believe that it is reasonable and necessary to grieve the passing of pets as well as humans. Sometimes the “entity” may be a career or a portion of your lifestyle such as the loss of the ability to exercise or be involved in a significant hobby.
If your contact with the “entity” is continuous then the change in your daily schedule is significant. When a spouse or a child dies or when an individual loses employment (examples of entities) there is a large potential to feel a great deal of emptiness. Part of this feeling of emptiness may also involve the loss of a sense of personal identity.
Family roles as well as employment roles contribute to our personal sense of identity, probably because of the culture that surrounds those roles. One of the reasons that military personnel may have a difficult time reintegrating to civilian life is that their identity as a member of the military must change when they leave the military. When an individual leaves a place of employment, or the structural family changes through loss, change is forced on other members of that group.
If most of the contact with an “entity” is intermittent, such as a part-time job or contact with the family member at scheduled times, the likelihood of schedule change is most apparent at those scheduled times. What I mean here is that if you call a family member on the phone each Sunday at 3 o’clock you’re more likely to have memories related to that relationship on Sunday at 3 o’clock. The rest of your schedule remains reasonably the same and therefore distractions are already in place. Prior to my own father’s death, we saw him at least each Wednesday because my work schedule took us to his town on Wednesday. After his death Wednesdays seemed very hollow, especially to my wife, who spent the entire day with him while I worked.
Managing grief is a process in which individuals learn to deal with the feelings of emptiness. Something needs to begin to replace that emptiness and it is important that the replacement comes from internal motivation and not from external sources. Too often the loss of a spouse creates such an intense sense of emptiness that the survivor will become involved in a relationship too soon. The grieving process has not been completed and the new relationship provides a distraction but not a solution. This is an example of a rebound relationship that is often very problematic because the process of getting to know the new partner is shortened or eliminated.
The topic of managing grief is far too extensive to cover in a single blog entry but I hope to use the example of my family’s grieving to encourage people to manage grief. A common and beneficial solution is to reach out to individuals who are experienced in assisting the process. Often other family members and close friends are so burdened with their own grief that they are not extremely effective coaches. I encourage people who have experienced loss to reach out to ministers, counselors or other community members who have experience with the grieving process and are able to remain objective.
What a grieving person needs is empathy not sympathy. Empathy is generally expressed by an individual who can understand the feelings of grief and loss whereas sympathy is shared negative emotion.
Unresolved grief can last for years and have very serious health consequences for the grieving person. I encourage anyone who is grieving to remember that whatever goes on in the brain for more than two or three months the brain sees is normal and will seek to maintain. I will argue here that people who have been grieving for years may be addicted to the grieving process and will likely need the assistance of a professional to break out of their grief.
If you have prolonged feelings of guilt, depression, difficulty sleeping or disturbances of appetite (weight gain or loss) please contact a professional or a professional organization to assist. Often a stalled grieving process can be addressed in a fairly short period of time.
I would welcome questions or additional input. I believe grieving is a process that is largely misunderstood and is handled with more denial than resolution and can result in long-term health problems, both physical and emotional.
Rest in peace Joe Orrin Enneberg