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How to Handle the Complexities of Grief

Parents throughout the world can understand the anger and grief displayed this week by Leonard Gengel, father of 20 year old Britney Gengel who is still missing in Haiti.  Not only is his loss devastating to the core of his being but he was mistakenly told she was found due to faulty intelligence. Leonard and his wife are beside themselves with grief and frustration as are many other families with love ones in Haiti. Of course Haitians themselves are stricken with overwhelming grief as their families are torn apart with no clear hope of a better tomorrow.

How does one cope with such agonizing grief? Is it even possible to overcome such emotional pain?

This morning one of my clients seemed on edge in a group coaching session. He is a mild mannered person, has wonderful character and is always reaching out to help others in group and in his life. Today he related in an uncharacteristic manner as he expressed anger toward me and immediately I thought something must be hurting him that he was not disclosing. As he went on to complain about certain aspects of his life it was obvious that these irritations were not enough to significantly change his typical temperament. Another group member commented, “I think what’s really bothering you is your still grieving your mother’s death, after all it has only been a few months”. At that moment my client began to tear and he began to talk of how he felt seeing his mother wither away to nothing, while she experienced inordinate pain. “I can’t get the images of her suffering out of my mind, I was so angry at being so dam helpless”.

As the session progressed other members shared similar reactions to deaths or losses they had experienced. One member talked of how his sister recently went to his father’s grave and screamed at him for not taking care of himself, he talked of how her anger seems to grow and grow every week. “I thought it was a good thing, getting all this anger out, right Dr. C?”

It is normal to feel anger when we fear losing someone we love or in fact do loose that person. Leonard Gengel’s anger is understandable to anyone who loves their children, just as it understandable that my client’s sister is angered by a father who drank himself to death. We are angered by our helplessness, by our lack of control and by our inability to change a horrendous outcome into something positive.

If embellished too long anger however can be a defense against acknowledging and working through more fundamental feelings. It is also dangerous as it stresses our physiology to an unhealthy point where it can cause heart disease and other life threatening illnesses. It is a natural first reaction, certainly one in Mr. Gengel’s case that can propel him into action until he obtains the answers he and his wife deserve.

Grief is not comfortable for anyone. We all would rather avoid it and the conflicts in our lives if we could. Some people believe if they avoid and turn away it will go away. Don’t fool yourself, it will not. Avoidance may bring you relief temporarily, but the emotions associated with conflict will come out sideways if not expressed directly. When they do emerge indirectly we end up arguing about the toothpaste being squeezed out of the wrong end, and those close to us begin to think we’re being irrational, stubborn and close minded. We are dismissed because the focus of our anger seems irrelevant and superficial.

My client’s irritation with me and earlier with his wife was an excellent example of this kind of avoidance. Why did he choose this direction? Well I don’t think it was a conscious thought, but somewhere within him he felt out of control, helpless, anxious and scared. Expressing anger over minor issues probably gave him a sense of control and relief for a few, brief minutes. Knowing his character I knew he would apologize after our session ended and he did. I told him I took no offense. I knew he was suffering and I told him it’s normal to express frustration  to those we trust when were overwhelmed. He began to tear, lowered his head and thanked me graciously.

If those close to you are grieving give them a little space, don’t be overly sensitive if their mood is off. When one party is in grief and the other is not there it is a relational mis-match for a time. My client’s wife cannot experience the death of his mother the way he does. If he is more aware of his mood going forward, explaining at times that his thoughts of his mother’s illness are haunting him, his mood will likely be more understandable to her. Consequently he is less likely to need to choose a non-related outlet.

What happened in our group session this morning is what needs to happen in anyone’s life if they are going to grieve constructively and overcome the effects of traumatic loss. If you are in the role of the helper expressing understanding, empathy, compassion, tolerance and having the ability to look beyond the surface are essentials to guiding the tormented person to health. If you are the person grieving  you are likely to find yourself experiencing the gamut of feelings, expect your mood to fluctuate and try your very best to not spend time on small irritations, it is a sign that more important concerns are being avoided. When we lose all control we naturally look to things we can control to escape our feelings of helplessness. Acceptance of our limitations is a key part of grieving and in many ways a key aspect to healthy living .We don’t get to choose how people live, we can’t control natural disasters or chronic illness but we can develop the tools that allow us to cope with as much resiliency as possible.

We grieve because we have loved deeply. We recover through love as well. The love of those who care enough about us to tolerate our fluctuating moods allows us to heal the wounds of a broken heart.

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