Monday, November 23, 2009

Grieving vs. Mourning

By Rose Carlson

A few weeks ago, several of us from Share attended a workshop given by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who is an internationally known speaker and author on grief issues. Dr. Wolfelt has written many different books for those who are grieving, from children to widows and widowers, to families of suicide victims to bereaved parents. He has also written books for those who care for people who are grieving, and he owns and operates a beautiful retreat center in Colorado.
Each year, one of our local funeral homes brings Dr. Wolfelt to our city. On the first day, he presents a workshop for people who are grieving the death of a loved one, and the next day, he presents a workshop for those who care for and work with those who are grieving. This is the workshop that I attended last week with my co workers. It was titled “Exploring the Spiritual Aspects of Death, Grief and Mourning.” While it was a very inspiring workshop, that is not what this blog post is about. I may be compelled to write on this topic sometime soon as I did have many thoughts about this topic swirling around in my head at the end of the day. Actually, I could probably write several different posts on this topic. But, what I’m going to write about now is something that has been on my mind since I attended the workshop last week. Dr. Wolfelt only touched on this briefly a few times as it wasn’t the focus of his presentation.

Grieving vs. mourning.

Honestly, this is not something I have given any thought to before. They would seem to be the same thing, yet according to Dr. Wolfelt, they aren’t, even though most people use the terms interchangeably. He says that grief is made up of the internal thoughts and feelings we all experience when someone we love dies. On the other hand, mourning is taking the internal experience of grief and expressing it…that real healing occurs not just by grieving, but through mourning. He says that most people in North American culture grieve, but they don’t necessarily mourn. He talked about how many years ago, those who were grieving wore black for a certain period of time so that everyone they encountered knew they were mourning the death of someone important in their life, and that this was a crucial part of their healing because even complete strangers knew they were grieving and would ask about their loved one. We don’t do that now. In fact, most people don’t even like to talk about grief and mourning, and quickly try to change the subject when it is mentioned. As most all of us have discovered, most of our society is uncomfortable with outward expressions of grief, quickly change the subject when the grieving person brings it up, and often will go so far as to tell the griever to “get over it and get on with life.”

This is apparent for pretty much all grieving people, but I couldn’t help but think as I listened to him talk that this is probably most apparent among parents who have experienced the death of a baby, even though he didn’t specifically mention that. Dr. Wolfelt believes that people don’t mourn because of the many conditions that are placed on them by society and the things grieving people are told. In the case of parents grieving the death of a baby, this would be things such as “be thankful, there was probably something wrong with the baby.” Or, “You’re young, you can have more children.” Or, “At least you lost the baby early before you got to know it.” Or, “It wasn’t meant to be.” These types of statements can make grieving parents feel as if they must keep their feelings to themselves, and so they don’t mourn the way they need and want to. The way they should be able to, surrounded by loving family and friends who give them the care and support they so desperately need as they try to navigate their way through a life they hadn’t planned.

Not only are bereaved parents who have had a baby die strongly encouraged to “move on,” have another baby and forget about the one who died, but those who outwardly express their grief in healthy ways of mourning are often looked at as unstable or crazy, and I find that very sad. Parents who outwardly express their grief are often told to “get over it,” “why do you keep bringing it up?” or “be thankful for what you have!” I believe that the people who say these things aren’t trying to purposely be mean or insensitive, yet they often come across that way. And comments such as these leads to parents suffering in silence and not mourning the way they need to.

As we all know, you don’t ever “get over” the death of a baby, no matter when the death occurred. In fact, I don’t think you ever “get over” the death of anyone you love and who is important to you. However, through real mourning, according to Dr. Wolfelt, you do eventually integrate your loss into the fabric of your life. In fact, according to him, mourning properly is essential to integrating your loss. He says that when a mourner is unable to express his or her feelings, they may become “stuck,” that the feelings of intense grief and pain may last longer.

In all of my years at Share, I never thought of it quite that way, but really, that is the heart of our mission…helping parents integrate their tragic loss into the fabric of their lives so they can move forward from those intense, raw early days and eventually be able to once again lead joyful, productive lives. We let them know that expressing their grief is not only healthy, but it is necessary. We help them understand that grief is not something with a time limit on it, but a lifelong process. And just as importantly, we help their family and friends understand that doing things that are meaningful to them, and that being able to talk about their baby as much as they need to is indeed healthy, and in fact, necessary.

All of us at Share hear time and again from parents that they don’t know what they would have done, don’t know where they would be, if not for Share helping them validate their baby’s life. Yes, we do validate their baby’s lives, and that is so important. But after listening to Dr. Wolfelt, I think what makes all the difference is that we help families mourn. And we help them see that mourning their baby IS a lifelong process. We encourage them to share their grief publicly…to wear a special pin or piece of jewelry, to share their baby’s photographs, to talk about their baby. These are the things that will eventually lead to some healing and peace.

Does what Dr. Wolfelt says make sense to you, that grieving is different from mourning?
Do you see any situations in your own life where you feel your healing is hindered because you aren’t allowed to mourn?
What things have you done to mourn so that others know about the grief you were/are experiencing?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sunny Skies after the Fog

By Rose Carlson
A few Saturdays ago, I left my house really early…much too early for a Saturday; it was barely light, and it was unnaturally cold for early October, but I was going to speak at the Share walk in Fairview Heights, IL and needed to be there by 8 am. It is normally about a 45 minute drive, but it took me nearly an hour and a half because there was heavy fog that morning. I didn’t think much about it when I left home as fog is not uncommon around here. But, as I got on the interstate, the fog was so thick I could barely see where I was going, especially when I got near the Missouri River, which separates St. Charles (where I live) from St. Louis.

Where is this going you may be wondering? What does driving in fog early on a fall Saturday morning have to do with anything that would be posted on the Share blog?

Well, I do have a point. I promise, I do, but sometimes, (most of the time, really!) it takes me a bit of writing to get to my point, so bear with me please.

I crossed the Missouri River driving only about 30 miles an hour because I could not see much more than a few feet in front of my car. I was thinking it was the thickest fog I had seen in a long time, and I was really unsure of myself driving in it. Once I was over the river, the fog wasn’t quite as thick, and while it was still hard to see the highway in front of me, I relaxed a bit. I had planned on spending my drive going over in my mind the speech I had prepared, but I was so nervous driving, that all I could think about was navigating safely through the fog.

Maybe it’s because I was on my way to a Share event that my mind took the turn it did that morning. After all, I have driven in fog many times before. While I don’t like it, I have never before looked at fog and compared it to grief, but as I drove on that morning, that is exactly what was on my mind…thinking of being in the thick, swirling fog as the same way we all feel or have felt when we were grieving…unable to see very far ahead, only thinking of getting through the next few feet. Or the next few moments…putting whatever plans we may have had on hold as we go into survival “get through this” mode…that is what I thought about when I was going through the thick fog…it was very scary not being able to see what was ahead of me. Just as when you are grieving, it is scary to think about the days and months ahead. You can’t see where you are going, and that is not a good feeling. It’s not uncommon to feel as if a dark cloud is hovering over you, and you can’t imagine ever breaking out of it. I have driven this same stretch of highway many times…yet it was much different and felt unfamiliar driving it through the heavy cloak of fog. When you are grieving, your life may seem much the same way…you may be doing the same things, going the same places, and they may all be very familiar, yet at the same time, not familiar at all.

Once I drove over the bridge that crosses the river, the fog wasn’t as thick. In fact, the sun was kind of shining through the fog, and I wasn’t quite sure what to think about that. It was still foggy, but the sun was shining through, and it was still hard to see. The sun at that point almost made it harder to see.

And again I thought of the grief journey…how sometimes, you are in your darkest moments, unable to think of more than a few moments ahead. Then, sometimes, the sun shines, or rather you feel a tiny bit of relief from the dark, scary times you have been through. The sun shining through into your life for a moment may disorient you, as it did me on this foggy morning. It may take you a bit to adjust to the new brightness in your life, and you may feel afraid to believe that it will last. Just as I knew as I drove that I wasn’t completely out of the fog yet.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, I found myself once again enveloped in a fog so thick I could barely see, and I thought about pulling off the highway and calling Kaci, the person in charge of the walk I was going to so I could tell her I couldn’t make it. I still had a long way to go, and I felt like giving up and going back the way I had come, back to the safety of my home. But then I realized that I couldn’t do that. I was halfway there, and it seemed silly to turn back. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be avoiding the fog--I’d drive through it the whole way home. And besides, I knew that Kaci was counting on me to be there. So I kept going, even though I really didn’t want to.

As I drove on, I thought of how when you are grieving, you may often feel like just giving up, going back in time, then you think of those who are counting on you, and you know that you can’t give up. And as much as you wish you could, you can’t go back in time either.

Finally, just past the St. Louis airport, I broke through the fog, and the sky was beautifully blue and sunny. I was so relieved that I had made it through that scary drive. I still had a good ways to go to get to my destination, but I relaxed, turned on the radio, turned off the defroster and even cracked the window to let in some fresh, although cold air. I was finally able to drive the speed limit.

I gave up on my original plan of rehearsing my speech in my mind. I had gotten too sidetracked, and I decided to just drive and enjoy the beautiful morning. My plans had definitely changed, but I was okay with it by that point. Once again, I thought of grief, and how often you realize that the plans you may have had before really weren’t all that important, that what is important is to just enjoy the moment you are in.

I had about 10 minutes of enjoying the moment I was in. I thought I had gone through the “bad” stuff, that the rest of my trip to Illinois would be smooth sailing.

Then, I neared the Mississippi River which separates St. Louis from Illinois. All of the sudden, the fog was back. Thin at first, but as I drove on, it became thicker, and I felt like I was back where I had started from when I first left home. I hate driving over the bridge that crosses the Mississippi in the best of weather conditions. There are too many lanes and several interstates all meeting to cross that one bridge, and if you aren’t paying close attention, it is way too easy to end up in the wrong lane, going the wrong direction. So thinking of navigating that bridge in heavy fog was not appealing to me at all.

I was kind of angry by that point, too… I had been driving along, enjoying the sunshine and the beautiful fall morning, singing along to the radio, and BAM! I was back in the fog, the fog that I hated driving in and thought I had left behind. Once again, I was unable to see where I was going, once again, I was nervous…if I hadn’t been so close to my destination, I might have been tempted once again to give up. But, this time, I knew I would eventually come out of the fog.

I turned off the radio, gripped the steering wheel a bit tighter, and tried once again to see my way safely through the fog. And just as I had thought, within a few minutes, I was once again out of the fog, and the day was beautiful and sunny.

I arrived at the walk later than I had planned on because of the unexpected fog, but I arrived. And I was happy to be there. It was truly a beautiful morning; the trees were starting to change to their fall colors, and they were stunning against the perfectly clear blue sky. It was hard to believe that only a few minutes before I had been unable to see that blue sky because of the heavy fog. And it was cold. But I had such an appreciation for the beauty of the day, maybe more so because of the conditions I had to go through to get there. Maybe if I hadn’t driven there in such horrific weather conditions, I would have arrived thinking only of the cold and not the beauty of the day, not the thankfulness I had for having arrived there safely.

On my way home from the walk, I didn’t encounter any fog. It was truly a beautiful fall day in St. Louis. As I drove back to St. Charles, I thought once again about the journey of grief…how it is so challenging to navigate through life when you feel as if your life is covered in a heavy oppressive fog. But inevitably, the fog does lift…in the beginning, the fog may only lift for brief moments, giving you a mere glimpse of the sunshine that lies ahead before it envelops you once again. But, as you continue on, the skies do eventually clear.

At this point in time, you may still be in that fog. And you may feel as if you will never come out of it. It’s hard to believe, but you will. Your skies will one day be clear and sunny again And hopefully, once the skies in your life are again sunny, you will have an appreciation for them that you might not have had if not for the dark, frightening fog you have navigated your way through