Handling Grief and Loss

Many of us are feeling stress and grief since the events of September 11. If you lost friends or family members, the reasons for your grief are clear. But even if you had no direct loss, your emotions may be running high, and why is not so obvious.

As a psychotherapist, I've been counseling many people who are having strong reactions. Terrible, shocking events can bring up old, unexpressed grief and pain. New grief, or even witnessing the grief of others, has a tendency to connect us to other losses in other times. So you may be experiencing feelings you didn't know you still had. Or people close to you may be struggling, making you feel helpless in the face of their grief, anger or fear.

The stress of trying to assist when you don't know exactly what to do, or what would help, can be overwhelming. For example, often survivors need to talk about how awful it is, how discouraged they are, or even cry uncontrollably for long periods of time. This can be scary to someone who is trying to support the griever, because it appears that he or she is “losing it”. This kind of release is necessary and healthy, and it's better not to stop it or block it. Instead, encourage it and help channel it into the most beneficial expressions.

Grief is an organic process, it has its own wisdom, and it needs a witness. If you are with a grieving friend, or even understanding your own grief, you can be that witness. You are not required to “do” or “fix” anything. Listening sympathetically, not arguing, and trusting that the griever will do or say whatever he or she needs to. There is nothing either of you can do to make such a tragedy less tragic, so the grief, anger and frustration that both of you feel are normal reactions to the circumstances. So you go through the stages of grief: shock, anger, seeking, depression and peace. It's normal to feel fear that this might happen again, rage that it happened at all, a need for prayer and comfort, bouts of being overwhelmed and thinking you can't go on, and, finally, acceptance and understanding that this devastating event is a part of the risky life we humans all live. These feelings will come jumbled up, they'll recycle, and come in different order.

When terrible, unimaginable events happen, whether they are national tragedies or simply the sudden loss of a close friend, the first reaction is shock. We respond and react, and feelings might run high, but it is difficult to really grasp the full extent of what has happened. We see courage in the midst of tragedy, an outpouring of compassion, tears, and efforts to help, and sometimes paralysis and fear. Shock is an instinctual reaction, designed over thousands of years of evolution to get us through the first days of a terrible event.

Then, as the shock wears off, and the permanence of the loss sets in, some people may feel a bit relieved, some will be angry, some will pray or question God, and others just feel exhausted, disconnected, and overwhelmed. This jumble of feelings includes the anger, seeking and depression phases.

• If you feel inspired to do something hopeful (for example, the setting up the “cross” discovered in the wreckage of the World Trade Center, or praying, or giving blood, or writing letters), do it.
• If you feel discouraged, just feel it—it will pass, and it may indicate that you need a rest.
• If you feel like laughing, don't worry about it—it's a good way to manage tragedy.
• If you feel angry, remember anger is the underside of love—it's an expression of the value you attach to the lives lost, and very appropriate. But it, too, will come and go and fade with time.
• If you are afraid, of course you are. We are all programmed to want to live, and being so heavily confronted with the fragility of life is terrifying. Yes, it could have been you, or someone close to you. But, humans are resilient, and the fear, too will pass.
• If you feel hopeless, it is because you are realizing that life is not in your own control. We can only control our reaction to events like this, and nothing we did could have caused the event or prevented it. This is when faith and a belief in a higher purpose to life is very helpful. If you haven't discovered a belief in higher purpose, then this would be a good time to search. Talk to clergy, read philosophy, meditate, pray, even get your fortune told. All these methods of attempting to understand the ineffable are imperfect, but they all can help.

Also, you will need support for your own struggle with these issues. Gather friends, family and neighbors around you. We never need each other more than at times like this. We need to feel a part of a larger, safer group. This is why singing “God Bless America” feels so good. At times like this, we all become helping angels to those who need us. God bless us in this task of making the world a better place, and easing each others' pain.

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