A Roller-coaster Journey Through Grief by William Wan
The Straits Times Sunday February 17, 2019
All the passages below are taken from the book, “Through The Valley: The Art Of Living And Leaving Well”, by William Wan. It is published by Straits Times Press and retails at S$30.
Emotions can range from shock to anger, from anger to guilt, and from guilt to denial.
My mother was everything to me. When she died, I was in the United States and was told only after she had died. She had instructed my sister not to inform me until she expired because I had come back a year before when she was critically ill. Amazingly, she recovered, and I returned to the US after spending some time with her, though she thought she had wasted my time then as I had come back to Singapore “for nothing”. She told my sister not to call me since she could still recover from her illness as she did then. But, should she pass away, I was to return immediately to conduct her funeral!
That’s my mother. She was very down-to-earth and practical. She passed on at 88 years old with a mind as sharp as a razor, my sister told me. She talked about death and dying in a matter-of fact manner, my sister said, and she gave specific instructions days before she expired that she wanted me to be back to conduct her funeral service.
That’s exactly my mother, as I remembered her. I recall once picking her up in my arms from the wheelchair to set her up in my car. I asked her if she was afraid because her days were numbered. She smiled and said: “I should be all right because I am going to be with Jesus.” She was a woman of simple faith, and there was no fear in her eyes, only hope.
I was comforted by her attitude towards death and her fortitude in hope when death was averted. When she knew she was dying, she did not insist that I, her son, should be there for her. She did not want to waste my time, she said. I could come when I was needed to conduct her funeral.
I did conduct her funeral where I preached on one of her favourite biblical texts – Jesus said to her: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”
It was a comforting service, those who attended observed.
As her son and minister at her funeral, I held up well. After all, we were there to celebrate her life and the words I spoke were comforting, reassuring and positive – even as the scriptural text was. The faith tradition I embrace encourages us to grieve, but not as a people without hope. That, in practice, means that there is very little weeping in public. We have forgotten that even Jesus wept in public because of his friend Lazarus’ death.
But when the dust settled, I found myself grieving. Up to that point, I had understood grief from two sources – from my seminary studies and from the people I ministered to in their grief. My mother’s death generated a deep sad feeling of loss, a wish that she had not died and a swirling feeling of missing her dearly. I found myself weeping for the loss of my beloved mother.
As I grieved, I was reminded that grief is a natural response to loss and is often associated with the loss of someone you love. The most common effects of grieving are sleeplessness, loneliness, loss of appetite and distancing from people who care for you.
DIFFERENT STAGES OF GRIEF
The more beloved the deceased, the more intense the pain of loss you feel deep inside you. Different people experience different levels of emotional suffering and at its deepest level, it can be overwhelming. Emotions range from shock to anger, from anger to guilt and from guilt to denial. In all of these, there is usually a sense of profound sadness.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth KublerRoss researched the feelings of patients facing terminal illness and, in 1969, wrote about the “five stages of grief’. These are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They “are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one(s) we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief”.
Denial takes place when the loss is sudden or unexpected and the reaction is: “This can’t be happening to me!” Often, there is anger and the question “Where is God when I needed Him?” is asked. “Why is this happening?” is another question that reveals anger.
One of the most poignant texts I received reads:
“Dear William, thank you for checking in on me. Yes, we could get together some time. I could do with some company. It has been three weeks since his passing but the pain of loss is as raw and intense as if it was just yesterday when he suffered a heart attack. God saw two very happily married people and decided that’s enough happiness for them. One must die and the other remain with nothing but all the time in the world to grieve. i What kind of God is that?”
The reaction is one of shock and disbelief. It is very difficult for my friend to accept what had transpired – one moment they were happily together, and the next, the husband was gone. The denial can lead to a state where you continue to expect that deceased to show up even though you know that they are gone for good. But denial need not be all negative. Kubler-Ross opines that “denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief. There is a grace in denial. It is nature’s way of letting in only as much as we can handle”.
In the case of an accident, the loss could have been caused by someone’s negligence. I know of folks who died in hospitals and their loved ones blamed the doctors or the healthcare system for failing to do a good job. These reactions are also driven by the raw emotion of anger. I can see why my friend was angry with God. I can also see why doctors and sometimes the deceased person can be blamed for abandoning you. There is a sense of injustice done to you and you feel the right to be angry.
Bargaining may also take place as a symptom of desperation. “Make this not happen, and I promise to…” This need to reset may be the result of guilt and fear. You can feel guilty for all kinds of real or perceived neglect – things you said or didn’t say, things you did or didn’t do.
One of my friends felt guilty that she could not revive her husband when he had a heart seizure, even though she had done her best in the circumstances and there was nothing more she could do. You may also feel guilty to feel relieved when your loved one dies after a long, difficult illness.
You may bargain out of fear, leading to a plethora of anxiety, insecurity, helplessness and worries. You may even have panic attacks as you must face life without a helpmeet whom you had depended on for a good part of your life. The thought of having to shoulder your responsibilities alone could be so overwhelming that you wish you could reset and get back to first base.
Depression is not uncommon among the bereaved, especially when death is sudden. Often, it is the result of guilt. One of my friends who migrated to Australia suffered a great tragedy. His eldest son celebrated his 18th birthday with the joy of passing the driving test and getting his driving licence. Soon after, he attempted to back the car from the driveway without realising that his younger brother was on a tricycle just behind him. He ran over him, causing the death of his brother. Though he was acquitted because it was an unfortunate accident, he suffered years of severe depression even as he grieved deeply for the brother he loved. Thankfully, he did recover and is today a successful physician.
DON’T SUPPRESS YOUR TEARS
In my work as a pastor-counsellor, I have come across several misunderstandings about grief. One of the most common is to advise the grieving person to be strong. But if that means that you stoically bear the loss without expressing your sadness, loneliness and fear, that you don’t cry, then you are being told to unnecessarily resist what is natural. Crying because of emotional pain and sadness is a natural response and should not be suppressed.
“Tears are the silent language of grief,” wrote Voltaire. Expressing our true feelings will facilitate healing. It is in facing the pain authentically that you can begin to deal with it. Ignoring it is not helpful.
Deep sadness is probably the most universally experienced symptom of grief. Losing someone you love dearly brings about painful feelings of emptiness, loneliness, yearning and despair. Your emotions are destabilised, and you may cry uncontrollably. That is not a bad thing. According to neuroscientist William H. Frey II, who spent over 20 years studying crying and tears, “crying is not only a human response to sorrow and frustration, it’s a healthy one”.
Apparently, only human beings shed tears in response to emotional stress. Crying is an expression of acknowledging your feelings of loss. It is not a sign of weakness, but of strength as it implies healthy relationships and elicits empathy that draws individuals closer to one another. It is a natural way to reduce emotional stress by reducing blood pressure that, if left unchecked, can become chronic and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease including stroke and heart failure, cause tension headache and migraine, contribute to ulcers and other stress-related disorders.
Emotional stress increases the level of cortisol which can wreak havoc on the body. Tears reduce that harmful chemical. They also reduce the level of manganese, a mineral which affects mood and is found in significantly greater concentration in tears than in blood serum. Elevated levels of manganese in the body are associated with anxiety, irritability and aggression. Research also shows that 85 per cent of women and 73 per cent of men feel less sad and angry after shedding some tears. “Humans’ ability to cry has survival value,” Frey emphasises. Thankfully, over time, acceptance will take place as part of the healing process.
The best sign of acceptance and healing is when you can move on. Moving on, however, does not mean forgetting. Keeping the memory of someone you lost as an important part of you is an important aspect of healing. It is when you can invoke the memory of the person you loved and talk fondly about him or her without the pain of loss that you can say you are truly healed.
It is crucial to remember that our emotions are messy. These emotional stages are not sequential, they merely describe the kinds of emotions that are thrown up when a person is grieving. Kubler-Ross did not intend for these stages to be a rigid framework that applies to everyone who mourns. In 2004, she said of the five stages of grief: “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”
It is equally important to know that grieving is a highly individual experience – there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and how significantt the loss was to you.
Grief is the function of love. Or as Queen Elizabeth II put it, “grief is the price we pay for love”. The greater the love, the deeper the grief. There would be no grief only when there is no love expended on others.
All healing happens gradually – you can’t plan or schedule it and you can’t force or hurry it along. Some people get over it in weeks or months. Some take years. However you grieve, be yourself and give yourself the space and time to heal.
I EXPERIENCED GUILT
My own experience of grief was more like taking a roller-coaster ride. I was not in denial, but was struck with a sense of guilt. I was living in the US at that time and had been away for more than 10 years. Mom did stay with us in Canada for just over a year. She and my wife got along famously and she loved her three grandchildren. She used to knit scarves and mittens for the kids. But the weather was too cold for her, and she did not speak English. Her friends were all in Singapore and she decided to return to stay with my sister. I did not have the privilege of taking care of her in her old age.
My emotions went up and down. There were good days and bad days. I had some of her pictures with me and recalled the memorable times with her. I started to write about her as I recalled the events of the distant past – the time when she piggy-backed me to visit friends. I remembered placing my ear on her back and hearing clearly the rhythm of her heartbeat! I recalled going with her to the wet market and the Chinese medicinal shop. The scenes flashed before me, and the smell, too – a mixture of rancidity and putrefying odour of exposed meat and fish in a rather humid atmosphere, and the sweet smelling aromatic Chinese herbal medicine in the Chinese medicinal shop owned by one of her friends was quite addictive.
Writing about my mom and recalling the faces were cathartic for me. It helped me manage my emotions. Remembering my mother through photos and flashbacks of events seemed to fill the hole created by her physical absence. It worked for me, but for others, it may work in a different way.
Recently, five of us took a friend out to dinner. She had lost her husband a few months ago. We sat down at a table set for six. As soon as we were seated, our widowed friend started to weep. Looking at the empty seat diagonally across from her, she said: “That is for my husband. I missed him so much.” We were glad she could talk about him because we were afraid that she was beginning to distance herself from all her friends and nursing her pain in silence.
It is always helpful to express your feelings in writing. Write about your loss in a journal or a letter, saying the things you’ve always wanted to say but did not say. Create a scrapbook of memorabilia or photo album celebrating the person’s life; or get involved in a cause or organisation that was important to your loved one.