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Coping with Grief

Jill Garvin, Wing Director of Psychological Health

Jill Garvin, Wing Director of Psychological Health

OTIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mass. -- Since I started working here at the 102nd, I have been struck by the amount of losses at the wing.

For 8 years, I worked for a program that dealt with sudden loss and grief.

This was a profound experience for me, both personally and professionally.  I immersed myself in the literature about grief and loss and learned a great deal from daily interactions with individuals and families that were grieving.

Here are a few things I've learned and experienced about grief that some of you may find comforting or helpful:

You don't "get over" grief. You learn to get "through" grief. Time doesn't always "heal all wounds." I remember a mother saying to me that the longer her son is gone, the worse it feels. She stated that when the 5 year anniversary came, she felt worse realizing so much time had passed that her son wasn't in the world.

Nothing goes back to the way it was. You have to create a new "normal", at your own pace.

The stages of grief, written by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, were originally created for terminally ill patients and the stages they go through: shock, denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance. As a result, survivors of loss believe they should neatly move through these stages, and if they don't, then they must be grieving incorrectly and they judge how they are grieving.

When we grieve, we may go through some or all of these emotions, but not in a chronological, packaged way. We are all different and unique in our grief.

Some of us want to talk about our loss; some of us cannot talk about it. Some of us stay angry and others find more acceptance as time moves forward. Grief comes in waves. Sometimes it's turbulent and hits you like it was yesterday.

And at times grief feels manageable. It is always changing.  Grief is not rationale or linear.

I would like to offer a gentle reminder to those experiencing loss: Don't judge yourself on how you are grieving or compare yourself to others and how they grieve. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

Offer yourself compassion and patience. Talk to yourself like you would a friend. Grief is not a one or two year process - it is a lifetime of grieving. The waves may get smaller, but it's always there. Your loved one is always in your heart and being.

Often, the more complicated the loss, the more complicated the grief can be.

Grief isn't easy to communicate with people that haven't experienced loss.

This is why it's so important to connect with other grievers when you are ready. This can be in a group setting, talking with a therapist or chaplain, or on-line groups and chat rooms for those grieving. I have found that reading books and memoirs about grief help normalize the experience of loss. Grief can make us feel crazy, but I assure you, you are not crazy. You have reactions that you have never experienced before.

How can you help the griever?

It's usually not helpful to say, "They are in a better place." We want our loved one here. How does someone else know where our loved ones are?

Yes, time can heal, but for many, the more time passes, that is more time the griever does not have their loved one.

NEVER say it's time to "get over it" or "you need to get on with your life."

"Your loved one would want you to get on with your life." Or "you have other children" is not helpful.

No one gets over a loss, they learn to move through loss and how to live with loss. We hopefully learn coping skills along the way.

It's not helpful to say, "at least you had your loved one for a certain amount of time."

Statistically, it takes a couple of years after a significant loss for the shock to wear off and to start realizing (sometimes accepting) the reality. Also, it may never feel acceptable, but one can understand that the loss has happened and it becomes more real.

During illness and right after a death, people are supportive and available.

It's months and sometimes years and anniversaries after the loss, that the person really needs support.

Life really doesn't go back to being normal, but rather we learn to create a new normal and existence without our person. And this takes time. Sometimes it helps to ask the griever, "What helps you?" Again, they may want you to say their loved one's name, or they may prefer you don't bring it up at this time. Often grievers do not know what they need, so give them the space and time, and remind them you are available if needed. Very often we just don't know what to say; keep it simple.  All of us want the person we lost to be remembered!

I am thinking about starting a grief group here at the wing that would provide support and information. If you are interested, please email me or call me so I can see if there is interest. We will discuss helpful books, grief versus complicated grief, and offer support to others that may feel alone in their grief. Human connection is the most powerful tool for healing. Feel free to contact me for book suggestions as well, or other grief groups in the community.

Please remember I am here for all of you and I would be honored to support you through your grief.