The Long and the Short of It

The isle of Griefland has many unique geographical characteristics, including its varying distance from your home. Not only that, its size and terrain constantly mutate as well. You might become entangled in masses of vines unable to break free for a while, or have to drag yourself interminably over harsh rock after harsh rock. Or, as someone recently wrote in her blog, you might be forced onto a most capricious roller coaster there. A few of you might be lucky and just take  in poignant scenes as you sit on grass as soft as cashmere. Most peculiar of all, visitors never know in advance the length of their stay let alone the starting date. Not even “death professionals” can give an estimate. In fact, their own assumptions can throw off their estimate more than the average person’s.

Come again? Haven’t hospice personnel and the like seen zillions of cases and discerned some trends? Sure there are overall patterns, but like the weather and the stock market, on any one given day, the pattern appears totally random or idiosyncratic. Just because we have a hot day at the end of October in the United States does not mean that October is typically a very warm month. And it does not mean that the next day will be hot as well.

One of the two major mistakes I’ve seen hospice personnel make is overestimating how long a mourner will be in Griefland after the death. I once read about a chaplain urging the surviving son of a dementia patient to be in touch with his feelings and allow himself time to mourn. On the face of it, that sounds pretty wise: If you give yourself permission to feel and work your way through the sadness and anger and whatnot, then your departure date from Griefland can be sooner rather than later. That is generally true, just like October is generally on the cool side in the Western Hemisphere. Alright here’s the catch: This response came after the son revealed that “My Mom died the day she forgot who I was.” In other words, that was his start date in Griefland, which might have been months or who knows even years before he heard the crunch of shovels filling with dirt to throw onto the casket. Not only that, his departure date from Griefland might have been more or less before the start date of the funeral.( Note: if you are a budding death professional, the terminology goes like this: the mourner had engaged in anticipatory grief.)

The other mistake, as you might guess, is underestimating how long someone will grieve, or telling the griever in so many words that they have worn out their welcome in Griefland. Sure, the concern is unhealthy grieving (i.e. inability to do one’s job, not enjoy anything at all in life, not function with other surviving loved ones and friends), but there are cases where extended grieving is not dysfunctional. One of my most popular recent Tweets was to the effect, “Once the whole fandamily stops telling you to ‘get over it,’ that’s when you will be able to take the first tentative steps to doing so.” Whether dysfunctional or not, indicating that a griever is “overdoing it” impedes his or her expression of feelings. Ironically this keeps the grieving process stalled and therefore even extends our stay in that most frequented but least popular destination, Griefland.

Moral of the story: Grieving outliers unite!


9 thoughts on “The Long and the Short of It

  1. Liz Adams says:

    Great post, Karen. I’d like to add another point, if i may: the remark made to me by an older sister who had not been in the picture for years, had no knowledge of what I’d been doing for the last nine years of caregiving, that “of course, my grief had started ages before, when A. got so ill”

    I wondered when a 24/7 sole caregiver would ever had had time to grieve, given that I was just putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, year after year, backbreaking work and responsibility,no known end date with a chronic condition.

    I guess the moral of the story is: don’t ever assume anything about what the survivor feels and is processing. In my case the process could only start after A. had died, the legal and other needs were settled, and I had my mind back to myself.

    And three years later, I’m doing fine now.


    • I of course am glad you are doing fine now. And yes, the moral is,don’t assume: ask! And the asking should be compassionate, open-ended questions or comments as simple as, “How are things going with you now?”


  2. Reblogged this on myrainbowmind and commented:
    Whether dysfunctional or not, indicating that a griever is “overdoing it” impedes his or her expression of feelings. Ironically this keeps the grieving process stalled and therefore even extends our stay in that most frequented but least popular destination, Griefland.
    Moral of the story: Grieving outliers unite!


  3. I don’t think our hearts every completely heal when we lose a loved one. It changes us. It is important to move forward, but I don’t think the pain ever completely goes away.


    • You are absolutely correct. Bits of Griefland cling to our clothes as we exit. And your kind of grieving (the loss of a baby soon after birth) is so especially difficult, because society does not acknowledge it as much as the more “standard issue” types of grief such as loss of a spouse.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. “Oh no .. You’re not grieving proper .. Stop that! Stop that right now!” When people take this approach it is a bit like going outside and yelling at the rain to stop. I think of grief like rain, it starts when it starts and it stops when it stops. Sometimes it may be a huge storm that passes quickly, other times heavy on and off showers, or a constant light drizzle … And everything in between. Just like rain, you can’t command grief to stop – it has to ‘rain’ itself out.


    • I hope all of our various images are helpful to grievers. But I suppose a flaw in all of them is that the griever has no control. Actually they do in that they can “give themselves permission” to take a break from the work of grief and do something comforting or lighthearted. The “break”, however, is self-limiting.

      Another thing to note is that when someone critiques our grief, it may be much more about their own discomfort or anxiety regarding having to see us in the midst of it.


  5. Consuelo M. Beck-Sagué says:

    I know you’ve heard that silly thing “if you assume you make an ass out of you and me”. Silly, yes, but each human being is a mysterious universe. Who is qualified to assume anything about someone else’s grief? And everywhere, there is tragedy, heroism and heartbreak… and so much of it illicit, unlicensed, unforgivable (“what gives you the right? The nerve! The audacity!”)… Unforgivable grief, like forbidden love, must be borne without a moment of weakness, because it is grief that will not just be “critiqued”; it will be severely punished. Can’t assume anything about grief… just… don’t.


    • What do you mean by “unforgivable grief?” I know you mean on the part of the observer, not the griever, but I think my readers and I could benefit by an example.
      “Each human being is a mysterious universe.” Well-said! Thus we should approach each other in the spirit of adventure, not judgment.


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