Probably all of us have known people who seem unable to recover from the death of someone close to them. Despite the passing of time and the efforts of friends, these mourners never quite come to terms with the loss.
In some cases, they lose interest in the world around them. They don't care about food or social activities or their appearance. Often this condition can be accompanied by a rejection of family and friends.
There is no time limit on grief. But generally, after a year or two, people mourning the death of a spouse, family member or close friend are able to come to terms with the loss and rebuild their lives.
However, complications can creep into the mourning process -- sometimes due in part to the misguided efforts of family and friends.
A good example, one that is far too common in our culture, is the use of drugs or even hospitalization immediately after a death to "protect" the mourner from the pain of facing the rituals of death.
In situations like these, Dr. Therese Rando, who has published a number of books on grief and bereavement, has some observations that may be of help. One of her books, "How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies," has recently been issued in paperback (Bantam Books, $10), and it offers useful insights and information about the grieving process.
Sometimes, grief gets complicated simply because mourners or their friends and relatives don't understand how grief works and what a bereaved person needs.
Dr. Rando points out that different kinds of death can prompt different kinds of grief, and someone trying to cope with a sudden, unanticipated death is at higher risk for complications in coming to terms with the loss.
Another risk factor crops up when a mourner is deprived of the experience of the rituals of death. If a mourner feels she didn't get the support she needed in mourning her loss, that resentment could produce yet another risk for complications.
Years ago, I knew a woman who became hysterical when her husband died. Family members insisted she be given tranquilizers and decided to hospitalize her until after the funeral. That turned out to be a terrible mistake, which created anger and resentment and prolonged the grieving process for years.
These family members were undoubtedly acting from the best of intentions. But their attempt to shield a widow from pain actually robbed her of the chance to say goodbye to her husband.
As Dr. Rando says, "If in their desire to protect me, people who loved me had inadvertently robbed me of what I needed at that time, I'd be furious."
That's strong language, but wrenching losses produce powerful, intense emotions.
Yet people who work with grieving or traumatized people insist that the only way to cope with those feelings is to let them out.
Venting those feelings -- tears or cries of anger, fear or rage at God or fate -- is the purpose of mourning rituals. "If there's any time you should be allowed to be hysterical, it's during those times," Dr. Rando says.
If you know people who seem to be stuck in the grieving process, don't consider them hopeless. They need friends. But, as Dr. Rando says, they also need catch-up work, a process of going back, taking the lid off hidden feelings and working through them. This should be done with a therapist who is not only experienced in dealing with grief and bereavement, but also with complications in the grieving process.
For help in finding such a person in your area, contact the Association for Death Education and Counseling, 638 Prospect Ave., Hartford, Conn. 06105; (203) 232-4825.