Some researchers believe the brain is 'wired' to help us cope with loved ones' deaths


March 24, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

On June 9, 1975, Roselda Katz Cole died of cancer. When her daughter Diane recalls that time -- still as painfully close as a thought -- she speaks of the devastation of losing the guide to her future as well as a friend with whom she shared great joy.

Soon after her mother's death, Ms. Cole decided to heal in fresh surroundings, leaving her home in Baltimore for a new job in Washington. Restless, searching, the 23-year-old woman filled her empty hours by gobbling up anthologies of poetry and

listening again and again to the Brahms horn trio. She took up jogging. She wrote down everything she could remember about her mother's life.

Ms. Cole's "After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges" (Summit Books, $20) confronts her passage through her mother's illness and the aftermath of her death as well as the subsequent griefs of her own miscarriage and infertility. Anyone who suffers a great loss, she writes, begins a journey which can be unpredictable, bewildering, irrational and fiercely personal.

"Loss will make you feel out of sync, out of step with the other people around you," she says. "When you're mourning someone, you go about daily life with a sense of heightened reality, the sense of 'What does it mean to me to be doing these mundane little shopping errands when I have lost someone so important in my life?' "

Although each person's grieving is as unique as his fingerprints, the grief-stricken share so many similar experiences that some researchers believe grieving is "wired" into the brain circuitry to help humans through their losses.

Feelings such as denial, anger, guilt and ambivalence surface so predictably that grieving could be called a syndrome in its own right, says Dr. Mark Komrad, an attending psychiatrist at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital and instructor in psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Anxiety often accompanies sadness. Some common physical aspects include stomach disorders, headaches, a rapid heart rate and sweaty palms, decreased appetite, increased urination, blurred vision, decreased memory and a loss of interest in usual things.

Intrusive reminiscences of the dead can seem to dominate the survivors' mental lives. These intense memory periods can come in waves, Dr. Komrad says, "washing over you and washing back in a way that may continue for years."

Survivors often believe they see loved ones on the foot of the bed or hear them calling from the next room. Ms. Cole remembers many inner conversations with her mother. She dreamed her mother told her that she wasn't really dead.

"These were ways in which I was trying to continue our relationship, to figure out 'How can I live without the mother who gave me life? How could I grapple with life without her?' " Ms. Cole recalls from her present home in New York. "Mom and I were particularly close, we were each other's confidantes. The dreams were comforting. Some were so vivid, I would wake up and say,'This wasn't a dream!' because I wished so strongly that Mom would be there.

"It is a very powerful thought to remain together in memory, if not in reality. To somehow find a way to continue our time together."

Ambivalence about the dead person can also strike forcefully. Loss creates a cacophony of emotions, including anger.

"All the things you've felt about somebody are going to come back more intensified," says Dr. Komrad. "Some people feel it's disloyal or sacrilegious to feel anger. And those emotions can lead to guilt which allows grief to go underground. Mixed feelings are very, very normal. One needs to honor all the feelings, even the negative ones."

He says blocking grief can build up a reservoir of emotional pain that can begin to spill out years later.

"This is very true for people who have lost loved ones in early childhood and whose parents didn't know how to encourage the grieving experience. Those people were left bewildered and half aggrieved and can experience future losses with unexpected power. Sometimes a relatively minor thing, like a loss of a job or the move of your therapist, can bring back that kind of stymied grief reaction."

Children grieve differently from adults, says Dr. Peter Hartman, a psychiatrist and instructor in the department of family medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

"If the parent of a 6-year-old dies, he'll cry and feel sad for a while and then a couple of hours later he'll play jump rope with the kids. Children do their crying or feeling anxious in chunks of time. But they do have a capacity to understand about death and shouldn't be given misleading statements like 'Daddy has gone away.' Daddy has died and won't be back. We should let them know that.

"Letting children go to the funeral is a good idea to the extent that they feel comfortable. . . . To keep them out of the whole process is more frightening to them than not."

He says resolving grief requires public, as well as private, expression.

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