Learning ways to cope with death of a loved one

February 28, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

Grief enters every life, immersing the griever in a struggle to make life livable again. The sadness wanes, but never disappears completely.

"Every now and then we see or feel something that reopens the wound and memories flood back," said Dr. Dana Cable, a psychologist and grief counselor.

"Death ends a life but not a relationship. The relationship struggles on in the mind of the survivor."

Dr. Cable went to Wesley Freedom United Methodist Church in Eldersburg last week to offer help to grievers and to those who aid families working through the loss of a loved one.

He called grief "a never-ending process."

"You can't just drive through it, get rid of it and move on. You have to do your grief work. The passage of time won't do it for you."

Dr. Cable lectured on "Good Grief," an event scheduled for Healing Hearts Month sponsored by Carroll Hospice.

"I know that is a strange title, and it is hard to think of grief as good," he said to about 30 people attending his lecture. "We have to take time out to feel all the feelings and work through our sense of loss. That represents growth."

Hospice volunteers work with families in the year after a death.

"Death of a loved one is traumatic stress and impossible to overcome in any less than a year," said Dr. Cable. "With every significant day on the calendar, you grieve in a special way for what is past."

Postpone major decisions, such as selling the house, for two years, he said: "The worst thing you can do is to add another loss to your grief."

Don't elude grief, he said. Delaying "grief work" will only prolong the experience.

Patients tell Dr. Cable they are taking a trip to avoid celebrating a holiday at home surrounded by memories.

"You can go away every year and wait 10 years to celebrate a holiday," he said. "The grief won't go away. It will be there waiting for you."

He dismissed medication for the griever as another ineffective tactic.

"We are uncomfortable with the griever, so we medicate him to help us," he said.

In time, the sense of loss dulls, but it never goes away.

"There are markers throughout life which bring grief back," he said.

In his practice in Frederick, Dr. Cable most frequently counsels parents who have lost a child -- a loss out of the natural order of things and the most difficult, he said.

Older people who have died stop growing in our minds, he said, but dead children grow in our dreams.

"With a child, every year, we are grieving a different loss," he said. "We say, my son would have been 16 this year and getting ready for college."

He told hospice volunteers not to discount the significance of loss at any age.

"I have a 98-year-old woman who just buried her 75-year-old son," she said. "Can you imagine that loss?"

He discussed the physical, psychological and social dimensions the grief process.

"Grief can become so intense it can turn into physical pain," he said.

Rituals and sympathetic support can help soothe the pain. Americans do a terrible job with the rituals or shun them altogether, he said.

"If we used rituals, I would be out of business," he said.

Orthodox Jews, who traditionally rip the deceased's clothing beyond repair, accept the finality of death better than families who insist on a closed casket, he said.

"The image in a casket doesn't stay with you, but it forces you to recognize the dead," he said.

At funeral services, all the concentration is on the deceased, who is no longer in pain, while the survivors are in tremendous pain, he said.

"People get through, if they have caring support," he said.

The process, which "starts with shock of the real and the unreal colliding," ends with re-establishing life, he said. Along the way, the griever experiences anger and guilt.

Supporters should offer the griever personal contact, practical help and cliche-free words of comfort.

"Don't say you know how the griever feels unless this has happened to you," Dr. Cable said.

When guilt seeps into the grief process, "We can be there to reinforce that they're not guilty.

"The guilt is horrible to get through," he said. "Grievers need to do their penance on their timetable, not ours."

A good listener can help the griever overcome loss and loneliness -- the most intense and longest-lasting stage. Continue to call and visit for weeks after a death and let the griever do the talking, Dr. Cable said.

"The biggest complaint I get from my patients is 'No one will let me talk,' " he said.

Dr. Cable answered questions from several people in the audience who were working their way through grief. He assured them their experiences are normal.

He offered several suggestions. Exercise and take care of your health, he said. Let go of imagined guilt. Keep a journal. Join a group of other grievers. Eventually, everyone must break the ties that connected us and move on, he said.

"Life may have ended, but what the loved one put in our life goes on as long as we live," Dr. Cable said.

"We say goodbye, but like the stars in the night, we still see their light."

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