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Losing, grieving... and finding comfort

I lost mum to cancer this week and found myself struggling to survive a flash flood of well-intentioned opinions on how best to cope with grief.

columns Updated: Jun 29, 2013 22:58 IST

I lost mum to cancer this week and found myself struggling to survive a flash flood of well-intentioned opinions on how best to cope with grief. “Have you wept enough? Cry as much as you can, it is good for you,” said a concerned aunt.

“Be around people, talk about her, it’s cathartic,” advised a neighbour. “Pray and ask God to look after her,” said a neo-spiritualist cousin.

I didn’t answer anyone because I did not know the answers. How much weeping is enough? How do I tell people mum’s too precious to be shared with those who barely knew her? As for God, I’m sure he has his hands full saving the souls of the devout struck down by natural and unnatural disasters.

All I wanted was some time with myself, and I was surprised how hard it was for some to understand.

I spent the first couple of days avoiding or hiding from visitors, till a friend said I was insane to stress over not being able to grieve the way I want. “Why do you have to mourn the way you are expected to? You don’t have to explain yourself to people,” she said.

So I stopped feeling guilty about my avoidance behaviour and found it a bit easier to deal with mum not being there.

All of us experience loss at some point and find ourselves surrounded by well-wishers who have been there and done that, presumably better than we can ever hope to. They are always well-intentioned, but not always right.

Perhaps the best-known theory on dealing with loss is Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five-stages of grief’, first proposed in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying. The five distinct stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, but these apply more to people with a fatal disease or a debilitating condition.

A quick scan of scientific papers on grief shows that almost all conventional assumptions about mourning have been challenged over the past decade. Like many of Sigmund Freud’s theories, the notion that the bereaved need to work through their emotions of loss by revisiting memories, talking or writing about their feelings to get closure has been trashed.

Another misconception about grief is that the bereaved display intense signs of distress (shock, yearning for the deceased, feelings of hopelessness, intense anxiety about the future) and depression (listlessness, sleeplessness, appetite changes, wishing you were dead) and if they don’t, they will have a delayed emotional meltdown many weeks or months later.

Wrong again.

No evidence of delayed grief has been found across studies, though post-traumatic stress after a trauma is a genuine phenomenon.

Natural resilience is the main component of mourning and grief reactions, writes George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, summing up more than two decades of scientific studies on death and loss in his book, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After a Loss.

Bonanno’s work shows that the absence of grief or trauma symptoms is a healthy outcome, rather than something to be feared. He says resilience, or the capacity for generative experiences and positive emotions, is natural to humans, and helps maintain relatively stable levels of psychological and physical functioning.

While there are no studies specific to India, Columbia University researchers in the US did an exhaustive one where they followed 1,500 elderly married couples over several years during which 205 lost a spouse. Then they were tracked for another 18 months.

Researchers found that about half experienced no significant depression nor did they display serious distress, although some did feel sad for a short time. The spouse’s death triggered mild depression in 27%, but about 11% of these improved after six months and became symptom-free in 18 months.

Just as life is not a one-size-fits-all experience, neither is coming to terms with death. Family and friends are great support, but it’s up to each of us to choose how best to beat back the demons of memory and grief.