Good grief: Process helps in dealing with loss

Last year about this time, I wrote one of my first guest columns about Camp Erin, a grief camp for children who have suffered a significant loss.

This national program has camps throughout the United States. Sponsored nationally by the Moyer Family Foundation and locally by Community Hospitals, Indianapolis, and New York Life, the camp provides these children with a summer camp experience and the adults in their lives with a day to understand what they and their children might be experiencing.

Other than that short introduction to Camp Erin, I wanted to share what I know of grief.

As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I have encountered grief throughout my career while working with clients. As a human being, I also have experienced grief.

Grief has become more clearly understood in the last half century.

Primarily seen for many years as the purview of the hysterical — mostly women — grief has come to be understood as a normal reaction to loss. And loss has come to be understood as more than the loss experienced through the death of a loved one.

The more we understand that there is a certain standardization to the grief process, we also understand each person can experience the commonalities of grief quite differently.

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross was one of the first to talk about the stages of grief. However, after more research, she came to understand grief is a fluid process that differs from person to person.

While we all often experience some of the stages she wrote about, things like denial, bargaining and anger, Ross began to understand these stages occur in different order and might even repeat themselves.

Of course, this description of “normal” grief, something we might better call healthy grieving, is of an ideal. None of us should expect to experience totally healthy grieving, as we are all flawed human beings who will not likely ever do anything perfectly.

Our goal should be to grieve in such a way as to work toward a return to our normal. And, depending on the severity of the loss, we might expect to grieve that loss forever.

Rather than moving through a set type and number of stages in a specified time period, healthy grieving can be described as experiencing various responses to loss and that the experience of grief should diminish over time.

As I noted above, certain losses will create conditions that mean the person grieving will always grieve. This grief, however, should occupy less of the person’s time and emotional energy over time.

Life circumstances that lead to grieving are understood much better now. We all understand that the death of a loved one will result in grieving. Loses of relationships are also clearly understood to result in grieving.

However, did you know that people who experience chronic illness will grieve repeatedly over their lifetimes? Every time that chronic illness results in a change in the person’s health, that person will grieve.

When a person learns he or she has diabetes, that person will grieve the loss of their previously understood state of health. If a person learns of an illness like muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis, that person will grieve the person they knew before.

Amputees will grieve their lost limbs. As I experienced changes in my own health, due to a neuromuscular disorder, I grieved the loss of functions.

I really became aware of this phenomenon when I worked with people with severe, chronic mental illness. I saw people, after a severe worsening of symptoms, grieve the loss of their previous level of function.

This, of course, was after the person become more aware of their situation as medications and other treatments began to work.

One thing I want everyone to take from this is that grief is a normal, and often frequent, part of life. Grieving is not weakness. Grieving is a healthy part of dealing with loss.

And there is no set time limit. Length of time to grieve is set by many different factors, both internal and external, to the person grieving.

Jim Matthews of Green

field is Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfield