Tom’s World — Tom Westfall
When my children were quite small, their mother died. Needless to say, we were all devastated. The days seemed to sort of blur together. Life was reduced to daily survival; get up, get going, soldier on through whatever had to be accomplished — work, school…, go to bed — repeat (ad nauseam). There were days of quiet sadness, and moments of tears, yet somehow we all survived. We made it through the valley of the shadow and when the sky finally cleared, there were new opportunities; new beginnings — the time for grieving was done and life moved forward.
Except that’s not how grieving works. We may accept the reality of our losses and move on, but we are part and parcel of the happenstances in our lives and while life only goes forward, often times it doesn’t take much — something as innocent as a scent or a familiar song to send us back in time, awash in vivid memories of a painful loss.
Elizabeth Kulber-Ross, author of “On Death and Dying” identified five stages of grief which most of us are familiar with. The first stage she described as “Denial.” Denial is a conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts, information, reality etc, relating to the loss that an individual has experienced. The second stage of grief is anger, followed by bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.
Developing a schemata for helping us understand grief is beneficial in that it allows us to realize that grieving isn’t something that happens all at once — it’s a process that takes time. The limitation in this however, is that we tend to think of the stages of grief as linear — meaning they flow forward in a straight line; stage 1, stage 2, and so forth.
In truth, however, grieving is anything but linear. One moment we may find ourselves in stage 2 — anger, and the next moment we are again struggling with denial. And about the time we find ourselves at stage 5, acceptance, we catch a familiar whiff of our loved one’s perfume or cologne, and without even realizing what is happening, we find tears streaming down our cheeks and the pangs of loss are real and the pain is powerful.
I suspect the reason it is hard for some of us to move on is that we fail to recognize and mourn the everyday losses in our lives. Obviously, we are aware of the major losses — death of friends and family, major health issues, loss of employment, etc., but think about this for a moment. Life is a series of losses and gains. Most of the time the “gain” outweighs” the “loss” but unless we take a moment (or however long it takes) to mourn (or at least recognize) the loss, those feelings become impacted (much like a wisdom tooth) and when feelings become impacted, they find expression in maladaptive ways — disproportionate anger, depression, medicating our lives with various forms of “drugs” including work, television, exercise, mindlessness, as well as alcohol and narcotics.
It occurs to me that unless we are aware of the subtle losses we experience and adequately deal with them, the more likely we are to experience major difficulty in dealing with the bigger losses in our lives. For example, getting married is a wonderful event in many people’s lives. We celebrate and congratulate, but at the same time, there is a loss associated with marriage — the loss of singleness—being able to do whatever a person wants to do without regard to anyone else’s agenda.
Similar to having children…what a blessing! But let’s face it, life changes when the spontaneity of an evening out together is replaced with an hour-long check list of things to bring for the baby. In both instances, the gains certainly outweigh the losses, but it is completely appropriate to take a moment and reflect on the “loss” that has occurred as well. I often wonder if one of the contributing factors to the divorce rate is the gravity of these often unrealized losses manifesting themselves in the desire for personal freedom.
I have watched my children over the years, trying to understand how they coped with the loss of their mother at such an early age. Neither of them was left unscathed by the experience, and all that nonsense about “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is just that — nonsense. Life is hard and loss is painful. This is what I’ve learned: Grieving isn’t an event. It’s a journey with a very vague destination.
Westfall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also is active on Facebook.