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From the desk of Deborah Major
Wednesday, July 12, 2017 by Deborah Major
When LOSS members first come to our support groups we sometimes hear them say, “I know I’ll never ‘get over’ this.” Or they might ask, “Does anyone ever ‘get over’ this?” We also hear these same worries from clients in individual counseling. Because this is such a commonly held belief it may be worth a bit of examination. When we hear this we think we understand what is meant, but we probably should not assume that we know with certainty because everyone grieves differently. So it is worth considering who is making the statement, how recently their loss occurred and the meaning being made at the time. Perhaps this is within the first six months when the loss is very fresh and the grief is unbearably raw and painful. In the early weeks and months we know that often survivors feel so thoroughly consumed by the depth and magnitude of the pain that they simply cannot imagine it subsiding and that they could ever feel better. We understand that early on many people are consumed by disturbing questions and thoughts about their loved one’s last moments, about details of the manner of death and what could have driven their loved one to do such irrevocable harm to themselves and to their closest relationships. And because suicide is sometimes interpreted as a message to the survivor about the meaning of the relationship, thoughts and accompanying feelings are overwhelming and difficult to regulate, so survivors may feel that they are at the mercy of an out of control roller coaster of emotions.

People come to LOSS in part because they cannot see an end to the inner turmoil but also because they feel that they cannot go on if it doesn’t stop. The group process helps when survivors who are further down the path intercede to assure the newly bereaved members that the roller coaster will gradually slow down and that regaining a sense of equilibrium is not only possible but likely. In a recent monthly group a newly bereaved mother expressed a sense of anxiety over changes she had begun to experience in her pain. She had started to notice that she was feeling just a little bit better in some moments, and then she worried about the meaning of feeling a tiny bit better. She seemed quite surprised to notice sporadic relief, and then she expressed her worry, could getting better mean that she might forget her child? The fear of forgetting one so dear can present an element of distress that may make the grief feel somehow comforting, as evidence of the importance and the ongoing centrality of the relationship. What did it mean that she was starting to feel better? In the beginning many people worry that feeling any less pain might mean that their love is fading, or that their bond is loosening, or that their memory is fading or that they aren’t as loving or as supportive as they wish they had been. And when survivors attach these negative self-appraisals to the experience of healing, then the questions about the diminishment of grief take on a new meaning.

People hesitate to express these questions openly in groups but you can hear the questions just beneath the ones that are voiced, “What does it say about me as a parent if I begin to heal?” “What does it say about me as a spouse, as a child, as a sibling?” “What would my husband think about me if I got better? What would I think about myself if I get better?” When survivors believe that in healing they are violating their standards (or others’ standards) of what it means to be a loving, dedicated parent, spouse, child, or sibling, it will be much more difficult to experience the healing as beneficial when it starts to happen and it will be more difficult to just allow it to be. And if there was conflict in the relationship with the loved one, survivors may feel that they do not deserve to heal. In the same way that people often do not recognize themselves when they cannot stop crying, or when they lose their concentration and put a gallon of milk in the oven, when longer stretches of relief begin to come together they may also wonder, “Who is this person who doesn’t look to go to the cemetery anymore?” “Who is this person who can laugh at a dumb joke?” Please understand that I do not mean to make light of the process of getting better. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that “it just happens” because it does require work. For most survivors it involves a good deal of mourning, life review of the loved one examination of the relationship with the loved one, self-examination, and more. A central factor involves the degree to which the loss challenges how we understand who we believe ourselves to be, that is, our core identity. Some relationship losses seem to challenge identity more than others. We have seen that talking openly about multiple angles of the tragedy and examining the meaning one makes along the way appears to help people make progress. Suicide loss is a tragedy that still carries a great deal of stigma, and so people need permission to be fully “out” somewhere. LOSS is a place where survivors do not have to be “in the closet” about the suicide or about the struggle to heal. At least this appears to be true of the survivors we see. One of our therapists recently received a letter from a LOSS member expressing surprise that she was beginning to feel hopeful. This was someone who had openly expressed all lack of hope for a future when she first attended the group. She stated this in such a way that others worried for her.

She explained in the letter that she had been in such a state of shock and dismay at the time that nothing would have made her believe things could ever be different. She also admitted her ambivalence about whether she should get better. But this letter was sent to let her therapist and fellow group members know that despite her initial total despair she had benefitted from the group and was starting to feel hope and to believe that things could change. And she wanted to express her gratitude for their support.

We don’t claim to have any magic formulas here. But we do see people reconstruct meaningful lives in the wake of tragedy. This is part of why we do this work. Of course we only know about those who choose to come to us. I don’t doubt that there are other ways to survive this loss and to heal. But we see people giving expression to their grief, examining, questioning, connecting and sharing openly with others in groups and with their therapists. And we do see healing. In fact I think it would be safe to say that we see most people healing. Does that mean they “get over it”? It may be more accurate to say that they are leaning in and moving through their grief with the support of their fellow survivors. As our letter-writer said, listening to others share their healing process helped even when she didn’t realize it was doing anything, and she now believes that it was the “strength, courage and understanding of her fellow” survivors that gave her the courage to keep moving forward.




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From the desk of Deborah Major
Wednesday, July 12, 2017 by Deborah Major
When LOSS members first come to our support groups we sometimes hear them say, “I know I’ll never ‘get over’ this.” Or they might ask, “Does anyone ever ‘get over’ this?” We also hear these same worries from clients in individual counseling. Because this is such a commonly held belief it may be worth a bit of examination. When we hear this we think we understand what is meant, but we probably should not assume that we know with certainty because everyone grieves differently. So it is worth considering who is making the statement, how recently their loss occurred and the meaning being made at the time. Perhaps this is within the first six months when the loss is very fresh and the grief is unbearably raw and painful. In the early weeks and months we know that often survivors feel so thoroughly consumed by the depth and magnitude of the pain that they simply cannot imagine it subsiding and that they could ever feel better. We understand that early on many people are consumed by disturbing questions and thoughts about their loved one’s last moments, about details of the manner of death and what could have driven their loved one to do such irrevocable harm to themselves and to their closest relationships. And because suicide is sometimes interpreted as a message to the survivor about the meaning of the relationship, thoughts and accompanying feelings are overwhelming and difficult to regulate, so survivors may feel that they are at the mercy of an out of control roller coaster of emotions.

People come to LOSS in part because they cannot see an end to the inner turmoil but also because they feel that they cannot go on if it doesn’t stop. The group process helps when survivors who are further down the path intercede to assure the newly bereaved members that the roller coaster will gradually slow down and that regaining a sense of equilibrium is not only possible but likely. In a recent monthly group a newly bereaved mother expressed a sense of anxiety over changes she had begun to experience in her pain. She had started to notice that she was feeling just a little bit better in some moments, and then she worried about the meaning of feeling a tiny bit better. She seemed quite surprised to notice sporadic relief, and then she expressed her worry, could getting better mean that she might forget her child? The fear of forgetting one so dear can present an element of distress that may make the grief feel somehow comforting, as evidence of the importance and the ongoing centrality of the relationship. What did it mean that she was starting to feel better? In the beginning many people worry that feeling any less pain might mean that their love is fading, or that their bond is loosening, or that their memory is fading or that they aren’t as loving or as supportive as they wish they had been. And when survivors attach these negative self-appraisals to the experience of healing, then the questions about the diminishment of grief take on a new meaning.

People hesitate to express these questions openly in groups but you can hear the questions just beneath the ones that are voiced, “What does it say about me as a parent if I begin to heal?” “What does it say about me as a spouse, as a child, as a sibling?” “What would my husband think about me if I got better? What would I think about myself if I get better?” When survivors believe that in healing they are violating their standards (or others’ standards) of what it means to be a loving, dedicated parent, spouse, child, or sibling, it will be much more difficult to experience the healing as beneficial when it starts to happen and it will be more difficult to just allow it to be. And if there was conflict in the relationship with the loved one, survivors may feel that they do not deserve to heal. In the same way that people often do not recognize themselves when they cannot stop crying, or when they lose their concentration and put a gallon of milk in the oven, when longer stretches of relief begin to come together they may also wonder, “Who is this person who doesn’t look to go to the cemetery anymore?” “Who is this person who can laugh at a dumb joke?” Please understand that I do not mean to make light of the process of getting better. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that “it just happens” because it does require work. For most survivors it involves a good deal of mourning, life review of the loved one examination of the relationship with the loved one, self-examination, and more. A central factor involves the degree to which the loss challenges how we understand who we believe ourselves to be, that is, our core identity. Some relationship losses seem to challenge identity more than others. We have seen that talking openly about multiple angles of the tragedy and examining the meaning one makes along the way appears to help people make progress. Suicide loss is a tragedy that still carries a great deal of stigma, and so people need permission to be fully “out” somewhere. LOSS is a place where survivors do not have to be “in the closet” about the suicide or about the struggle to heal. At least this appears to be true of the survivors we see. One of our therapists recently received a letter from a LOSS member expressing surprise that she was beginning to feel hopeful. This was someone who had openly expressed all lack of hope for a future when she first attended the group. She stated this in such a way that others worried for her.

She explained in the letter that she had been in such a state of shock and dismay at the time that nothing would have made her believe things could ever be different. She also admitted her ambivalence about whether she should get better. But this letter was sent to let her therapist and fellow group members know that despite her initial total despair she had benefitted from the group and was starting to feel hope and to believe that things could change. And she wanted to express her gratitude for their support.

We don’t claim to have any magic formulas here. But we do see people reconstruct meaningful lives in the wake of tragedy. This is part of why we do this work. Of course we only know about those who choose to come to us. I don’t doubt that there are other ways to survive this loss and to heal. But we see people giving expression to their grief, examining, questioning, connecting and sharing openly with others in groups and with their therapists. And we do see healing. In fact I think it would be safe to say that we see most people healing. Does that mean they “get over it”? It may be more accurate to say that they are leaning in and moving through their grief with the support of their fellow survivors. As our letter-writer said, listening to others share their healing process helped even when she didn’t realize it was doing anything, and she now believes that it was the “strength, courage and understanding of her fellow” survivors that gave her the courage to keep moving forward.