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Featured this Month:

Reading How We Grieve; Relearning the World by Thomas Attig.
Sunday, June 01, 2014 by Cynthia Waderlow, MSE, LCSW
When a suicide takes place the world may take on an alien quality for those who are left shaking in the aftermath, and restoration of individual and family life entails change and re-examination of our assumptions about living in the world that may not have been questioned in the past.  The loss propels the survivor into a new, very personal transformation that can mightily challenge the person emotionally, behaviorally, cognitively and spiritually. The world has changed.   
 
The thoughts put forward in this article are based on a beautiful book by Thomas Attig, How We Grieve: Relearning the World (1996, Oxford University Press).  It is written for those who attend to grieving people and families, but not necessarily professionals.   The book is gentle and clear, as he writes about the changed world and its meanings in the lives of those who have experienced a devastating loss.  So, although he is writing about those who mourn and grieve, rather than to this audience, his compassionate tone and insights might allow a survivor to feel understood, to identify a glimmer of order to a journey that may feel directionless.

Attig recognizes that the task of relearning a vastly changed existence is reflective in nature, but also involves behavioral changes, such as assuming financial responsibility for the family, making adjustments to the way we look at the birth order of our surviving children, moving to a new house, or changing habits, such as the restaurants we once visited frequently.  He explains that after bereavement the worlds that must be relearned are physical surroundings, relationships with fellow survivors, including children, our selves, our places in space and time and our spiritual places in the world.  The small chapters provide an elegant scaffold for finding one’s way in a world that still resonates with images and sensations of the person who died.

Attig states that the bereaved can be lovingly supported by others, but grieving and relearning the world are individual, autonomous activities.  While this sounds solitary, he is affirming the personal and sometimes existential experience that takes place within each survivor that can lead to feelings of isolation.  “Their suffering is a function of the loss of wholeness, “ that we can understand as normal, and as a loss that can be bridged by the presence of others who attend or share their relearning experiences.   He recognizes that “grieving persons transform themselves in social contexts that either hinder or support them” (160).

The activity of relearning can lift us out of the helplessness that can be such a crushing initial experience after the sudden death of an intimate loved one.  He explains that bereavement is “choiceless,” but from the beginning we make many choices that allow us to relate deeply to our deceased loved one and to ourselves, and perhaps some new understanding emerges:  

“We can interact with our loved one’s body or refrain. We can encounter some of our physical     surroundings and avoid others… We can visit or stay away from places of significance.  We can express in our own ways, or keep to ourselves, the emotions we experience or the meanings we discern” (52).

The reflections that occur while grieving the loss shine some light on the terrain where new pathways are constructed in the changed world.

Loss and grief invokes us to “find new ways of going on in the absence of those who have died, including new ways of living and being ourselves” (122).  Attig places gentle emphasis on the great potential of each unique individual, despite our varied predispositions in coping.   “Individuality is respected in survivorship as it requires learning of our unique life histories and ways of experiencing, acting in, connecting with, and caring about the world around us.  It requires learning what challenges us as individuals as we cope with, or relearn, virtually everything in the worlds of our experience” (123).

His words suggest unconditional positive regard for each person who engages in the relearning process, acknowledging that “none of us does, or indeed can, encounter or come to terms with the world all at once” (122). He describes our transformations as open-ended, as “each of our lives and selves is unfathomably rich, complex and essentially never finished” For those who are seeking to understand their grief, he portrays relearning the world as a mysterious, organic unfolding of experience as the survivor responds to the loss.  We engage in grief without time limits, and with the knowledge that we will “struggle with finiteness, continuous change, pervasive uncertainty and vulnerability” (122).

Attig doesn’t neglect the relearning processes of those whose grief might be more dependent on the expressions of caregivers.  He offers the relearning process as guidance for caregivers of those who are frail or have deficits, including children “who experience bereavement while effectively ‘learning the world’ for the first time”(126).  Attig consistently honors the individuality of each grieving person, no matter their deficits, and seems to empower bereaved caregivers with the insight to attend to the developmental tasks of bereaved children and others who are vulnerable.  How does a child relearn a room in the house that is associated with the person who died?  Can we facilitate a process wherein a child’s secure attachment is restored after a parent suddenly disappears?  If a teen loses a parent just when he or she was testing the rules, how are future risks and challenges considered?  Thomas Attig identifies the areas where guidance can support the young and vulnerable: psychologically, as they “cope with emotions that developmental tasks arouse,” behaviorally, “as they eliminate or create new patterns of living that support grief and adaptive coping,” physically and biologically, “as we help person’s recognize and meet their physical needs for rest, food and shelter as their grieve”, socially, “as they reconfigure relationships and interaction patterns while protecting the privacy of grief” and intellectually and spiritually “as they modify understandings and perspectives, seek new meanings or adapt beliefs and faiths” (124-125).

In his preface, Thomas Attig states that “when someone in our world dies, we remain postured in that world as we were before the death, but we can no longer sustain that posture” (viii).  We want to hold, but the world does not wait.  Attig writes from a place of experiential knowledge, with a sense of the immense complexity of all that is relearned, but with an understanding of the transcendence implied with each new step, with respect and compassion for children, adults and those in care who move forward after life changing loss.


Archives:

Reading How We Grieve; Relearning the World by Thomas Attig.
Sunday, June 01, 2014 by Cynthia Waderlow, MSE, LCSW
When a suicide takes place the world may take on an alien quality for those who are left shaking in the aftermath, and restoration of individual and family life entails change and re-examination of our assumptions about living in the world that may not have been questioned in the past.  The loss propels the survivor into a new, very personal transformation that can mightily challenge the person emotionally, behaviorally, cognitively and spiritually. The world has changed.   
 
The thoughts put forward in this article are based on a beautiful book by Thomas Attig, How We Grieve: Relearning the World (1996, Oxford University Press).  It is written for those who attend to grieving people and families, but not necessarily professionals.   The book is gentle and clear, as he writes about the changed world and its meanings in the lives of those who have experienced a devastating loss.  So, although he is writing about those who mourn and grieve, rather than to this audience, his compassionate tone and insights might allow a survivor to feel understood, to identify a glimmer of order to a journey that may feel directionless.

Attig recognizes that the task of relearning a vastly changed existence is reflective in nature, but also involves behavioral changes, such as assuming financial responsibility for the family, making adjustments to the way we look at the birth order of our surviving children, moving to a new house, or changing habits, such as the restaurants we once visited frequently.  He explains that after bereavement the worlds that must be relearned are physical surroundings, relationships with fellow survivors, including children, our selves, our places in space and time and our spiritual places in the world.  The small chapters provide an elegant scaffold for finding one’s way in a world that still resonates with images and sensations of the person who died.

Attig states that the bereaved can be lovingly supported by others, but grieving and relearning the world are individual, autonomous activities.  While this sounds solitary, he is affirming the personal and sometimes existential experience that takes place within each survivor that can lead to feelings of isolation.  “Their suffering is a function of the loss of wholeness, “ that we can understand as normal, and as a loss that can be bridged by the presence of others who attend or share their relearning experiences.   He recognizes that “grieving persons transform themselves in social contexts that either hinder or support them” (160).

The activity of relearning can lift us out of the helplessness that can be such a crushing initial experience after the sudden death of an intimate loved one.  He explains that bereavement is “choiceless,” but from the beginning we make many choices that allow us to relate deeply to our deceased loved one and to ourselves, and perhaps some new understanding emerges:  

“We can interact with our loved one’s body or refrain. We can encounter some of our physical     surroundings and avoid others… We can visit or stay away from places of significance.  We can express in our own ways, or keep to ourselves, the emotions we experience or the meanings we discern” (52).

The reflections that occur while grieving the loss shine some light on the terrain where new pathways are constructed in the changed world.

Loss and grief invokes us to “find new ways of going on in the absence of those who have died, including new ways of living and being ourselves” (122).  Attig places gentle emphasis on the great potential of each unique individual, despite our varied predispositions in coping.   “Individuality is respected in survivorship as it requires learning of our unique life histories and ways of experiencing, acting in, connecting with, and caring about the world around us.  It requires learning what challenges us as individuals as we cope with, or relearn, virtually everything in the worlds of our experience” (123).

His words suggest unconditional positive regard for each person who engages in the relearning process, acknowledging that “none of us does, or indeed can, encounter or come to terms with the world all at once” (122). He describes our transformations as open-ended, as “each of our lives and selves is unfathomably rich, complex and essentially never finished” For those who are seeking to understand their grief, he portrays relearning the world as a mysterious, organic unfolding of experience as the survivor responds to the loss.  We engage in grief without time limits, and with the knowledge that we will “struggle with finiteness, continuous change, pervasive uncertainty and vulnerability” (122).

Attig doesn’t neglect the relearning processes of those whose grief might be more dependent on the expressions of caregivers.  He offers the relearning process as guidance for caregivers of those who are frail or have deficits, including children “who experience bereavement while effectively ‘learning the world’ for the first time”(126).  Attig consistently honors the individuality of each grieving person, no matter their deficits, and seems to empower bereaved caregivers with the insight to attend to the developmental tasks of bereaved children and others who are vulnerable.  How does a child relearn a room in the house that is associated with the person who died?  Can we facilitate a process wherein a child’s secure attachment is restored after a parent suddenly disappears?  If a teen loses a parent just when he or she was testing the rules, how are future risks and challenges considered?  Thomas Attig identifies the areas where guidance can support the young and vulnerable: psychologically, as they “cope with emotions that developmental tasks arouse,” behaviorally, “as they eliminate or create new patterns of living that support grief and adaptive coping,” physically and biologically, “as we help person’s recognize and meet their physical needs for rest, food and shelter as their grieve”, socially, “as they reconfigure relationships and interaction patterns while protecting the privacy of grief” and intellectually and spiritually “as they modify understandings and perspectives, seek new meanings or adapt beliefs and faiths” (124-125).

In his preface, Thomas Attig states that “when someone in our world dies, we remain postured in that world as we were before the death, but we can no longer sustain that posture” (viii).  We want to hold, but the world does not wait.  Attig writes from a place of experiential knowledge, with a sense of the immense complexity of all that is relearned, but with an understanding of the transcendence implied with each new step, with respect and compassion for children, adults and those in care who move forward after life changing loss.