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Main Line: (312) 655-7283
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Featured this Month:

Honesty after Loss
Thursday, May 17, 2018 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
Grief has been said to strip away everything that is non-essential, a distillation process. But after the gaping shock of a suicide, the mind of the survivor is beset with layers of questions and conflicting narratives. For adults and children old enough to comprehend that the loved person ended his or her own life, making sense of the profound and unexpected loss seems to become a primary focus, and this can be a relentless, preoccupied emotional process. Truth, as it relates to suicide grief, may alter the way that we look at the past, and we may have little insight at first, as to what matters and what doesn’t. Suddenly, we are surviving in a storm of questions. An adult’s world view may be mightily challenged. Children and teens may also engage in similar questioning and re-prioritizing, but the pace is more graduated and subject to a world-view that is more impressionable. Fortunately, children and teens grieve intermittently, and this allows them respite for necessary developmental tasks, allowing time to develop more mature perspectives on loss and suicide. Children will watch parents for cues in responding to the upheaval of loss, and parents can affirm that loss can be survived without the barriers to honest grief. We will learn to honor truths as we open to them, and share them with our children in developmentally appropriate language, in developmentally appropriate time.

At any stage of recovery the mind can be taxed with questions, a sense of guilt, traumatic images, and a battle to keep disturbing thoughts and feelings repressed. Suicide loss almost always triggers feelings of abandonment and causes us to question our relationship with the person who died. Additionally, suicide may complicate our relationships with other survivors within the family system. As we become conscious of uncomfortable feelings and questions we may repress them. We manage to offer a resigned face to the world, yet there may be some loyalty to secrecy and pretense as a result of a lingering stigma around suicide. We want to protect the loved one we lost, ourselves and our children. Denial produces a more deliberate, quickly formed story of the loss and its impact on our lives.

When bereavement is new, the protections that we cultivate against the pain are instinctive. These emotional defenses operate like scaffolding so that more mainstream functioning is possible in the first several weeks: Pretending that the loved one is away, staying strong by not opening to feelings about the loss, not talking about the loss, not examining dynamics prior to the suicide, are initial avoidances that may allow time for adjustment. And yet, the intentional defenses holding us up require awareness and maintenance, and sometimes break down, leading to mood swings and behavioral changes. The denial that is less within our awareness, perhaps related to facts of mental illness or addiction experienced by the deceased, memory gaps or idealization regarding our history with the person, apathy now about things that once mattered, and numbing of our feelings with behaviors or substances; these take us farther away from self-knowledge acquired through grief’s intimate processes. As we move into denial we are attempting to survive the loss with a litany of small and significant omissions of personal truth in order to manage life, relationships and self-esteem. But what is sacrificed?

When we fail to muster readiness for honesty as it relates to loss, we can lose vital pieces of ourselves and the experience of our deceased loved one. Wearing blinders sacrifices the broad view, the tableau of a complex, evolving personal history, too precious to turn away from. Our own truth about loss, our own narrative, may differ from that of our spouse, our family members. But if we adapt our loss narrative to fit that of another, we need defenses to repress our own perspectives, which could have implications for relationships. Here is my example, although not suicide related: My father died after a final infection followed by a long illness. Part of my family’s narrative was that mother was his faithful caregiver. She was, but I saw several instances where she was careless, even cavalier with transmission of bacteria, and I was angry about it. After Dad’s death she was vulnerable and alone, but my unexpressed anger and blame created distance, preventing my being closer to her. Fortunately, I worked through the anger so that our final years together included genuine warmth and intimacy. I needed to recognize her exhaustion and burn-out, her history of being unable to take care of her emotional needs, the effects of my father’s personality on her. The larger, more compassionate grief narrative was fuller, truer, and allowed me to come to peace with my father’s death.

Grief moves forward as we confront our personal truths. In doing so, we need a safe place to express anger, resentment, suspicion, sorrow, apathy, emptiness, fear and guilt, because these are terribly vulnerable feelings and part of our unique loss experience. Going into our truth offers a high definition view of our experience in and a sense of who we are. When we penetrate our grief defenses we may uncover the more vulnerable feelings, such as fear, feelings of loss of control, feelings of guilt or inadequacy and finally, sorrow, the heart of grief.

How do we get to a more honest understanding of our grief experience?

Stop saying yes when we really mean no.
Identify our defenses.
Acknowledge when we are scared.
Notice when we are acting differently than we really feel.
Be wary when we tell ourselves we are going to address a feeling, an issue or perspective, but we never do.
Acknowledge tunnel vision: Realize that our truth is just our own truth, and not the only truth.
Hold ourselves to a higher standard of internal truth telling, resulting in more self-trust, self-worth, and closer relationships.


How does a grieving parent’s submission to personal truth affect the grief responses of our children?

The entire family system is affected positively by internal truth telling, especially after the death of a primary family figure. We are messaging freedom and validation of all feelings. Deeper emotional honesty reveals the complex, nuanced relationship with the deceased in which grief comes to embrace flaws and wounds. Consider too, that the integrity of this work leads to fuller honesty in other areas of our lives. Since we take ourselves everywhere we go, the transformative nature of deep grief work, with its need for honesty about the past, the meaning we make of the suicide and our vision for the future connects us to ourselves. We realize that the meaning we make of loss involves curiosity and flexible thinking. A personal, adaptive grief narrative may include the difficult truths, but leaves the grieving person’s sense of self intact. Although suicide grief is never tidy, a cleansing process is possible as we wrestle with hard-to-look-at truths, setting an example to others of resilience and offering the potential for peace and renewal. The LOSS Program can support you and your family in transformative grief work through group and individual counseling options.


Archives:

Honesty after Loss
Thursday, May 17, 2018 by Cynthia Waderlow MSE, LCSW
Grief has been said to strip away everything that is non-essential, a distillation process. But after the gaping shock of a suicide, the mind of the survivor is beset with layers of questions and conflicting narratives. For adults and children old enough to comprehend that the loved person ended his or her own life, making sense of the profound and unexpected loss seems to become a primary focus, and this can be a relentless, preoccupied emotional process. Truth, as it relates to suicide grief, may alter the way that we look at the past, and we may have little insight at first, as to what matters and what doesn’t. Suddenly, we are surviving in a storm of questions. An adult’s world view may be mightily challenged. Children and teens may also engage in similar questioning and re-prioritizing, but the pace is more graduated and subject to a world-view that is more impressionable. Fortunately, children and teens grieve intermittently, and this allows them respite for necessary developmental tasks, allowing time to develop more mature perspectives on loss and suicide. Children will watch parents for cues in responding to the upheaval of loss, and parents can affirm that loss can be survived without the barriers to honest grief. We will learn to honor truths as we open to them, and share them with our children in developmentally appropriate language, in developmentally appropriate time.

At any stage of recovery the mind can be taxed with questions, a sense of guilt, traumatic images, and a battle to keep disturbing thoughts and feelings repressed. Suicide loss almost always triggers feelings of abandonment and causes us to question our relationship with the person who died. Additionally, suicide may complicate our relationships with other survivors within the family system. As we become conscious of uncomfortable feelings and questions we may repress them. We manage to offer a resigned face to the world, yet there may be some loyalty to secrecy and pretense as a result of a lingering stigma around suicide. We want to protect the loved one we lost, ourselves and our children. Denial produces a more deliberate, quickly formed story of the loss and its impact on our lives.

When bereavement is new, the protections that we cultivate against the pain are instinctive. These emotional defenses operate like scaffolding so that more mainstream functioning is possible in the first several weeks: Pretending that the loved one is away, staying strong by not opening to feelings about the loss, not talking about the loss, not examining dynamics prior to the suicide, are initial avoidances that may allow time for adjustment. And yet, the intentional defenses holding us up require awareness and maintenance, and sometimes break down, leading to mood swings and behavioral changes. The denial that is less within our awareness, perhaps related to facts of mental illness or addiction experienced by the deceased, memory gaps or idealization regarding our history with the person, apathy now about things that once mattered, and numbing of our feelings with behaviors or substances; these take us farther away from self-knowledge acquired through grief’s intimate processes. As we move into denial we are attempting to survive the loss with a litany of small and significant omissions of personal truth in order to manage life, relationships and self-esteem. But what is sacrificed?

When we fail to muster readiness for honesty as it relates to loss, we can lose vital pieces of ourselves and the experience of our deceased loved one. Wearing blinders sacrifices the broad view, the tableau of a complex, evolving personal history, too precious to turn away from. Our own truth about loss, our own narrative, may differ from that of our spouse, our family members. But if we adapt our loss narrative to fit that of another, we need defenses to repress our own perspectives, which could have implications for relationships. Here is my example, although not suicide related: My father died after a final infection followed by a long illness. Part of my family’s narrative was that mother was his faithful caregiver. She was, but I saw several instances where she was careless, even cavalier with transmission of bacteria, and I was angry about it. After Dad’s death she was vulnerable and alone, but my unexpressed anger and blame created distance, preventing my being closer to her. Fortunately, I worked through the anger so that our final years together included genuine warmth and intimacy. I needed to recognize her exhaustion and burn-out, her history of being unable to take care of her emotional needs, the effects of my father’s personality on her. The larger, more compassionate grief narrative was fuller, truer, and allowed me to come to peace with my father’s death.

Grief moves forward as we confront our personal truths. In doing so, we need a safe place to express anger, resentment, suspicion, sorrow, apathy, emptiness, fear and guilt, because these are terribly vulnerable feelings and part of our unique loss experience. Going into our truth offers a high definition view of our experience in and a sense of who we are. When we penetrate our grief defenses we may uncover the more vulnerable feelings, such as fear, feelings of loss of control, feelings of guilt or inadequacy and finally, sorrow, the heart of grief.

How do we get to a more honest understanding of our grief experience?

Stop saying yes when we really mean no.
Identify our defenses.
Acknowledge when we are scared.
Notice when we are acting differently than we really feel.
Be wary when we tell ourselves we are going to address a feeling, an issue or perspective, but we never do.
Acknowledge tunnel vision: Realize that our truth is just our own truth, and not the only truth.
Hold ourselves to a higher standard of internal truth telling, resulting in more self-trust, self-worth, and closer relationships.


How does a grieving parent’s submission to personal truth affect the grief responses of our children?

The entire family system is affected positively by internal truth telling, especially after the death of a primary family figure. We are messaging freedom and validation of all feelings. Deeper emotional honesty reveals the complex, nuanced relationship with the deceased in which grief comes to embrace flaws and wounds. Consider too, that the integrity of this work leads to fuller honesty in other areas of our lives. Since we take ourselves everywhere we go, the transformative nature of deep grief work, with its need for honesty about the past, the meaning we make of the suicide and our vision for the future connects us to ourselves. We realize that the meaning we make of loss involves curiosity and flexible thinking. A personal, adaptive grief narrative may include the difficult truths, but leaves the grieving person’s sense of self intact. Although suicide grief is never tidy, a cleansing process is possible as we wrestle with hard-to-look-at truths, setting an example to others of resilience and offering the potential for peace and renewal. The LOSS Program can support you and your family in transformative grief work through group and individual counseling options.