by Deb Sewell and Patrick O’Malley, PhD
Editor’s note: Portions of this article are taken from an original Hope for the Holidays post in 2013.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Susan Van Volkenburgh tell her story, based on her book, Silent Resolve and the God Who Let Me Down. Susan’s father was on flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon on 9-11.
During the Q&A session, she was asked what words of comfort and assurance helped their family through this horrific time of trying to recover the bodies of 9-11, interviews with FBI and Secret Service, explaining the crimes of terror to her children, and the grief. She pondered and thought and said that the most comfort was from those who said nothing, but who were present with her in silence and in weeping.
Dr. Patrick O’Malley talks about being a good friend in a recent blog post:
“Learning how to be a good friend to grieving people may be as simple as sitting with them when they are sad.
My friend Fred does this well. During the significant losses in my life, Fred shows up. He gives a great hug and then settles in for the sit. He tends to come early and stay late. Once I had to let him know it was okay to go home, because we needed to get to bed. He has few words, but his presence is always comforting.
I do not know what my next loss will be, but I know Fred will be there to sit with me in those early days of sadness. That gives me great comfort.”
On the flip side, there is a chapter in Van Volkenburgh’s book recalling those trying to help by saying “Just put it behind‚” or “It’s time to move on.” For those of you who have mourned a significant loss, you would do anything to “…just put it behind and move on.” On the one hand you want someone to tell you how to do that because you ache for things to be “normal” again. On the other hand, you long for someone to be with you, be “your Fred” as you find a way through the intense moments.
Another question that follows is: How long does it take to “move on”? How long will they grieve? Just as no thumbprint is the same, no experience of grief is the same. Our life experiences, our depth of love, depth of disappointment, betrayals, complications in relationships, circumstances; all of these play a significant role in the time and work it takes to fully recover. Healing from a deep loss is rarely linear; rather, it is cyclical and often compound.
C.S. Lewis described grief as spiral, meaning you climb your way up out of the pit of darkness and depression. It is exhausting; in weariness, you simply give out and slide back down. Grief is immensely fatiguing. When your strength is replenished, you once again start the climb. The good news is that each time you climb, you typically don’t slide as far down as in previous times.
The other aspect to consider about the length of grief is whether it is compound or complicated. For example, if it’s the loss of a spouse who was also their best friend, they long to talk with their best friend about the loss of their spouse and vice versa; their loss is doubled or a compound loss. Compound can also refer to more than one significant loss in a short period of time.
Complicated grief typically is grief that can have the potential to become chronic – meaning lasting much longer – for it to fully resolve. This can result from a grief that was traumatic – a death that was premature, out of order, sudden, violent, or unexpected. Complicated grief can also be the result of a weary caregiver privately wishing their loved one would pass away. As adult children watch a parent, or a spouse watches their loved one decline over the months or years with a poor quality of life, the pain and exhaustion for the caregiver can become unbearable. They secretly wish to see their loved one pass on. When they do, there is often an associated guilt, which can slow the recovery. If complicated grief does become chronic, it will usually require the attention of a counselor with expertise in chronic or complicated grief.
Rarely will the recovery of a significant loss be less than a year, usually closer to three years or longer or until there is a significant “sense of resolve” regarding the loss. According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, noted author and speaker on issues of grief, the term “closure” is far more appropriate finalizing a real estate deal and far less appropriate when discussing a deep loss, but for lack of a better term, says there is rarely closure when you’ve experienced an “out of order” death, especially that of a child or the unanticipated death of a spouse.
If you have been blessed to be a companion with a friend or family member on a journey through loss and grief, consider it a privilege and a calling. It is a high calling. The apostle Paul told the new believers at the church at Corinth that God comforts us in our troubles so that we can comfort others and we comfort them with the same comfort God has given us when we needed comfort.
And, the good news is that even though we carry fragments of our loss and grief with us for as long as we breathe, God has created us to be resilient. Most of us really do experience healing and renewal in time; and with work, we will notice tiny seeds of hope begin to take root and buds of life begin to grow gently in the places where desolation existed. The other good news is that, many times the one grieving will sense the presence of a loving God, who never left their side.
In the meantime, be gentle with them, and be gentle with yourself, knowing this isn’t a sprint that lasts just days or weeks; rather, for most, it will last several years. In grief care, the saying is: “It takes as long as it takes and no one wants it over sooner than the one grieving.”
Finally, remember: this is their grief to bear, not yours. It is not your job to make them happy again. The only One to carry this burden with and for them is the One who created them. May we say with thankful hearts: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Psalm 30:5 Amplified.
Dr. Patrick O’Malley is a psychotherapist in Fort Worth, Texas, specializing in grief counseling. For 35 years, he has counseled individuals, couples and families in his private practice. Dr. O’Malley has been contributing to a series of blogs as we prepare for this year’s Hope for the Holidays, Thursday evening, November 19th.