Monday, July 4, 2016

The importance of respecting that we each have a different emotional skill-set for dealing with the death of a loved one

As I said in my previous post, 2016 has been a rough year for me and some of my friends, regarding how many loved ones we’ve lost in the past few months. With such a diversity of people losing such a diversity of relations, I’ve seen a variety of responses to these deaths. These responses have spanned the spectrum from what is typically considered emotionally-healthy to what is typically considered emotionally-unhealthy. 

I choose to not get into these labels. In the cases I’ve seen, assigning a person’s grief experience to a category does nothing to help the person move through their feelings. 

One thing that makes navigating the grief process that much more murky for some people is an unfortunately-common tendency toward guilt over what we did or didn’t do in our relationship with the person who is dying or has died. Not everyone has the same emotional skill-set for dealing with the death of loved ones. For example, some of my friends were able to be by John Suggs’s side until the very end; I tapped out about a month before John died, feeling I’d reached my emotional limit in the state of decline I could handle seeing him in. 

Some friends in our drum-circle family expressed guilt at their inability to muster the emotional fortitude to see John as his health declined. For some of them, it was their first major death of someone they loved; for others, it reminded them too much of someone else they had lost, and that association was just too painful at the time for them to face in person. 

I choose not to feel guilty or regretful, because there is absolutely no value in regretting what I could have done differently in this circumstance. Regret and guilt are carryovers from religious traditions that over-emphasize shame, and only complicate our grief and healing processes in non-value-adding ways. Eliminating the poison of these beliefs from our lives is a long-term challenge, which is well worth the effort. 

For me, Nichiren Buddhism has had the most value in helping me deal with the loss of my beloved Granddaddy in late 2014, my other grandfather in late 2015, my feelings about the loss of John Suggs (who was a father-figure for me), and most recently the sudden loss of a friend from work, in large part because Buddhism does not treat shame and guilt as virtues. 

I have chosen to emphasize my gratitude for how I benefited from and how I contributed to my relationships with friends and family members I’ve lost, instead of feeling haunted by what I would have done differently if I had any idea when they were still apparently healthy how things were going to turn out. 

How and why other people grieve is none of our business. It’s not ours to manage. The only involvement we should have in anyone else’s grief experience is to support them in whatever way we can, if we can. 

None of us grieve according to textbook, or exactly in accord with the most well-known theories. These theories have always struck me as linear, whereas what I’ve seen most—and experienced personally—is more cyclical in nature. Even a few months, or a year and a half, or even longer after someone’s death, I can read something, remember something, or hear something that reminds me of the person, and the grief can come up and feel brand-new all over again, surprising me at how much emotion is left in that container. 

For some people, this experience can be life-long. If that’s the case, we have to respect that. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t reach out to help them if we see that they are simply stuck in a black hole of despair, and showing no signs month after month of coming out on their own; it does mean we have to be patient with them, and not make their experience that much worse by judging them or feeling like we need to understand why they are still struggling this much after we’ve already moved through our feelings to get back to our emotional norm.

Image:  "Tranquil Shore" by Karla Joy Huber, 2015, Prismacolor marker and Prismacolor marker blender

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