June 11. I have it marked on my calendar, with the name of a man for whom I provided in-home care. He passed away one year ago today. Even though Cascade Companion Care provided care for this dear man for just 3 months, I have an abiding affection and gratitude for his remarkable life. He was a “client”, but like all of our clients, the precious interweaving of our lives, families, and histories made a lasting impression, leaving behind both joy and loss.
Grief is the emotional response to any loss that we experience. Caregivers, adult children, and extended family members certainly feel a great sense of loss when someone we have cared for passes away. In addition, many of the seniors we serve are dealing with grief over losses associated with aging. Some grieve the loss of some of their mental or physical vigor. Some grieve the loss of cherished independence. Some have suffered the loss of a spouse or have seen some of their closest friends succumb to illness. In later life, multiple losses can have a cumulative effect, temporarily overwhelming a person’s ability to process and adapt.
Grief is a normal and necessary component of life, as unwelcome a visitor as it usually is. Normal grief reactions can include confused thinking, feelings of sadness or emptiness, health problems, decrease in productivity, decline in social activity, and a period of adaptation. Part of this adaptation is to reflect on and value what we have lost, which for many people becomes, in time, a rich and positive experience.
For grief to be “good grief”, there are certain life tasks that we must undertake. No matter what our culture and traditions might tell us, there is no timeline for the accomplishment of these tasks. We do well to give each person the time to do their “grief work” for as long as it takes.
Life Tasks in the Grieving Process*
Accepting the Reality of the Loss- Denial is a common reaction to a great loss. Coming to terms with the reality of the loss and all of its ramifications is an important task of grieving.
Doing One’s Duty-Many losses impose duties on us. When a loved one dies, we may want to curl up in a ball, but with gentle help we manage to make arrangements, keep promises, honor their memory, and carry out our loved one’s wishes as best we can. In the case of other losses, “doing our duty” may mean accepting the use of a walker, or surrendering our car keys. Finding the strength to face the duties that our loss imposes on us is one of the tasks of the grieving process.
Regaining a Sense of Control-The reality of life is that losses occur, no matter how desperately we might have tried to keep them at bay. This can cause us to feel very helpless, or to feel guilt that we were not able to do more. Regaining a sense of control is a process of extending grace to ourselves, accepting our limitations, and directing our energy into those things that are within our control. For many people, the experience of loss is the beginning of a spiritual awareness that life is not really ours to control. This, too, can be a source of positive exploration and newfound faith.
Finding a Sense of Purpose-Sometimes we do not realize how much we have built our sense of purpose around something or someone until it is taken away. A loss forces us to go through a period of great adjustment, in which our lives find a new center. For many people, this is both the hardest part of grief and the most rewarding. Some of the world’s best charitable foundations, social movements, and advancements have come as a result of new purposes that were forged in a time of loss.
Relearning the World-Many losses require that we learn to live in our changed world with new behaviors and emotions. A bereaved spouse may have to learn how to manage tasks that had always been done by their partner. A person with a new disability may have to become accustomed to accepting help or using adaptive devices. Adjusting to a new diagnosis may mean relearning something as basic as what we eat. These ways of relearning our world take great effort and imagination, but are important tasks of the grieving process.
Managing STUG Reactions-Have you ever thought you were coming to terms with a loss, only to be broadsided with intense feelings of grief brought on by a situation, place or holiday? This too is a normal part of the grieving process. This experience was labeled “sudden, temporary upsurges of grief” by Therese Rando. Experiencing an unexpected return to a crippling state of grief can cause many people to doubt that they have made progress at all. It is comforting to know that STUG reactions are very normal, and that they typically become less intense and frequent as time goes by.
When we know that a normal grieving process involves work on such profound life tasks and issues, we can give ourselves, and others, the grace, compassion, time, and support to see it through.
*This model offers another way of looking at the grief process other than the familiar description of grief stages by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. The task model is the work of Craig Vickio, published in 1999.
©Linda Rudat 2012