As the december holiday season approaches, we want and expect it to be a time of joy, warmth, and intimacy with family and friends. But for some, the ending of the year brings a keen awareness of losses, regrets, and unfinished business. The darkening days can lead to a darker mood and thoughts of loved ones we have lost, of opportunities we may have missed, of times when we failed to succeed.
If you or one of your clients is struggling to cope with grief, now or at any other season of the year, the advice that follows may help ease the pain.
Q: My clients recently lost their daughter, an Air National Guard aircraft technician, to an IED in Iraq. As soon as he heard, the father went to her bedroom, boxed up her belongings, and changed the furniture around. The mother freaked out when she discovered this. At the funeral, they were still too angry to speak to each other. When they came to my office yesterday to discuss their insurance, they began to fight again. The dad says it's time to bury or scatter their daughter's ashes, while the mother insists on keeping the urn on the mantle. Will this situation resolve itself, or can I do something to help reconcile this couple?
A: These parents are wracked with overwhelming pain, and each of them has reverted to his or her own primitive survival mode in order to deal with it.
The father is trying to "be a man" and move stoically on by erasing painful memories of his deceased daughter. The mother, in more typical female fashion, wants to preserve the memory of her child and hold onto reminders of her in any way she can.
Your client couple badly needs counseling about their damaged relationship as well as their grief. Perhaps they can find this support in a single therapy professional. Alternatively, each of them could consult a grief specialist for assistance in coping with their dreadful loss. Then they can take on couples therapy together to help heal the rift caused by this unbearable pain.
People sometimes react to the loss of a loved one by pushing other family members and friends away, unconsciously thinking, "I can't bear to be close to anyone right now. What if I lose them, too?" This irrational behavior can of course create what they most fear: a loss of love and connection. So if I were you, I would gently steer this couple in the direction of help before the break in their relationship gets any deeper.
Q: My wife died quite suddenly of pancreatic cancer five months ago. There was an outpouring of sympathy and casseroles that lasted for a few weeks and then dried up, as though everyone assumed I'd gotten over it. I try not to let on that it's still a struggle to get out of bed every morning, or that I weep whenever something reminds me of her. Tell me, for heaven's sake, when will I reach the "acceptance" stage of grieving and not feel so much pain?
A: I'm so sorry for your terrible loss, and I do understand what you're facing. Our society tends to expect men to keep functioning during a tragedy like this and move right on as though nothing has changed, when in reality the mourning process has just begun. Being around the pain of grieving makes other people uncomfortable, so they often push for a return to "business as usual" before the mourner is emotionally ready.
To help give yourself the time and space you need to truly complete the mourning process, I would recommend joining a grief group led by a good therapy professional. These groups are everywhere; contact your nearest hospital or hospice if you need help finding one.
I'd also suggest that you talk to your wife when you are alone, and make space to "hear" her responses in your mind. A client of mine did this for many months after her husband died, lighting a candle to honor him during their "conversations." By allowing her to cherish his spirit in her heart, this uniquely comforting practice helped her let go of her pain with greater ease and grace.
In my experience, it can take a good year or more for a bereaved person to return to any semblance of normalcy, although this varies for each individual. If you take time to acknowledge your anguish, it will gradually pass (or at least lessen). It's when you try to push your grief away or rush through the mourning process that the pain will come back and hit you over the head when you least expect it.
Share your sorrow, anger, and loneliness with friends and loved ones who are willing to hear and help you. It's better to connect with others than to isolate yourself. My best wishes for restorative healing and serenity in your life.
Q: My paraplanner and I just returned from the funeral of a 53-year-old client. His wife was dry-eyed and stoic during the entire service, while his ex-wife bawled her eyes out. We heard people whispering that the ex must really have loved him, but nobody commented on the widow's grief. On the way back to the office, we realized that almost everyone smiles when they're happy, but people don't behave alike when they're sad. Why is this?
A: It's true: people exhibit a wide range of behaviors and emotions when it comes to grief. In our culture, at least, I believe it's because many of us are told that the deceased is "happy now" or "in a better world," so outpourings of sorrow seem somehow self-indulgent.
In her classic book On Death and Dying (Scribner, 1997), Elisabeth K? 1/4 bler-Ross outlined five stages of grief:
- Denial: This can't be happening to me.
- Anger: I'm furious that this is happening to me!
- Bargaining: I promise to be a better person if this goes away.
- Depression: I don't care any more. What's the use?
- Acceptance: I'm ready to face what's happened and resume living my life.
Although this framework has been useful in helping people recognize what stage they're in at different times, the journey through grief is not predictable. People often skip stages or go forward and then back. Also, some people by their very nature grieve only privately. Others are helped to grieve by the presence of loved ones who are sympathetic to their pain. Everyone handles this grueling passage in her own particular way.
So it's important not to judge your client's widow or his ex-wife by the way they mourn him. Just be there to listen with compassion, and be patient no matter how they express (or don't express) their grief.
Q: Ever since his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's last year, my client has been sliding deeper and deeper into a funk. Whenever I invite him to lunch or a round of golf, he begs off. He couldn't care less about growth in his retirement portfolio or his children's college fund, which always used to be a source of satisfaction to him. I'm not sure it's my place to recommend counseling or even to mention my concerns to his wife, who's tied up with her own business. What do you suggest?
A: Nothing is more painful than watching a beloved parent's personality slip away day by day. My mother had extreme dementia for almost eight years. Though help from nurse's aides allowed us to keep her at home, my dad and I mourned her loss for all those years before she finally died.
I suggest taking the bull by the horns with your client. If he won't come to lunch with you, visit him wherever he is--or at the very least, call him to express your support and concern. Find out the meeting schedule of the nearest Alzheimer's caregiver group and urge him to attend. (To see how some advisors are beginning to specialize in providing this support to clients and their families, see Kara Stapleton's article on page 62.) The sympathy and encouragement of others who are in the same boat can help him feel less overwhelmed, depressed, and listless.
If he doesn't respond, I think it's fine to contact his wife. Perhaps you and she can join forces in a kind of loving "intervention" to help him deal with losing his father in such a cruel way.
Incidentally, when my mother did pass away, the grieving process that ensued was shortened because we had already been going through it for so long. Our overpowering feeling was relief that her misery had ended.
I hope your client gets the help he needs--sooner rather than later. It can make a tremendous difference in his ability to lead his life and plan for the future.
Q: Last year my client lost his only grandson, a teenager, in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. Both parents were devastated, but the boy's mother became so furious at the "senselessness" of this loss that she has refused to set foot in the church she attended for many years. My client believes that a return to the fold will help his daughter heal. After failing to persuade her of this, he wants to put a condition in his will that she can receive her inheritance only if she attends church regularly. I'm not happy with this, but he honestly feels he's doing what's best for her. What do you think?
A: I believe you're right to be concerned. If your client tries to control his daughter's life in this way, she may well transfer some of her rage and resentment to him, deepening the rift in their relationship.
Try to listen empathetically to his strong feelings about his faith. Ideally, you can support his beliefs without agreeing that they're just what his daughter needs. Encourage him to see that setting conditions on his legacy could well backfire, creating more pain for her than the grief she is already suffering. She has to find her own way back to healing and hope, in her own time.
However, it's important for her not to feel that she has to go it alone. Urge your client and his daughter to get counseling, perhaps from a grief counselor or a family therapist. If they resist this suggestion, a relative who doesn't share your client's rigidity may be able to bridge the gap between them. I think it would be a step in the right direction for father and daughter to discuss with each other how they feel about the loss they both have suffered.
Q: After much procrastination, a widow I've known for a long time agreed to work with me on an estate plan. But after her beloved Jack Russell terrier died (in dog years, it was as elderly as she is), she canceled everything. Three months later, she's still too upset to get together with me. Do you suppose losing her dog scared her about her own mortality?
A: I'm sure you know that many people regard their pets as family members, and sometimes (like the late Leona Helmsley) even give them priority over their kids. So I think this woman is probably still in shock from the loss of her longtime companion. You may be right in guessing that she's also been reminded of her own vulnerability, and now is reluctant to contemplate what happens when she's gone.
You can help by empathizing with your client about her loss. Send a sympathy card, and consider donating to the local animal shelter in her dog's memory. Ask her about the difference he made in her life, and what she'll miss most about him.
After she has had enough time to grieve for her loss, she may slowly progress through depression to acceptance, and find enough energy to think about her estate plan. If you try rushing her into this while she's still reeling from her pet's death, you might weaken the connection or even lose it completely. Compassionate listening will help you know when the time is right to give advice and make suggestions for her future.
Whenever someone you know is mourning the loss of a loved one, be as patient, empathetic, and nurturing as you can. Your support will help them move through the grieving process more easily, so they will be able to take your advice to heart once the weight of their pain has lessened.