Every life is a story; or a narrative, as narrative therapists like to claim. Every new event, then, will be a turning point in life, forcing us or nudging us to change our perspective and to adopt new habits. In effect, one would have to integrate the newly happening event into our already constructed life-narrative. Sometimes, the event is one that is happy, and may be harmoniously integrated into our narrative seamlessly, providing another climax that we can look back happily in the future. But there are also events that are catastrophic, or shattering to our outlook on life, thereby creating a paradigm shift which we have to cope with. The event of death, therefore, is one that shall be dealt with in a similar fashion, one that requires time and patience and the endurance on behalf of the bereaved, in order to overcome the pain and sadness and complications that comes with the death of a loved one, so that one can emerge from this experience of grieving with a reconstructed narrative, a narrative that successfully transforms this seemingly overwhelming event into a meaningful one.
For those who have studied psychology, or even for those who are only interested in it, the first thing that comes to mind when one think of the psychology of death is Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stage model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model is increasingly used to define the stages of grief, but this I think, is an erroneous use of it. Dr. Kubler-Ross originally interviewed near-death or terminally ill patients for her book, “On Death and Dying” (amazing, read it), so this five stage model is more apt to describe the grieving process of the near-deceased instead of the survivors. In focusing on one aspect of death, one forgets the other half of the dimension. As Floyd McClure once legendarily said in Errol Morris’ documentary, “Gates of Heaven”, “death is not so much for the dead as it is for the living,” it is important to understand the grief process, particularly of those who survived the loved one (or in some cases, hated one), and it is upon this premise that a few of us from MYPsychology, along with a few hundred others attended the “Advanced Grief Workshop” hosted by Dr. Robert Neimeyer, and organized by a lot of HELP University’s Psychology Department’s student and lecturers, whose chairman is Dr. Anasuya Jegathevi Jegathesan.
Dr. Robert is… a fascinating man, to say the least. When we first saw him, he was arranging his published books upon a table in that cold auditorium, and adjusting his microphone to a suitable volume, and that image is the epitome of normality. But when he stepped on the stage, he owns the audience. He jumps around, demonstrating sitting positions or postures that his past clients did; he mimics their voice to create a sense of immediacy; his memory of his clients is extraordinary, as he recalled minor details that most of us would have overlook, such as their tone of voice, or their names, and personal details. All these, he recreates in a fluidity that is astonishing, as he fuses the knowledge that he has accumulated through his research and experience as a therapist, with factual statistics. What is crucial is that he imparts an aura of enthusiasm and passion towards this supposedly “morbid” topic at hand, and because of his contagious personality, we became, in turn, passionate towards this subject as well. Never in my three years of university studies has a three day lecture taught me so much, and left me wanting more; I guess this is all I can say as a compliment towards Dr. Robert.
So how do we integrate the losses in our life into our narrative meaningfully? There are two ways: through assimilation (we fit the experience of loss into an already existing meaning system); or accommodation (we transform the existing meaning system to fit with this new experience of loss). But what if we are unable to cope with the loss and provide meaning to it? What if the death of a loved one is too traumatic for us to handle? That unresolved and potentially problematic form of grief is termed “complicated grief”, which may require help from others in order to help cope with it, and there are many ways by which the counselor/therapist can help the client regain their footing in the world, and make sense of the loss. Two methods that Dr. Robert taught stand out the most (for me), and they are restorative retelling and situational revisiting (which is a variation of the former). Both methods feature the therapist asking the client (if they are ready) to retell the event story of the loss so that the client can gain mastery over it, to expose themselves to it, to build resistance to it, and to make the story more and more coherent as the client retell the story again and again until one manages to integrate it into one’s own life narrative.
Of course, there are many other methods by which people can engage in in order to cope with losses, such as through journaling (i.e. writing down the event in your own idiosyncratic way, and can combine perceptual and mental details in it to form a richer narrative), which has been proven in studies to help cope with grief. Or, if you have a therapist with you, you may engage in imaginal conversation with the deceased through Gestalt chairwork, under the supervision of the therapist (i.e. talking to an empty chair while imagining the deceased person’s presence on it, thereby reestablishing the attachment with the deceased, or to resolve unresolved businesses with them). But most of these methods, if you are observant enough, address the relationship the survivor had with the deceased person, and what forms of attachment the clients had with their deceased person, because in reality, this attachment is the crux of human relationships. So, if one had a very complicated form of attachment with the loved one when he/she is still alive, the grief that one encounters after the person is dead may also become very complicated.
All this makes grief seem like a very grim prospect one has to face in life, one that is not merely inevitable, but also a very painful experience that only time can heal its scars, and one can only sit there and wait for the blood of the scar to dry up before the next hit lands atop freshly dried wounds. Sure, there are those that became paralyzed by grief and depression after a loved one was lost, and there are those that simultaneously died with their loved ones, so much so that this life is nothing but an empty shell, filled with days that will never end. We can focus on the prospect of loss, meditating on the event story (loss orientation), or we can instead start to move on and engage in different things other than constantly brooding over the event itself (restoration orientation). In fact, as humans, we often shift and oscillate between these two orientations, and to say that either of these two orientations is wrong and should be eradicated is simply erroneous.
Grief, then, is a complex emotion, and that comprises layers upon layers of meaning that is not only idiosyncratic to every person who felt it, but also, every person is unique in the way they handle the grief, and how they create meaning out of this seemingly senseless event. As narrative creatures, that is the ultimate conquest: not to defy our mortality, but to cope with it. And as human beings, that is the ultimate test, because we are required to face the truth of our fragility and transiency. We should never avert our eyes.
P.S. For more information on Dr. Robert Neimeyer’s research, you can search for http://tinyurl.com/neimeyer, which is his website, and contain lots of information on grief therapy, how to cope with grief (practices), as well as articles, either written by him personally, or edited by him, all of which you can download for free. He also is the author and editor of many books and textbooks on grief therapy and if you are interested, you can search for a lot of his books on Amazon.com.