Saturday, February 23, 2008

Grief Work

“Suppressed grief suffocates, it rages within the breast, and is forced to multiply its strength.”
- Ovid

“Grief” – even the word sounds so overwhelming. I make my living dealing with grief. Sometimes people ask how my coworkers and I how we can listen to traumatic stories all the time. I guess the short answer is 1) you get used to it, 2) it isn’t sad all the time, and 3) people do get better and it is pretty cool and really an honor to be part of that.

I know this from my own life: I’ve experienced grief. I know what it feels like to be overwhelmed, to be ashamed, to feel small, stupid, and hopeless. And – I know that it didn’t last forever and while it doesn’t define who I am now, it is absolutely part of who I am now. So, in addition to my training, that’s part of what I draw on to work with my clients.

Yes, this is hard. I’m sorry. I wish I could take away your pain. I can’t. But, I can help you work through it. I can support you and remind you of the things you did right, when you only think everything you have done is wrong. I can’t snap my fingers and give you the easy way out, but I can help support you through the hard way. I can get you in touch with other places or ways to get better. I’m not better than you, or smarter, don't have all the answers, just willing to listen and help.

I also know this about grief: You can’t ignore it for too long. We all put grief away sometimes. When it is just too awful, too painful, too big, we might stuff it in a little box behind our hearts. We might try to drown it with some alcohol, or calm it with medicine. It is still there. Waiting. Growing.

We bury it so deeply that we believe the grief just went away. It doesn’t. It won’t. It will come back at the most inconvenient times. It will seep out and damage our relationships with our closest friends and family. Unacknowledged grief turns into anger, bitterness, and even worse, coldness. We all know these people. Maybe we’ve been these people. He’s the man who is quiet and seemingly in control, but you can feel the anger not radiating from him, but seeping out like cold poison gas. He’s the guy who one day explodes and everyone says, “but he was so quiet.”

So, my point: Grief seems impossible, but it isn’t, as long as we realize that at some point, we must face it. A few years ago, worked with a mother whose 10-year son had recently been murdered by her husband. Before I met with her for the first time, I took a breath and had a moment of panic – WHAT can I say or do? I walked in, knowing the words and actions would come. She looked so lost. I did a little introduction – my name, I’m a social worker, so sorry she was here, so sorry about her situation, wanted to see what I could do to help her through this if that was OK…she just looked at me, really through me.
The only thing she wanted was her son. How all of us wished we could have given him back to her. I also knew that she wasn't ready to tell the story about how he died, but she would have to. The thinking part of her knew that he was dead, but the emotional part was still pretending he was "away." As a clinician, I didn't want to force her to embrace the reality of his death all at once. However, I knew she had to for criminal justice reasons.

Well, I thought, let's start where she is, so I asked her if she had a picture of her son. Of course, she did. He was a beautiful child – a sweet bright face, full of life and hope. I told her he looked very sweet. She smiled and said he is - was. She told me how he was a compassionate, insightful boy who always thought of other people. I asked her to tell me more about him. She did. I told her I was also the mother of boys and understood the special love they have for their mothers. That’s how we started. I encouraged her find the strength to testify in the mother's love she has for her son. She did.

When she was done giving her statement, she practically ran out of the building. I don't blame her since she was forced her to tell a story she wasn't ready to verbalize. I hurried alongside her. She needed to get to the open air, away from her son's death. Once outside, we briefly talked. I told her she did the right thing. She used some healthy and not-so-healthy ways to deal with her grief – as do many of us, especially with profound grief. She got through the hardest parts. She’ll never stop aching for her son and asking a million “what-if” questions, but she is doing OK and even finding joy in her life.

People tell me they want their lives to “go back to the way it was” and “to be normal.” I don’t lie, because I know they need to be prepared. I tell them their lives will forever be changed. But, it won’t always hurt this sharply and be so close to the surface; that they can feel better; that it can take a long, long time; that we can’t fix it, but we’ll help as much as we can.

So, last week, I made one of those contacts. I called the brother of a domestic violence murder victim. He told me he was actually writing his sister’s obituary when I called. He sounded calm, but of course, he’s probably just getting through this fresh painful part right now. I told him my name, I’m a social worker, I was sorry, we wanted to help in whatever way we could and explained a little of what would be happening. It was short, but it was a beginning. I didn’t want to overwhelm him, but just let him know we’re here and we’re ready.

Ovid said to “remember this pain, for someday it will be useful to you.” I suppose that is the basis for empathy. So, we try to do that. We draw on our training, especially on the most basic premise of social work - that we start where our client is. We draw on memories of our own pain, and on the pain of others to try and help people to get to the other side of grief – which is hopefully acceptance and some measure of peace. In the process, we are rewarded with the extreme honor of witnessing people move from pain and hopelessness, to comfort and hope.

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