What is Grief?

"But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer." - Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

There are many theories of grief. You may be most familiar with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Other grief experts refer to seven stages: shock or disbelief, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, acceptance/hope. They say it can last from months to years...or longer. Many describe it as the normal, internal emotional response to the loss of a loved one that can have other physical, social and religious symptoms. For traumatic losses (sudden, unexpected or brought on by extreme circumstances), individuals can develop PTSD symptoms (this is true). Other more recent grief theorists believe "stages" are incapable of capturing the complexities of the process, and they have moved away from the concept that grief ends in a "letting go" of sorts. Instead, they posit that there is an ability to maintain healthy bonds with the loved one (i.e. understanding death ends a physical life, but not the relationship). The postmodern social constructionist approach sees grieving as a process of reconstructing a world of meaning that has been challenged by a loss. For me, grieving is not a stage - its a mixture of all stages/emotions at once, a continuing process of attempting to heal in small ways.

In "Man's Search for Meaning," Viktor Frankl (Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor), explores the way in which humans can find meaning in life, even in the depths of extreme suffering. Now, nothing we go through compares to Frankl's experiences, but it lends insight into the resiliency of the human spirit and heart -- for which we can daily strive. He states, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude to any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." He continues to state that we must not ask and seek to find the "meaning to life" but recognize that we ourselves are being asked that vey question, through our experiences, even suffering and, yes, grief. In his words I find some truth...an understanding that an individual facing extreme loss, suffering or grief, when he or she feels like nothing meaningful is left -- he "still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved." 

For me, grief is so complex, so personal and unique. I am often asked whether my effort to raise awareness helps with the grief. My best answer is that it gives us pockets of "hope" throughout the day. I remember the specific moment, that night of July 7th, where I was faced with a decision (I remember it clearly, right after the doctors told me in the back room what had happened, right after the initial shock and inability to breathe) -- the decision to quit living and hide in the depths of sorrow and hysterics or to find a way to continue to live, to provide strength in the midst of the unimaginable grief that we would all experience, especially my husband. As Frankl put it, "between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom." I chose the latter. It was natural, instantaneous -- there was no other option for me....we had to accept our new reality, grieve and come to terms with a new version of our lives moving forward.

The grief of that night and the next two weeks (the shock, denial, guilt, bargaining, anger, sorrow)...I still can't speak of yet. But, I can address what grief is for me now. The best way to describe it is as a "longing." We function day-by-day -- sometimes just that is tiring -- and we let the waves of emotions (that can vary by the minute) wash over us. We use each other as a life raft in that ocean of emotions. Last week I described the grief as "profound"...something that permeates through every muscle, bone, nerve of my body, my mind, heart and soul. Its the moments in our house where I "feel" Ben all around me -- like a comforting blanket -- or times at our favorite family spots where there is a noticeable void -- as if I could reach my hand out and feel an empty spot on that canvas before me. But, this week -- its a "longing" for Ben, when I see pictures or videos or even hear the name "Ben." On July 31st, a busy one for National Heatstroke Prevention Day, we joined friends and family at the beach of our local lake. I'd had more moments of "hope" that day. The girls were kayaking in the shallow end, and a friend said "Hey, Lindsey, Ben wants to take the kayak out after the girls." I stopped breathing, put my hands over my mouth and responded frantically "You said Ben." I'd thought she had misspoke, but she was referring to my other friend's son. And, the tears flowed. I often say grief takes your breath away, such that the only way you can breathe is by sobbing, just so you can gulp air.  Its also a physical pain in my chest -- right in my heart -- where I believe Ben took a piece with him. Those moments during each day -- I long to see him again, his soft skin, his smile, his belly laugh, to hold him and call him my little "buoy" -- my Benjabear -- and to wipe his long curly hair out of his face and say, softly, "You're too pretty to be a boy," then to kiss his cheek. Just one more time. I wasn't ready to let go. 

That's my grief - its personal to each individual. But, it is a testament to healing and living. We move forward with our wonderful two girls, together, to define our new future.