Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thursday's Therapy - A Grief Shared - Part I ~by Lynda Boucugnani-Whitehead, Ph.D.

Thursday's Therapy

A Grief Shared - Part I

~by Lynda Boucugnani-Whitehead, Ph.D.

(Psychologist and Grieving Mother)

This will not be the typical article you often see in a professional publication. There will be no references to scholarly works, no discussion of what has been gleaned from years of research, no statistics, no methodology. Rather, this will be a story from the heart, one that I hope may help psychologists first understand, and then do what they do best. I had the inspiration to write this article just a week or so before the tragedy in New York. In my frame of reference, following the horror at the World Trade Center and Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, perhaps this is divine inspiration - this is something I just have to do.

What is it like to live through such a profound grief, to have your whole life changed in an instant, to have much of your future taken away, and to find yourself in a world that you don't recognize?

We have all had at least a taste of this, as Americans, our lives have been changed by these events. There is a loss of a sense of security and for what we thought our future would be.

But what about those people who have sustained a more profound and excruciating loss - the loss of a loved one who was treasured and so much a part of the fabric of your very life.

What is it like to have that person taken away so abruptly, to one minute have that loved one beside you as a part of your dream, and the next to have that love ripped away from you?

What do psychologists and other helping professionals need to know in order to help those who have sustained such a loss?

This story is very personal for me and, therefore, somewhat difficult to tell. As many of you know, my daughter, Maria-Victoria, was killed in an automobile accident just three blocks from my home as her brother was driving her home from school. A speeding driver ran through a red light and smashed into their car killing Maria-Victoria instantly. She was 13 years old. It was a normal day, bright and sunshiny and my life was going along as normal. My daughter was a beautiful, intelligent and accomplished person known for her extraordinary kindness and compassion for others. She was innocence and pure love blossoming into a leader of others and she was building the confidence that could have taken her very, very far in this life. In one second she was here, in one second she was not. The fifth anniversary of her death was just 2 days after the New York tragedy.

Within a few months of her passing, I joined a group called Compassionate Friends, which is a self-help group for parents who have lost children. It was a very good move.

It is said that the most profound loss a person can have is the loss of a child - I can tell you that this is the truth.

However, for those who have not lost children, the most profound loss is the one they have

experienced or are experiencing at the present time. Those of us in this group frequently lament about how ill-equipped others who have not experienced such pain and grief are in dealing with it. Ministers are often the focus of such discussions for example and we have often discussed how we can let others, especially professionals, know how it really is - what helps and sometimes, more importantly, what doesn't help. This is the purpose of this story - this Dialogue - to let my fellow psychologists know some things that in the future will help them be able to help. It is based on my own personal experiences as well as the numerous Compassionate Friends who have come into my life.

You have all heard or read about the stages of grief. The work that was done in this area by pioneers such as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is very valuable in understanding the emotions of grief. Some professionals may feel that they can help people with grief because they have studied these stages and know the sequence by heart.

Throw it all away.

People who have sustained profound loss do not want to hear about the stages of grief - it's almost an insult. They do want to know that what they are feeling is normal, that they are not "crazy", that others have felt or done the same things.

There is no sequence of grief - it is a constant, evolving journey with many diversions into emotional peaks and valleys along the way.

It is a journey and it is never over.

It is true that at the time of the event you are in a state of shock and numbness. In my case after a telephone call, I made my way to the accident site. It was eerily quiet with cars backed up in four different directions at the intersection, so that I had to drive on the wrong side of the road to get there. When I got to the scene I was no longer within myself, I must have dissociated. I felt like I was observing everything as if I was in a movie. The people in all the cars were watching me. I imagined they were saying "that's the mother". I was aware that I was playing this "role". I imagine that many of the relatives looking for loved ones in New York must have felt this way too. At the hospital I was placed in a special room - meant to be a comfort but cut off from others. It did allow me to get out of the movie.

What helped? Friends coming to be with me. You need to hold and touch people - you need them to hold you and just "be there" for you.

What didn't help? Waiting 1½ hours to be told whether my children were alive or dead. I already knew in my heart and soul that Maria-Victoria was gone from this life but to have a doctor finally come in and say in a cool and dispassionate manner that "your daughter is deceased" made me angry. A simple "I'm so sorry", a touch on the hand and some semblance of compassion would have endeared this doctor to me for life. Why is that so hard to do?

We are blessed with this state of shock that comes almost immediately after suffering a traumatic loss. It allows us to do the things we have to do. For many of us this is very, very important. I needed to make sure that Maria-Victoria had a wonderful, up-lifting funeral

service that told the world about the wonderfulness of my little girl. I needed to write an obituary that would touch the hearts of Atlanta. I needed to comfort her teachers and students at her school, thereby comforting myself. I needed to be there for the hundreds of people who came to show they cared. Some people criticized the news coverage in New York of friends and relatives showing flyers of their missing loved ones saying it was exploitation. I spoke to them through my TV set saying - "you just don't get it - they need to do this -they need to let

others know about the one they love - they need to feel like they are doing something to take care of them."

What helped me so much in the initial weeks after the accident were touches from the hearts of other people. I savored all the cards, the incredible amount of food from individuals and whole schools, letters and phone calls from people I had never met who were touched by my daughter's story and the physical presence of people I was close to.

Such heartfelt gestures give life when life has gone out of your existence.

There is a time when you have to go back to work and start to live this new life. I was fortunate to have such a wonderful, supportive staff that literally carried me through that first year. Others are not so fortunate. Some have to go back to work just days after the funeral and are expected to perform as if nothing has happened. When a traumatic loss has struck you, you are amazed and perhaps a little bit angry that the world has gone on. You say to yourself, "how

can these normal things still go on - how can people laugh - don't they know the world has ended?" You think to yourself that you will never laugh again, that you will never feel joy again - it's incomprehensible to think that you could.

During that first year (time will vary among folks) you are literally "out of your mind". Believe it or not, there is actually a "physical pain", usually in your heart and chest area and all over

your body at times, experienced by many that is excruciating and you think will never go away. Mine lasted about 2 months and then just floated away. It was a relief to say goodbye to that constant companion.

You are "out of your mind" because you think about your loved one constantly - probably a million times a day it certainly seems.

That doesn't leave much room for concentration and memory. Those who have experienced such loss need to know that this is perfectly normal.

It is perfectly normal to put the iron in the refrigerator.

At work if you don't have support, you will certainly not be able to function like you used to. You may be able to do some things on "automatic pilot" but this is not the time to be making major decisions and you - and the business you work for - need to give you leeway for your memory lapses and perhaps loss of drive.

Every day is a struggle just to get up and live. Every day you get up and live is an accomplishment.

So be supportive and tolerant.

Make it a point to know about these cognitive disturbances, help the person you are helping to understand them. And - if you can - help their employers to know what to expect and how to give support.

(to be continued)

{Highlights mine} Thank you to Lynda Boucugnani-Whitehead, Ph.D. for her insights both personally and professionally into our child-loss grief, "the most profound loss a person can have"...

from: Lynda's note is from The Compassionate Friends of Atlanta via Facebook message


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