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Good Grief!

by Rabbi Karen Sussan

A loved one dies, leaving a hole in your life. Your world is off-kilter and you feel so all alone. How difficult it is to manage! Life seems unreal. It's hard to get out of bed in the morning, let along get to work. When the telephone rings, you don't pick up the receiver, even with the volume up on your voice machine and a friend saying, "Pick-up." You simply don't want to do so. In the back of your mind, you wonder "Is something wrong with me?"

The answer probably is no. Grief is not a mental illness. It is a normal, necessary process. It is a process that takes some time and it is a process which is not the same for everyone. There are individual differences in the way people mourn. There is no right way to feel while mourning.

A person who is mourning might feel a whole range of emotions, such as guilt or regret ("If I had only..."), anxiety, fatigue, helplessness, shock, yearning (for the lost person), emancipation, relief (after caring for a person who died of a lengthy illness), numbness, physical sensations (hollowness in stomach, dry mouth). Grief can affect the way a person thinks, too. There can be confusion, disbelief, difficulty concentrating, preoccupation with particular thoughts. A person grieving can also experience a sense of a presence, as if the loved one somehow still is present.

These internal experiences may have a counterpart in a mourner's behavior. A bereaved individual may have trouble sleeping or little appetite. He or she may behave absentmindedly, withdraw socially, have dreams of the deceased, or avoid reminders of the deceased. On the other hand, some people may seek out the places and objects that were dear to their loved one. There may be much sighing, restless activity, even searching and calling out for the loved one who died.

During the year or so after a loved one dies, it can help to have the support of friends and community. They can offer support as you come to terms with the reality of your loss, work through various painful feelings that are a part of the grieving process, adjust to a world without your loved one in it, and to move one, forge new relationships while keeping the deceased loved one someplace in your life. Sometimes, it helps to supplement that circle of support with a bereavement support group. In such a group, there is plenty of time and space to grieve. Mourners can talk safely and confidentially about their feelings, even the problematic ones. A bereavement support group can help in all phases of grief. It can be very therapeutic to discuss how to live in the world without your loved one with others who understand and are also experiencing grief. The members of the group usually do not know each other beforehand, which means a grieving person gets practice relating to others anew following the death of a loved one.

Sometimes, grieving gets a little out of hand. When the grieving process is complicated, an individual may benefit from grief counseling or psychotherapy. There are various signs to indicate that working with a professional might help. For instance, while the grieving process has no deadlines attached to it, if you have been grieving for a prolonged period - well over a year - it might make sense to call a grief counselor. If the very mentions of the deceased loved one still brings on fresh or intense grief, you may benefit from counseling. Or, if you find you are unable to part with the belongings of your deceased loved one, therapy might help you. Meeting with a therapist, you can get help to assess what sort of difficulties you are having with the grieving process and to determine whether grief counseling suits you.

In therapy, you can resolve the difficulties and obstacles you have with the grieving process. To resolve the problems, you may have to explore with the therapist some painful memories and what they bring up. Even early childhood memories can interfere with a person's ability to grieve in the present. By airing some of those issues and then understanding and mastering them, you can develop a new capacity to acknowledge your recent loss, end the grieving process, and say a final good-bye.

Rabbi Karen Sussan is a certified psychotherapist and pastoral counselor. Her office is one the Upper East Side of Manhattan. For more information about grief, bereavement support groups, and psychotherapy, you can call her at (212) 987-4888.

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