Words of Wellness

August 26, 2011 | The Rev. Dr. Scott Stoner

"Listening To Grief"

I was recently asked to write an article about grief for the Charles E. Kubly Foundation's current newsletter. I am sending that article out this week as my "Weekly Words of Wellness" column because I want to call attention the wonderful work of this foundation whose mission is to improve the lives of those affected by depression. You can help support this foundation and have a great time as well, by attending "Beyond The Blues," their annual fundraising event this coming September 17th. Everyone is invited to this event at Discovery World on Milwaukee's lakefront with music by Kings Go Forth and food by Bartallotta's. You can find out more as well as buy tickets at www.beyondtheblues.org

For the last thirty years, in my work as a psychotherapist and an Episcopal priest, I have had the honor and privilege of walking with people through countless experiences of profound loss. I have had thousands of conversations with people who are grieving the loss of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, the loss of their health, or the loss of a dream. When we find ourselves in the midst of grief, there is nothing more important than talking about our loss, telling our stories over and over again, as many times as it takes to heal. Many years ago someone asked me if I ever got tired of listening to peoples' "problems." I said "No I do not, because I don't listen to their problems, I listen to their stories."

The greatest gift we can give to a person who has experienced a loss is to make time to listen to their stories. The greatest gift we can give to ourselves when we have experienced a loss is to take the time to tell the stories of our loss to anyone who is compassionate enough to listen. Learning to be comfortable with the depths of sadness and tears that usually accompany stories of grief, whether our own, or another's, is crucial for giving grief the time and room it needs to heal. Crying is the "healing feeling," and no where is this more true than when it comes to grief.

Grief is exhausting. It zaps our energy and our ability to concentrate. Acute grief of this sort will last at least six months, and often up to a year. It will usually take at least two years before a person begins to feel like they have begun to create a "new normal" in their lives, and even then, of course, the grief will still be with them.

Speaking of grief as zapping our energy, here is a modern day metaphor that I came up with to help a friend who is a computer programmer better understand the acute grief he was experiencing. I asked him what happens when a person tries to open and run too many applications on their computer's desktop at the same time. He told me that the applications will either crash or run very slowly. I explained that's this is how it works with grief, too. It is as if we have this giant computer application called "grief" running on the desktop of our heart, mind and soul. It is using up much of the "memory" space we have to process our day-to-day lives. Any other "applications" we try to run at this time will all run more slowly than normal, perhaps even crashing. Even when we are not actively thinking about our grief or loss, the "application" of grief is always running in the background. We never know when it will pop back up again and demand that we give it our full attention. One way we may need to honor make room for our grief is to close some of the other "applications" in our lives, acknowledging the real limits grief places on our energy.

My computer friend then said that he wished there was a way he could just close or quit his "grief" application so that he could be done with it and get on with the other things he needed to be busy with. We laughed how there is no "force quit" for the application of grief. The only way to gradually resolve grief is to talk about it over and over again, telling our stories until the grief slowly and gradually lessens.

Each of us has an important role to play when it comes to helping others resolve grief. Mental health professionals certainly can play an important role with someone who is grieving, but most of the conversations a person will have about their grief will be with their friends, families, neighbors and colleagues. All of us know someone who is grieving right now. There is no greater gift that we can give them than to ask, and then to truly listen to how they are doing with their loss--and not just in the first few weeks after the loss, but months, and even years later. When I counsel people who are grieving, the most important advice I give them is to not isolate from others. If we are not careful, we can increase a grieving person's tendency to isolate by unconsciously pulling away from them or by not asking them about their grief on an ongoing basis.

The Charles Kubly Foundation has done so much to educate our community about the disease of depression. In light of that, I want to make one important connection between grief and depression. When grief is not talked about on an ongoing basis, when it is not brought out in to the open where it can slowly heal, there is a risk that it can turn into depression. There is never one single factor that contributes to depression, but "grief turned inwards," grief that is frozen and repressed, can increase the risk of developing depression.

I have such tremendous respect for the work that the Charles Kubly Foundation has done in breaking the cultural isolation that too often accompanies depression. Their work has broken the secrecy in our community about a disease that effects many individuals and families. I am suggesting we follow their lead and do the same with grief and loss. Each of us can do our small part by talking openly about our own grief when we are grieving, and by actively reaching out and listening to others who are grieving. In doing this we are doing our small part in changing and healing our community, one person, one story at a time.

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