The late Jimmy Buffet wisely observed:
"Grief is like the wake behind a boat. It starts out as a huge wave that follows close behind you and is big enough to swamp and drown you if you suddenly stop moving forward. But if you do keep moving, the big wake will eventually dissipate. And after a long time, the waters of your life get calm again, and that is when the memories of those who have left begin to shine as bright and as enduring as the stars above."
In representing survivors in wrongful death lawsuits, we have often shared in that journey. Mourning the death of a loved one is a universal experience that sooner or later befalls all of humanity. But despite the common themes, everyone has a different experience of grief and loss.
With the death of my wife after a 29-year battle with recurring brain tumors, I was forced to deal with the pain of grief and loss myself. With time for final conversations in anticipation of her passage from this life, our experience was vastly different from one who suddenly loses a spouse, parent or child in a truck-car crash.Stages of Grief
Most people have heard of the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. That is a valuable structure for thinking about how we handle death and learn to live without the one we lost.
- Shock and denial. "This can't be happening! There must be a mistake. It will be OK tomorrow. It's all a bad dream!" Brief denial may buffer us mentally and emotionally from the shock of facing our new reality. It helps prepare us for the next stage of grief.
- Anger turned outward. We may be angry toward the loved one who has died or suffered grievous injury, or toward the person who caused the injury. In the legal process, we often begin working with people who are at this stage. But see Ephesians 4:26 : "Be angry, and do not sin: do not let the sun go down on your wrath." One must acknowledge anger, deal with it, and work beyond it.
- Depression (anger turned inward). The grieving person may become depressed and blame himself for what has happened. Such self-blame is often irrational, and hardly ever productive. The resulting depression has some of the same symptoms as clinical depression, like altered sleep patterns, diminished appetite, diminished motivation, crying, feelings of hopelessness, and physical symptoms. This depression is different from clinical depression in that it is a temporary feeling -- lasting from weeks to a few years -- that one should eventually work through. Professional help is needed if one cannot work beyond this depression, and if there are any suicidal feelings.
- Bargaining. In this stage a person will often try to bargain with God. They may promise to do anything for God, if He will only take the problem away.
- Sadness. After the grieving person has accepted reality, he may feel a deep sadness. Memories may bring tears. However, as with the healing of a physical wound the pain usually decreases in intensity over time. One day, the good memories will again predominate.
- Forgiveness, resolution, and acceptance. This phase is the goal of the grieving process. Although occasional feelings of anger or sadness may recur at this point, it is often possible to resume and enjoy as normal a life as physical limitations will permit.
But we should not view grief as a linear timeline. There are tasks of grief and mourning that go through cycles over time.
- To accept the reality of the loss. Long after our mind accepts the fact of death, our body and imagination go on living as if the death did not occur. We may hear the voice of the person who has died, feel their touch, see them in a familiar chair. We may buy special foods for them, or mentally recite stories to share with them. Each time we fail to find them, we acknowledge a little more deeply the fact that they are gone and the hold that they have left in our lives. This slow one-day-at-a time work of acknowledging the first task of mourning.
- To work through the pain of grief. Enduring waves of sorrow, explosions of rage, stretches of bleak despair, restless searching, and questioning why are included in the second task of mourning. When a person has been an important part of our lives for many years, the pain of losing them cannot be experienced all at once. Even if our feelings for them were mixed, the years leave their mark. We may feel the pain of loving not only what we had, but what we never had as well.
- To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing. In a very real sense, we face a new and unfamiliar world. We need to adjust, just as an immigrant needs to adjust to the language and culture of his new country. We need to develop and get used to new routines, learn to handle new responsibilities, learn to interact with other people in new ways. This process of discovering what this new world is like and learning how to cope with it is the third task of mourning.
- To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life. No, we do not want to stop loving the person who has died, or cherishing the memories. Yet, the fourth task of mourning is to find a place for the deceased that will not impair our ability to give and receive love here on earth. We remain connected to our loved one through our recollections and memorializing acts, and are able to simultaneously invest in life. Whether or not we enter into similar relationships (such as remarrying or having more children), our task is to discovery people, activities, and causes to invest in, to experience love, and to satisfy our need to be loved. Opening up again to loving and being loved is the fourth task of mourning.
People who are dealing with the loss of a loved one should not be ashamed to consult with an experienced grief counselor, even just as a consultant on how to work through a painful passage in life.
This reminds me of one of my maternal grandmother who lost two daughters, at 7 and 14, shortly before my mother was born in 1926. All her life, in their modest mill village house, framed photos of dead daughters dominated the living room. All her life, for roughly 60 years after the deaths of her daughters, she would occasionally talk about those daughters and weep. While one must find a way to move on, one never forgets.
Catastrophic injuries, as well as death of a loved one or one's own mortal illness, propel one into a process of grief.
Grief support groups can feel like emotional comfort food, but sometimes mac and cheese is what we need, just to realize our experience is not unique. Griefshare is a faith-based grief support program operating in churches nationwide.
People who are dealing with the loss of a loved one should not be ashamed to consult with an experienced grief counselor, even just as a consultant on how to work through a painful passage in life. A trial lawyer's job is not the same as that of a psychologist or pastoral counselor. However, it's good if your lawyer has empathy for the emotions you are experiencing.
Our job in pursuing civil justice for people who have suffered a catastrophic loss is not to enable them to sit around and feel sorry for themselves forever. It is to provide the means for them to become all that they can be, with what is left of their lives and abilities, and to support their quality of life in the areas in which they are not able to provide for themselves.
Most jurors like positive people who heroically strive to return to a productive life, despite daunting obstacles, better than those who focus on the negative and drown in self-pity. That is a very practical reason to work through the stages of grief toward a positive and constructive response.