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LIVING WITH DYING

5 minute read

LIVING WITH DYING

We are born with the ability to adapt to change, but we all must learn how to cope with loss. And, in fact, if you are able to read this book, you have already learned some rituals for coping with your losses. But not all ways for coping are healthy ways. I think it is no accident that the reason I came to know John and Mike is that John was admitted to the hospital with cancer of the colon eleven months after his mother's death. I met Mike when he came to visit John.


Clinical studies show that despite obvious differences in family composition, religion, ethnic origin, and socio-economic status, repressing our feelings over loss prevents us from adapting to the change our loss has brought to our lives and may lead to mental and physical breakdown.


What do we need to learn in order to cope with loss?

First, we need to learn to respect the natural psychological process that helps us recover emotionally from the shock of loss and from the suffering of deprivation. Our natural way is to mourn or grieve. To mourn is to ventilate feelings. This ventilation sets us to working through emotions and expectations associated with the person or object we are losing or the loved one we have lost. We also grieve over things we can no longer do. Mourning involves testing the reality of permanent absence, reassessing identification with the loved person, reexamining our expectations of the loved person, and transferring to and investing emotionally in new people.


Not all of us have learned to mourn effectively. How the following children were taught may make the point clear.


Pat thought that each of her children should have a pet. "It builds responsibility," she said. She daily monitored the children's feeding, cleaning, and caring of the pets, but she never did their chores for them. One day she noticed that her daughter's goldfish was floating upside down. Quick scrutiny revealed that the fish was already dead. When her daughter came home, Pat allowed her to discover her loss. Together, they took the fish out of the bowl and put it in fresh water.


Within reason, Pat cooperated with every other suggestion her daughter made for trying to revive the pet. Finally, the little girl broke down, crying, and said, "My fish is dead," and Pat could comfort her. Not until that point would the little girl tolerate being comforted. Pat helped her daughter make a cardboard coffin, and her husband helped bury the cherished pet in the back yard. No suggestion was made about replacing the fish until it came from the little girl.


Until then Pat and her husband helped their daughter grieve over the lost goldfish. Pat used rituals of openness and acceptance to instruct her children. The day came when the little girl announced that she was ready for a new pet.


She had been healed.


Agnes instructed her children differently—with rituals of denial and defensiveness. She objected to her son, Pete, having a dog. She doubted that he would take very good care of it.


There were frequent lapses of responsibility when Agnes had to care for the pet; nevertheless, the dog seemed a healthy outlet for Pete's affections. One afternoon, the dog was hit by a car. Agnes was horrified. Frantically, she buried the remains in the back lawn and scrubbed the pavement so that the child would not see any stains when he returned from school. After checking with her husband, she dashed to the local pet store and had a new pet waiting for Pete when he came home. There was not much emotion expressed in their household, either joy or sorrow. Agnes answered Pete's questions honestly, though reluctantly. But she kept emphasizing that he had a new dog; he ought not mourn. When the boy did cry, his father made him stop.


Agnes, like many parents, did not want "to inflict suffering" on her children. "They will have to face up to that soon enough as it is." She tried to pretend that the new puppy would fill any place in Pete's emotions left empty by the death of his dog. While "it just seemed best" to Agnes, she robbed her son both of the opportunity to learn that loss can be faced openly and that his feelings were appropriate.


Denial is our first reaction to loss. Agnes unwittingly tried to make it the lasting reaction. Rather than keeping her children from knowing about irreversible loss and suffering, she conveyed to them the notion that loss, and their emotions as a reaction to loss, are taboo.


Both mothers were well-meaning. Pat respected her daughter's feelings and as a result helped the girl learn to honor the natural way of healing. But because Agnes and her husband were uncomfortable with their own emotions, Pete's expression of grief was threatening to them. Their behavior taught Pete that he ought not trust his own feelings. Healing from his loss would be difficult.

If the first thing we need to learn in order to cope with loss is to respect our emotions of mourning, a second is to learn that mourning is a developmental and life-long process.


We can expect to mourn only within the limits of our emotional capacity. When loss is encountered as a child, grieving is a feeling only. When loss is encountered as an adolescent, grieving is both a feeling and a concept. When loss is encountered as an adult, grieving is not only a feeling and a concept, but also evaluated behavior. Following is a brief description of how we develop our capacity for mourning.


Pp. 28-31. Excerted from "Living with Dying" by Glen W. Davidson. Published by Augsburg Fortress Press. Copyright 1975. Posted by permission of Augsburg Fortress, an imprint of 1517Media.

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