Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is something I advise all of my clients to do, especially when it comes to career options, and while I know I do well with mood disorders and career transitions (yes, it’s a weird combination, but here we are) I’m not the most experienced practitioner when it comes to grief. Most of my clients have been on the young side, and, fortunately, grief and loss just isn’t usually as prominent with that population. Of course, as most Westfield residents know, students at Westfield High School recently lost one of their own. Sadly, yes, young people do experience loss too, and it’s always hard, but it’s especially tragic when they lose a peer. I do know of a couple of good local resources that might be helpful for people in the community seeking assistance.
Places & People That Can Help
Imagine is a nonprofit organization that provides group support for children and their parents/caregivers through groups. Their website also has a lot of good information about grief and loss as well as other resources that might be helpful.
Grief Speaks is a practice run by Lisa Athan. Lisa offers individual grief counseling as well as programs for schools and organizations. She is a lovely, sweet, compassionate person, and specializes in grief and loss. I interviewed Lisa when I first started my practice. You can listen to the interview here to learn more about her. (Apologies for me having the microphone way too close to my mouth and sounding like the Sith Lord.)
YFCS is based in Westfield, NJ (right across the street from our beloved Trader Joe’s.) They accept almost every insurance plan under the sun, and offer sliding scale services for those without insurance. They also have practitioners that treat all ages.
While an online forum may not be the answer for everyone, if you prefer the anonymity and are not dealing with life threatening symptoms, this could be a great way to start getting some support. They have groups dedicated to just about everything, and Psych Central has been around, basically forever. The site also includes a ton of informational articles on psychological conditions including grief and grieving.
Grief is Painful and Normal, But there isn’t One Way to Grieve
Everyone grieves after a loss, and people do not always grieve in the same way. Some people cry a lot wherever they go while others are less expressive, or not expressive at all. The most important thing to do, especially when you’re in a situation where a loss has affected a large community, is to respect that everyone has a process of their own, and not to outwardly judge them for that process. Don’t assume that if a friend of yours isn’t crying and hasn’t missed a day of work or school means that s/he doesn’t care or is less affected than you. Some people prefer to retreat from the world for a few days to cry alone and emerge feeling better. Other people find it more therapeutic to see the belief that life goes on by validating it in a concrete way: as in continuing their normal activities. Also, for some, isolation is just overwhelming. It can be helpful to be at work or school where a familiar support system is readily available. Honor your own process and needs, and honor the differences we have.
What’s Up with That DABDA Thing?
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss psychiatrist, studied patients who were terminally ill and summarized her findings in the classic text On Death and Dying. Interestingly, her research subjects were the patients. I’m sure she talked to a few family members, but she actually was dealing with the more direct experience of a person grieving the impending loss of their own life. Quite a profound thing, right? The part of that book most people talk about is the Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. In psychology and psychiatry, a typical stage model implies that you pass through the stages in the proposed order and once you have “completed the task” of one stage, you don’t revisit it. According to Ross’s later revisions to On Death and Dying, she indicated that may not necessarily be so with grief. People sometimes may exhibit participation in any one of the stages only to cycle back or forward, and that doesn’t mean anything is wrong. It’s just a personal process, but the names of the stages still describe categories of experiences people have as part of grief, and I agree with that.
Denial is a common first stage. The reality of death and dying often seems like too much to take in, and people often look for ways to prove that it must have been someone else. (Or in the case of a terminal illness, the diagnosis must be wrong.)
Anger probably doesn’t require much explanation. This is an individual experience, but generally, we want to look for someone to blame. This might even include the person who died–she should have been more careful, etc. It’s important to remember that having these thoughts and feelings doesn’t make you a bad person. They are normal, and it’s okay. Just be mindful of who you explicitly share them with because if you’re surrounded by other people who are in a sensitive place, you could end up saying something you’ll regret later. This is one stage where journaling can definitely be your best friend. Be mindful of what you’re feeling and know that it will pass, and that it is okay to feel angry.
Bargaining is often a major component of “magical thinking” that accompanies major losses. This often includes the belief that “if only things had been different” or if only someone had done something different, it would have prevented the loss. It might include thinking that if someone had died instead, this wouldn’t have happened. Whatever it may be, bargaining is definitely a phase that can make you feel like you’re going crazy. It happens to everyone after a major loss. Death is a big scary thing, and psychically, it’s just to big for most of us to handle. It’s a huge unknown and we have no control over it. This phase is just another way our mind tries to get a handle on it and break it down into something rational when rationality just won’t change anything. Let your brain do what it needs to do. Take a few deep breaths. Journal if you need to. Talk to someone who understands.
Depression is yet another one of those phases that doesn’t require much explanation. At this point, the loss is real and you know there’s nothing you can do, and it’s awful. That’s depressing. We’re all conditioned to look at depression as this scary, awful thing that nobody should ever experience. It’s actually part of our psychological makeup for a reason. Sometimes, we need to withdraw inward and contemplate our existential crises. It’s a way we can integrate the new understanding we have of our world into our reality and experiences. It is okay to be depressed for a little while. It becomes problematic if you get “stuck” in depression for too long. A good guideline is if you have been depressed for more days than not for a period of two weeks continuously, it’s worth seeking professional help for an evaluation. Clinical depression symptoms vary from person to person, but can include loss of appetite, or dramatic increase in appetite; drastic changes in sleep patterns (usually oversleeping), preoccupation with death, pessimism/anger, difficulty concentrating, and loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed. It is very treatable, in most cases, and as I mentioned before, to be depressed for a period following the death of someone you know is normal.
Acceptance is understanding that the person is gone and finding a way to integrate this into your life in a way that enables you to continue with your daily activities. Memories and anniversaries still may make you feel teary, but the loss doesn’t dominate your thoughts and feelings the way it did previously.
I hope this is helpful to anyone who needs it. If you have suggestions of other resources in the area, please leave them in the comments.