Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Commonest Emotion - Grief (Part 1 of 2)

It’s a very sad and real fact of life that we all grieve. The Victorian bushfire tragedy of February 2009 showcased (if that’s the right word?) a community in grief, and an entire nation sympathising. Sadness, as a base emotion in grief, is said to be one of five core emotions. The others are happiness, fear, anger and disgust (though surprise, guilt and shame could also rate a mention).[1]

Grief can be defined as “feelings of desolation and loneliness, accompanied by painful memories, that follow loss, disaster, or misfortune.”[2] Another source says, “Grief is a sharp, deep, and relatively long-lasting emotion of great sorrow, often associated with a loss.”[3]

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross designed her stage theory around approaches to death, but the same characteristics seem to apply for all grief, with the common outcome of loss being the determining stimuli or activator of grief.

The five stages are, of course, quite well known. We first deny what’s happened before we get angry when the news suddenly hits home hard. Then, a little while afterwards when the anger subsides, we want to move back into a form of denial for a little while called bargaining (especially with God!). When this doesn’t work we’re inclined to get depressed. (Notice the seesaw effect as we vacillate between non-truth and truth again and again?) Finally, once we resolve our depression, we do actually accept the finality of the loss. It’s a hard but necessary adaptive process to make; common to all.

To illustrate how common the emotion of grief is, think of the last time you got some significantly bad news. Chances are you grieved--even slightly. For most people, bad news on the minor to medium scale comes relatively often, probably at least monthly. This is why we can (or should) expect people to be at least a little angry when they lose something. (Sound like “conflict”?) It’s a natural, normal response.

Pity the poor person who experiences his or her first major loss as a very mature, even middle-aged or elderly person. This is the reason why it’s good for children to have pets so that when they die they can move through the process of grief, learning a valuable life lesson when it’s the best (and least harsh) period to learn. Grief then doesn’t seem so raw and shrill when we’re introduced to it early and with a loving parent or mentor to guide us.

We must learn how to grieve appropriately and we must teach it to our children; in fact, we must promote it everywhere.

For if we can get grieving right we have a far better chance of resolving problematic issues in life without becoming, or worse staying, bitter.

Copyright © 2009, S. J. Wickham. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

Post Script: I recall one rather ironically weird but nonetheless sharp experience on the topic of grieving. When my eldest daughter was eleven she lost her love birds, which were attacked by a larger bird whilst in their large cage. We buried them in the back garden the previous day, a Sunday, and had given them a ‘decent funeral service.’ On the Monday night, she and I were discussing it, and sensing a teaching opportunity, I got out a text book and described the Kübler-Ross theory. I then put her to bed, and then my then wife promptly told me our marriage was over--SMACK, the process of several months grieving was born! Unfortunately for me, it was my first real taste of major grief; but there began a very positive journey of relying on God--becoming better, not bitter.
[1] Robert J. Sternberg, In Search of the Human Mind, 2nd Ed. (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998), p. 542.
[2] Karen Huffman, Mark Vernoy & Judith Vernoy, Psychology in Action, 5th Ed. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2000), p. 351-53.
[3] Sternberg, Ibid, p. 543.

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