By: Suzanne Maiden
Grief knows no time frame. Grief takes no prisoners – grief has it’s way with you and then tramples what is left. Autumn is a bitter-sweet time of year for me. I love the change in weather, I adore the vivid, vibrant colors and last expression of life before winter claims her last breath. The juxtaposition of mother earth’s last hallelujah followed by winter’s death feels uncannily symbolic.
My brother, Rob McMillin, was killed in a commercial airline crash 14 years ago on Halloween Day. Fourteen years. How can my heart still hurt? I have three brothers and am the third born and only girl. I grew up with an abundance of testosterone running a muck in our home. I am very comfortable with male energy and having older brothers boss me around. As children, Rob especially loved to reign authority over me. In retaliation, I provoked him until he hit me, and when our father returned home – ohhh, did Rob ever suffer. Then the cycle started all over again. Our poor mother.
We were never emotionally close, in fact, we were opposite in many ways. Rob graduated as a Mechanical Engineer from Carnegie Mellon University and later earned an MBA. He was black and white, cut and dry. As a psychotherapist I see a gazillion shades of gray. My more liberal stance drove Rob crazy, and his narrow view pushed every last emotional button in me. One of our last big arguments was over abortion rights. My pro-choice position infuriated him.
Why then, can grief still grab me with such a ferocity? Because we often grieve for what was not in the relationship. When a relationship is conflicted and then one person dies, grief almost always becomes complicated. ‘Complicated Grief’ is a clinical term. Complicated grief results from several possible contributing variables such as: sudden death, loss of a child (even an adult child), or a conflicted relationship. For example, when a loved one died because of their high risk behavior/s, such as substance abuse, casual sex, or recklessness in any other way – the griever is left with a mountain of mixed emotions. If the griever had a combination of all the above, e.g., a child who engaged in high risk behaviors – which typically created conflict in the relationship – the griever will have a tremendously difficult time navigating through the rough terrain.
I have facilitated grief support groups for several years, have been a paid presenter to various groups and colleges and am published on this topic. What I know is this: Time is never an accurate measurement of where someone is in their grief progress. Time alone does not heal grief. Grief must be consciously processed. Even after emotionally working the problem, grief will periodically make an unannounced visit. Typically anniversary dates such as the loved one’s birthday, date of death, or family gatherings – even happy gatherings may trigger an emotional avalanche of intense sadness. If you or someone you know experiences acute sadness many years later, be gentle with them. Validate their feelings and reassure them that their current feelings are a predictable and normal response.
Lastly, if I could recommend only one book to a griever it would be Therese Rando, Ph.D., How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies. Click below on the direct link to Amazon for purchase. Rando is world renowned for her clinical research on bereavement. This book is the best, most succinct I have ever read on the subject. When JFK Jr.’s plane crashed several years ago the Kennedy family hired Rando to provide support. If you have questions or comments please call me at 678-884-0524.