Why store up your sorrow? Have a good cry and get it over with. That’s sound advice when you read what can happen when you keep a stiff upper lip
SUPPOSE your child, your mother, or your best friend died tomorrow. What would it do to you? How should you behave? Should you let the tears flow, or determine to “put a brave face on things”?
You can never tell how you will act until the calamity strikes. But grief touches every life some time and it’s a good idea to think about it calmly in advance.
Grief can cause great changes, both physical and mental. One man will complain of waves of physical distress, another sighs continually, another has a hollow feeling in the stomach, choking, difficulty in breathing. There may be loss of muscular power, an upset in the stomach, food may taste like sand.
There may be a feeling of unreality, an aversion to one’s best friends, a feeling of guilt toward the dead, a continual preoccupation with the past, anger against oneself, aimless thought or actions, a tendency to immoderately long sleep, or insomnia. Some people neglect their appearance, others become unduly finicky. These are all symptoms of a universal and inescapable emotion: grief.
Here are the true stories of two women widowed by war. They show dramatically the two extremes of grief reaction.
In September, 1917, a young woman in Chelsea; England, counted the long days until her soldier-
fiance would come home on his first long leave. That leave was to be their honeymoon. Six days before the wedding date the official notification came—he had been killed in action.
The girl donned heavy mourning and to this day has never put it off. She is a familiar, pathetic figure on Chelsea streets—dressed in black, her face whitely powdered, her whole behavior testifying to her wrecked hopes.
Twenty-seven years later, in Western Canada, a young wife suffered the same kind of loss. Her husband of two months died of wounds in an English hospital. She received the news a day and a half before an important social affair at which she was to be the hostess.
But she went through with it, and those who
had not been told of her loss would never have guessed it from her attitude. No doubt she did her grieving in private, but in public she met the world with no apparent change in her life.
Which attitude was the healthier? Why, in one case, did grief mean a complete renunciation of life, and, in the other, a strong display of courage? Between these two extreme attitudes lies the great forest of bewilderment in which most grief-stricken people are trapped at some time or another.
Grief has been called the “unpredictable emotion.” Consider these two Toronto men whose wives died during the war.
One, a traveling salesman in his late 50’s, survived his wife by only five weeks. He literally died of grief. Continued on page 31
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The other, a 65-year-old elevator operator, appeared to be unshaken by his loss, except for one thing: he
started doodling about a month after her death, though he had never done that before. He acquired what psychologists call a “compulsion.” He drew weird scribbles, meaningless diagrams on telephone books, on the walls of his elevator, on menus—everywhere.
Psychologists and churchmen differ about the correct approach when grief strikes. They do agree however on one important fact: that grief has a
function. It might be defined as the strong emotion you feel following the shock of a loss that seems irreparable. It fills in the dazed gap, giving you time to think, to get your bearings.
It is a painful period and that pain is a valuable spur to us to readjust ourselves to the changed circumstances. If it were not for the unpleasantness of grief many of us would succumb to inactivity.
The funeral service is a traditional ritual to help us over the first shock of insupportable loss. Since the first step in overcoming grief is to free ourselves from the tie to something that is no longer living, the burial service emphasizes the returning of the body to earth; that gives a sense of finality in the last glimpse of the loved
Many students of social habits maintain that our Western ideas of grief are all wrong, that we do ourselves actual harm by overreticence when both mind and body call for an outpouring of emotion.
Joshua Loth Liebman, author of “Peace of Mind,” has a lot to say about the burial service. He, and psychologists too, say that the outspoken emotionalism of the Jewish funeral is healthy. Grief expressed in bitter tears and lamentation is unlikely to return at a later date to harass and disturb the mind, whereas the traditional Western shame about emotionalism leads to unwise repression and emotional evasion.
But uncontrollable grief can also be harmful. Unless readjustment to the new situation is completed within a reasonable time—say, five weeks— what was true grief can easily become morbid depression.
The Danger of Depression
There’s no doubt that funerals are necessary rituals for many people. They are occasions for that final tribute to a departed friend, from which point life should go on for the living. Without a funeral there is often a feeling of incompleteness and frustration.
Army psychiatrists found this out. During the war they learned that unit morale was maintained by holding ceremonial military funeral services to help the living express the natural grief they felt for comrades killed in action. This symbolic grief is patterned in civilian life by the wearing of crepe arm bands and black ties.
The funeral’s main object is to give the bereaved his right to grief, and well-meaning friends who try to distract his mind from that poignant moment are doing him a disservice. It cannot be too often said that grief unexpressed ultimately returns to have its vengeance in the form of mental and physical illness.
Harvard psychiatrist Erich Lindemann has done pioneer clinical work on grief. He found that some of his patients developed severe disorders years after the loss of a loved one
without realizing the connection between the bereavement and the illness. When the patient could be persuaded to re-enact that time of bereavement, and express the sorrow he should have expressed at the time of death, a genuine release was the result.
A 45-year-old bachelor cared for his mother until her death ; they were very close. The funeral arrangements were so complicated, and her estate so involved, that he literally had no time for grieving.
Years later his friends found him more and more difficult to get along with; he had fits of rage and moroseness. It was finally brought home to him that his condition was directly due to the unexpressed grief stored up since his mother’s death. He saw then that his grief had become morbid and was able to overcome it.
When grief does become morbid it can turn to a dangerous hysteria. An outstanding example of this occurred in the U. S. after World War II when Congress decided to bring home for reburial all Americans killed in action.
Harrowing scenes at docks and cemeteries (see picture on page 19) marked a flood of hysterical grief that should have long since been spent.
According to Dr. J. D. M. Griffin, Toronto psychiatrist, this was a sign of emotional immaturity, both extravagant and dangerous, since there was the grave risk of a fresh grief pattern being started which might have damaging effects.
Tell Children the Truth
Although it’s impossible to lay down hard-and-fast rules, it’s safe to say that grief should be neither repressed nor extravagant. This story of a young Ontario couple provides a satisfying in-between example.
Their child was two and a half when he was killed in a street accident. It was a violent cause of grief, a sudden shock, but yet its effects were not disastrous. The mother transferred her relationship with her baby son into work with other children in a nursery school. Three years after that they adopted a baby girl, and a year or so later she proudly bore her husband
Grief is not always founded on death. A 31-year-old woman, of a type “just born to be an old maid,” met a slightly younger man and started going steady with him. He courted her for 18 months, then his office transferred him to the east coast. They still corresponded almost daily, and he traveled to Ontario twice a month to see her.
This odd courtship went on for nearly two years until she discovered he had married another girl.
This was not ordinary jilting because she had convinced herself that this was her last chance at marriage; for her there was no recovery.
Her grief was so great that she lost all interest in her job, her family, even her appearance, and from being a fairly well-paid secretary she became, eventually, a waitress in a cheap café.
The doctor who tells this story says the woman might not have been so affected if she had married her fiance and then lost him by death. Then there would have been no humiliation added to her grief.
Aiming too high sometimes brings grief in its train. There was a small businessman in British Columbia who, by faulty judgment, acquired a piece of adjoining property at the wrong time and was not only unable to make his expanded business succeed but lost his original business as well. This completely ruined his life.
He spent long hours brooding by his
living-room window, and at times in the day or night he would be found
racked with sobs.
Sometimes a person will openly grieve to divert the attention of others from one or more of his failures; or grieve excessively so that observers might think he was an extraordinarily sensitive person. But if grief, from any cause, so takes control that the sufferer is incapacitated it is as much a disease as cancer.
In 1940 one of England’s most brilliant women, novelist Virginia Woolf, committed suicide. Her husband said she had been grieving about the state of the world and had found it insupportable.
When grief does strike your family do not exclude the children from the circle of sorrow. They are far more perceptive than is often realized and are likely to suffer if pushed into the background.
Explain the death in terms the child can understand, but never lie. One mother told her four-year-old daughter
that her little sister was “asleep.” For years afterward the little girl was afraid to go to bed at night for she knew perfectly well her sister was dead and feared that sleep meant death.
Should small children, say from two to 10, attend the funeral services? Psychologists say no. It is an adult ceremony, and if there is the slightest risk that the child will misunderstand the ritual, leave him at home and tell him about it in clear terms after it is all over.
We are all familiar from romantic novels with the room in a distant wing which is locked up “just as it was when mother died.” But what about the problem of keeping the physical objects of the dead—the clothes, furniture, jewelry?
Rev. James R. Finlay, of Toronto’s Carlton Street United Church, says people often ask him this question: What shall I do with my wife’s clothes? Would it be disrespectful to throw them out?
His answer is: What would your
wife have done with her old clothes? Give them to charity; there are people who will be glad of them. Do not cling to things that were no real part of the loved one.
Some final advice to the friends of the grief-stricken: Be sensibly sym-
pathetic, but do not deny to the bereaved the chance to talk about his loss. Encourage him to talk about the virtues of the dead, to recall those characteristics which will live on in his memory. Do not try to help him avoid his keen loss, but draw him out as a
Some people can do it differently. In Vancouver last summer a middleaged woman lost her husband. A friendly neighbor came across that day and, with hardly a word, did the housework, made lunch for the two boys, and left just as quietly.
Later on the widow said to her, “That was such a help to me. I needed a whole day with nothing to do but think about him. I got it out of my system.” ★
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