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THE GRIEF EXPERIENCE
By Joyce Parker Ph.D.

My mother died recently and I have been experiencing the powerful emotions associated with grief. As a mental health professional , I have attempted to cope with my grief by learning more about the experience and by feeling a strong desire to share what I have learned with others. Grief is a very powerful set of emotions that can include shock, numbness, confusion, sadness, misery, anger, guilt, shame, loneliness, denial, and relief. One of my patients, who had lost her husband very suddenly, expressed how she experienced grief in this way. She said she felt as if there were a bucket inside of her chest and it kept filling with tears. When she first learned of her husband's death, the bucket filled up and spilled over almost continuously and she cried for days, only sleeping intermittently. Then the bucket began to fill up more slowly so she could function during the day and would only cry in the evening when she was alone. Throughout the first year after his death, the bucket began to fill more and more slowly, so the tears would spill over only when something reminded her of her lost husband, such as a song on the radio or a holiday that she spent without him. But she could feel the tears inside her, even when the bucket was only half full. Eventually, though, during the second year after his death, the bucket remained empty for long periods of time and she was able to resume her life without the heaviness of the filled bucket weighing her down.

What this woman was describing metaphorically, are the normal phases of mourning. There is a initial phase when an individual first learns of the death of a loved one. This phase is characterized by a certain amount of numbness and disbelief. The mind may know that the loved one is dead, but the heart can't yet accept it. There may be deep sadness and tearfulness. The person feels shocked and dazed and may experience anxiety or fears. This phase often lasts for a few weeks to several months. The second phase usually continues throughout the first year. There is a gradual acceptance of the loss and an attempt to make sense of it intellectually, religiously, spiritually. The individual may dwell on memories of the loved one and want to talk about the person to others. Sometimes a person may have to work through feeling of guilt or anger that were unresolved. Or they may experience regrets over unfinished business or unexpressed feelings of love and appreciation. Eventually, however, recovery begins and the individual feels more positive and hopeful again. There is a return to normal activities that don't include the lost loved one. Life goes on. The loved one will be remembered and missed but is no longer an integral part of the person's life. These phases are not distinct and people may move back and forth within them during the mourning period. Everyone experiences grief in a unique way, some people may take more time than others to reach the stage of recovery.

Pathological mourning can involve getting stuck in the initial or middle phases of grief . There is an inablilty to move on to resolution and resumption of normal activities. The person remains immobilized by intense feelings of sadness and loss, anxiety and fear, guilt or anger and cannot function effectively with friends, family or in the workplace. Some people repress all feelings of loss and sadness after the initial impact of the loss and do not move through any of the phases. They may appear to function normally in their lives but those closest to them will sense that they have shut down or closed off their feelings. There is a danger that another loss at some future time may set off a very intense and debilitating reaction. For these types of reactions, counseling is recommended.

When I first learned of my mother's death, I was deeply shocked and saddened. I didn't want to let her go and so I didn't allow myself to fully comprehend that she was dead. It was a great help and comfort to me to write her eulogy. I worked on it during the time I had alone with my thoughts. I wanted to capture something of the essence of my mother so she would not be lost forever. I tearfully read that eulogy at her funeral. Being able to do so helped me to acknowledge her life and her loss. I present her eulogy here for you to read because I feel that sharing it with others keeps her memory alive for me.

My Mom

Lillian was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1918. She immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was 3 years old. She grew up first in New York City and then in Newark, New Jersey. Her father owned a butcher shop and later a furniture store. She married Milton in 1942 and had two children, Joyce in 1946 and Ellis Roy in 1951. She loved to cook, to entertain, to socialize with friends, to travel, to knit and crochet, to read romance novels and to be with her family. She worked as a teacher, office manager and accountant. However, her primary interest was always her family. She was a devoted wife and mother. But this description does not tell you very much about her. To know my Mom, you would have to have heard her laugh.

My mom had a wonderful laugh. It bubbled up in her like the fizz in a bottle of soda water when you shake it up, open it and it spills over the top. Her laugh came from the depths of her generous soul. She laughed when my father teased her about saying or doing something silly. She never took offense. She laughed heartily at everyone's jokes whether they were funny or not. She loved to throw parties and invite her friends and family. You could hear her distinctive laugh above all the others. It was so contagious that she would have the whole room laughing with her. Her nephews, when they were small, would tease her about her laugh. "Cackle for us, Aunt Lillian," they would say. She would giggle good-naturedly and oblige them. When I was a teenager, my mother's laugh embarrassed me. I guess it was too spontaneous, not subdued enough for a teenager's sensibilities. I would give her a scornful look, roll my eyes and emit a sound expressive of disgust. But this behavior never daunted her, because when she wanted to laugh, she couldn't or wouldn't suppress it. After my children were born, I loved to call her on the phone to tell her about all the cute and funny things they said and did. She was always ready to laugh with a pride and joy that came directly from her loving heart.

My Mom taught me so much. She showed me how to love. She loved in many ways. She taught me how to take care of myself and how to take care of others. She loved to dress me up when I was little. She remembered all the special little outfits I wore, what the occasion was , where she bought them. When I look at old family movies, I am always wearing something brand new and beautiful, like the bright white, starched pinafore my grandmother choose for me for my fourth birthday, or the little coat with the sailor collar and the sailor beret to match I wore while feeding pigeons at the beach, and the peach colored dress with puffed sleeves and a full skirt worn with a crinoline underneath that was my favorite dress when I was an awkward, skinny twelve years old. She would look at the images on the screen and tell me about the clothes I was wearing, "I bought you that taffeta party dress in Bamberger's. Your Aunt Doris was with me and convinced me to get it. I never told your father how much money I spent on it."

My mother kept a very clean and orderly house. I was enlisted to help maintain her high standards. I scrubbed the bathtubs, shined fixtures and polished mirrors. I may have grumbled a bit (actually quite a bit) about these chores, but now, when I look at my own home, I am thankful that I know how to keep it looking beautiful. When my babies were born, my mother was there to enthusiastically help and support me. She showed me how to bath a newborn, how to comfort and console a crying infant, how to develop a routine of caring for the baby. She was a proud and doting grandmother. I am grateful she saw my daughter graduate from college and marry a wonderful man. I am grateful she saw my son turn into a fine young man and start his first year at UCLA. At my daughter's wedding this year in July, she looked into the video camera and began to cry as she congratulated the bride and groom. Then she caught herself, gave a quick laugh and said, " Look at me, I'm crying!"

When I was working on my Ph.D., my mother was my staunchest supporter. She babysat for my children when I had to study. She ran errands for me. She was my research assistant and followed me into the records room at the courthouse to patiently hand copy information that took weeks to compile. And she was there on graduation day proudly sitting in the audience watching me receive my diploma.

Sometimes my Mom would irritate me by jokingly trying to take the credit for my accomplishments. But deep in my heart, I know I wouldn't be the person I am today if she had not been there to love me and support me and encourage me. I carry my mother with me deep in my soul. She is a part of me. I hope she knew how much I appreciated everything she did for me and how much I loved her. I will miss hearing her laugh.

Lillian Steinfeld
March 18, 1918 - November 29, 1997

Dr. Parker is a psychotherapist in practice in Torrance. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

The author of this article, and founder of the Therapyinla.com website, Joyce Parker, passed away in 2011. To honor her we are keeping her articles posted at this website.

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