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August 2016

BEYOND GRIEF INTO HEALING: A PERSONAL JOURNEY

by Sandy Plone, Ph.D.

Praise and blame,
gain and loss,
pleasure and sorrow,
come and go like the wind.
To be happy, rest like a great tree
in the midst of them all.

~ from Buddha's Little Instruction Book

May I be at peace
May my heart remain open
May I know the beauty of my own true nature
May I be healed and
May I be a source of healing in this world.
~ Tibetan Blessing

These are the meditations that I read every day after my beloved husband died. They gave me strength and became the idealized states of mind that I wished to embody. No organized religious or spiritual center had been able to give me the solace I needed after losing my best friend and husband of 35 years.

I quickly learned that anticipatory grief does not work. He did not have great heredity, diet, nor hopes for longevity, and had a severe heart attack some years before. My spiritual beliefs, creative prayers, beloved large family, and my work as a therapist had felt like a protective bubble to prepare me for an inevitable life alone...someday.

When someday came, I was grateful for the 30 years grace we had received. We had moved from a symbiotic never-ending honeymoon into more separate lives, with grown-up children, healthy and beautiful grandchildren, several dogs loved and lost, shared humor, a home we built together, and a great deal of gratitude. When I returned to school to become a licensed psychologist, his generosity trumped his wish to keep me close, his hope that we would return to our former entwined state set aside as we celebrated each graduation with a big party.

My dissertation was dedicated to him:" .... whose patience, humor, generosity and special ability to love has made my growth and this project possible." Later, his own book was dedicated to me:"... A perfect partner for every occasion." We were lucky and we knew it.

Then our luck ran out.

After a year of "magical thinking," as Joan Didion so eloquently wrote, a year of going through the pain of firsts- birthdays, anniversaries, summer, autumn leaves, holidays, etc., I began to experience physical symptoms, forcing me to acknowledge that I could benefit from more psychotherapy to help me through the aftermath of such a painful loss. I was fortunate to find the perfect analyst/therapist. With his help, I processed the pain of my adjustment, of expectations followed by disappointments. My healing finally began to solidify.

We had been working together for a year and I was about to cut back my sessions when my therapist was forced into retirement by his own aging issues. Then my grief really exploded. Once again, I had no control over my connection with a unique and very special man in my life.

The loss of a partner has been cited as one of life's most catastrophic losses. In fact, we often see people who deny themselves years of closeness or happiness in order to avoid the deep pain of grief and mourning. Mental health professionals understand the need to process, mourn and ultimately adapt to loss, whether it be material, aging, or significant relationships.

Widows and widowers easily recognize one another; it's in our eyes before the words confirm the facts. But American culture offers little support for the emotionality of deep grief. Some religions allow only one year of grieving, then one is expected to move on with life. Our culture seems to reward denial, repression, bravery, and concealing emotional outbursts. Without adequate rituals or support, it is difficult for grief to find its expressions, and for mourners to eventually find joy and meaning in life.

Well-meaning others ask, "How are you doing?" but they may not want to hear the true answer; the bereaved learn rote responses. We hide, or put it in our bodies, or develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. If it goes on too long, we call it disparaging names - complicated bereavement - ugh! No one wants to be accused of that!

Time does heal. For me, at last, enough time has passed that I can reflect. I wanted to know about the experience of others, so I sent a brief, unscientific questionnaire to some friends and family who had lost a partner. Their responses were both varied and individual. While most cited gratitude for what was good in their lives, many just spoke about acceptance: "You move on, it begins to change."

Several acknowledged that if friends and family stayed in contact it was easier. This was true for me, also. When my calendar had too many empty spaces, it might have meant more of what I called "grief attacks" and feelings of abandonment. One wise friend said, "Grief rewrites your address book." I allowed myself to cry however much or long I needed to, firmly believing it was far healthier than putting it in my body. My belief in mind/body connections dictated this choice.

I didn't avoid triggers to my grief, although it did feel like I had PTSD at times. I read all the cards, went through our pictures, handled his clothes myself, making decisions as I felt him with me, undoubtedly approving of my choices.

I did my Grief Work, and it is because of that, I believe, so much healing has occurred. The fact that ten years later, I finally am able to write about my loss is testament in my opinion, of the value of honoring the grief process, and allowing it to be. "Putting it in the past is not the answer," are timely words I recall from another friend.

The experience has made and continues to make many of us stronger. We are told that we are models for others of how to deal with a tragic loss. Friends tell me that they feel more prepared for future losses by having observed my willingness to feel it all and express it when appropriate. I also have gained greater wisdom and understanding of the barriers to successful bereavement, enabling me to bear witness to others' pain and assist them during this excruciatingly difficult time.

And now I have written about it.
Big Step.
Sandy Plone, Ph.D.

____________________________________

Dr. Sandy Plone is a psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles. She can be reached at
(310) 979-7473 for a confidential consultation, or by e-mail at dr.splone1@verizon.net

Copyright 2016 by Dr. Sandy Plone

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