Grief is an emotion that everyone has experienced at some time or the other in their lives. It is not a topic that one speaks or talks about easily, because grieving is an extremely private and personal affair.
Learning to cope with a loss of a loved one is not easy because there aren’t many books to teach you how to cope with grief. Age, maturity and cultural beliefs don’t help much because grieving depends on a number of things like one’s relationship with a lost loved one, one’s personality and the support structures available.
I have counselled several patients, including children after the death of a loved one and I realised that I had to apply different approaches to each one because each one has his or her own special relationship with his/her loved ones. The worst was having to counsel a young mother and her young son, after the young mother’s husband ended his life tragically, in front of her without giving her a reason for his action. To add to her grief, her late husband’s family accused her for her husband’s death.
Death, tragic or natural, can bring out the best and the worst out of people. Anger is often one of the most common emotions expressed by families when they lose a loved one, and quite often, it is directed at the doctors or other family members for not doing enough. This, even after the doctors and family members have done everything to care for the wellbeing of the loved one.
Fortunately, people who misdirect their anger to the doctors, are few. The majority are usually quite appreciative of the efforts of their doctors and care givers. Doctors must be taught, what I have learnt the hard way, is to never take to heart, the anger of the grieving families because grief makes people so irrational that they will blurt out the ugliest things that come to their mind, which is part of the grieving process.
I recently treated a wonderful man in his thirties, who was rushed into my rooms, complaining of a chest pain, looking helpless and weak, as if he was about to have a major heart attack. The pain in his chest, fortunately, was muscular, to his relief and to the relief of his young and worried wife. The muscle pain was due to his anxiety and panic disorder.
On questioning him about what was making him so stressed, he broke down crying, uncontrollably. He told me how much he missed his mother who passed away a year ago. He was a religious leader and people expected so much from him, without them ever considering, that he, too, has issues to deal with.
When he went through tough and challenging times, he always shared it with his mom, who listened to him and gave him the advice to comfort him, like only a mother could. Now that she is gone, he felt quite alone and lost.
He did not want to burden his wife with his pain and did not enjoy a good relationship with his family to share his intimate pain with them. He felt quite alone and felt that he did not give enough time to grieve over the loss of his mother. What I realised he meant, was that he hadn’t spoken to anyone openly about the pain of his loss and what that loss had meant to him.
We chatted and l gave him the time to compose himself and to share with me his deep seated pain and the disappointments in his life. As time went by, I managed to help him to see the need to come to terms with his loss and to accept the reality of the situation. To accept the loss of a loved one is essential, especially, if one is the head of a household with young children.
To accept a loss does not mean that one does not care or that one has forgotten about a loved one. One accepts the loss of a loved one in order to keep the focus on the living, who depend on you. We cannot wish for loved ones who are taken away from us to return to us, so pining for their return will either makes us severely depressed or insane. Not everyone can come to terms with his/her loss on their own, so it is essential for them to seek professional help instead of brooding and being miserable and allowing their grief to destroy them slowly.
We rarely ever forget the loss of our near and dear ones because the sweet and wonderful moments and years that we have shared with them will always be stored in the treasure box of memories in our minds, to be recalled whenever we sit back and reflect about our times with them.
There is no time limit or rule to tell us as to how one should grieve and for how long. We each have our own ways of dealing with our grief, but we must not allow our grief to consume us to the extent that it destroys us. I am sure that those that we grieve over would not be pleased to learn that their death is cause of so much misery to those that they have left behind. If anything, they would, if they could, like to know that their loved ones are doing well and moving on with their lives.
If anyone reading this piece is struggling to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, I would urge you to seek the help of a professional or join a support group but don’t allow yourself to go down, suffering with severe depression and wilt away slowly, as if you have nothing to live for. Speak about your grief instead of drinking or drugging yourself out of it. There is help out there and don’t be shy to seek it. Seeking help, on an issue as sensitive as coping with grief, is certainly not a sign of weakness but a sign of being sensible and responsible.
Ellapen Rapiti is a family physician working in Mitchells Plain for over 36 years. He is also the author of a book called, ‘4 Steps to healing’, a self help book on addiction for users and their families as well a motivational speaker.