Friday, July 27, 2007

Grieving the loss of fictional characters




I read, with interest, the article published in the July 12th edition of USA Today.  It was titled, “Fans’ teary eyes are all on ‘Potter’ – Saying goodbye to characters and series, can cause some real-life grief.”  The much anticipated arrival of the final book is here.  However, by the time I post this article, some of the more ambitious readers will know which characters were sacrificed for literary glory.


Too well I remember the sadness I felt when I read Charlotte’s Web as a child and learned of Charlotte’s demise.  When we grow up, we seem to be protected, to some degree, of life’s lessons, such as sickness and death.  Charlotte’s Web was the most memorable demise of a character to me.  Of course, there IS Bambi!  Today, the ongoing debate continues as to whether this film is appropriate for children to watch because of Bambi’s mother’s horrific death.  And then there are the HUNTERS!  Oh no! 


As I got older, I got sucked into the Clan of the Cave Bear Series (please don’t judge me) and still to this day hope that Jean Auel will produce one more tome to satisfy my curiosity about what happens to Ayla, Jondular and their baby.  Does she meet her son?  Us Enquiring Minds need to know!  And howmany romance novel readers are out there?  Who hasn’t got sucked into a Nora Roberts series and felt the sad disappointment of not being able to continue reading about these lives that we became emotionally invested in? 


So if we adults are prone to this kind of sadness when a series ends, or a fictional character dies, than how are the children supposed to handle these emotions?  I don’t think avoidance is the answer.  These books and movies provide great teachable moments to our children about the different things life has to offer – the good AND the bad.  I always like to talk about the movie with the younger ones, in the car, on the drive home.  I ask TONS of questions – “What was your favorite part?” “What was your least favorite and why?” “What did you learn from the movie, if anything?”  If you, as the adult, know there was an important message and the children aren’t getting it – they can be gently prodded in that direction by your questions.  If the topic of death, dying or other unpleasant topics come up, you can answer them appropriately using the movie they have just seen as a guideline. 


The USA Today article stated that “no one has the right to scorn someone else’s grief, even if it’s for a fictional character . . .” They went on to describe the emotional outpouring of global grief when Princess Diana had died and further stated, “It’s not any more of a pretend emotion to mourn a fictional character than to mourn a princess you never met who subject you were not.”  With that in mind, you  may be better equipped to know what kind of help and emotional support to offer to your child when their favorite fictional character meets with an untimely death.


Until next week, please be gentle with yourself.



Friday, July 13, 2007

Dealing with death and loss as we grow older





I would like to start first with the definitions of Grief and Loss:


Grief – The normal process of reacting to a loss.  The loss may be physical (such as a death), social (such as a divorce), or occupational (such as a job).


Loss – The disappearance of something cherished, such as a person, possession or property.


Now, I would like to explore the typical symptoms of grief.  I don’t want to make you go to the beginning of my blogs, so we’ll just go over some of the basics.  Grief can affect our behavior, thoughts, emotions and bodies.  Often there are more than one symptom experienced in each category and often there are symptoms experienced in all categories at the same time.  Some symptoms that we can experience, especially as an older person:


Behavioral:  Sleeplessness, loss of appetite, crying, nightmares, sighing, listlessness, absent mindedness, social withdrawal and extreme quietness.


Cognitive:  Inability to concentrate, difficulty making a decision, self-destructive thoughts, low self-image, preoccupation, confusion and disbelief.


Emotional:  Anger, guilt, sadness, depression, helplessness, fear, loneliness and anxiety.


Physical:  Headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, increased illness, empty feeling in body, tightness in chest, muscle weakness and stomachaches.


Next, let’s look at the types of losses we can experience in our lives as we grow older.


Death:  As we grow older, the deaths of loved ones become inevitable.  Often death can occur in the natural order of things, such as a pet may die or a parent may die, but many times death does not follow the natural order of things and we may experience the death of a spouse, a sibling or a friend.


Independence:  As life changes around us, we may find that we have to make decisions that will alter our ability to stay living in an independent nature.  Our families may take on the role of decision maker in regard to our finances, healthcare and environmental living conditions. 


Health:  It’s a fact of life that as we grow older, our health may deteriorate as well.  We may begin to have achy joints, arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.  We may find that as a result of these health changes we are no longer able to perform at the level we used to.


Energy:  Often our energy levels are not as high as they were in our younger days.  We find we often have to take breaks to catch our breath, or rest due to fatigue.  We might also find that we can not stay active for as long as we were able to before.


Appearance:  I know, this is vain – but it’s a human fact of life that most of us are in a constant battle against wrinkles and graying, thinning hair.  As the signs of aging become physically evident, we find ourselves struggling to accept the fact that we have no control over this aging business.


Home:  When we can no longer stay in our home due to failing health, or perhaps due to the death of a spouse and finances no longer enable us to stay in the home, we are forced to sell our home and move.  The move may be to a smaller condo or apartment, or even a step-facility where we have to downsize considerably and leave a place that holds so many memories. 


Finances:  There are times when our failing health costs us tremendous amounts of money in doctors’ visits, medications or perhaps surgeries.  We may not have the same medical insurance we used to and have exorbitant out of pocket expenses.  Perhaps our financial planning wasn’t up to snuff and we find our retirement funds dwindling due to high cost of living and other unexpected expenses.  Or we may find ourselves in a stressful financial situation due to the death of a spouse who was the main bread-winner in the family. 


Spiritual:  When we experience losses of any kind, we may find ourselves experiencing a spiritual crisis.  That loss of faith that we used to rely on – believe in, can leave us in a very lonely place.


Retirement:  Many individuals have a very hard time in retirement.  Traditionally, it is looked upon with anticipation and enjoyment, waiting for the day to finally come when we can realize all of our dreams and plans.  We often plan to occupy our time with all the hobbies that we wanted to do and never found the time while employed, or plan extensive travel plans with our spouses to enjoy some quality time now that there are no familial or career pressures.  However, the reality is that we may find a lot of time on our hands and we may not know how to fill it and find ourselves questioning our self-worth and productivity.  This is a time where statistics show that depression can be high and relationships can become quite stressed.


What happened to those symptoms of grief that we were talking about?  I didn’t forget – I would like you to reflect on these types of losses I just described and imagine how you would feel, or think about how you have felt, when experiencing these losses.  Write down the words that come to mind when you think about the deaths in your life, your independence, health, your energy levels, appearance, your home, finances, spirituality and your retirement, if applicable.  For me, I think of fear, anxiety, sadness, frustration, anger, depression and doubt.  Take this list of words and go back to the symptoms of grief – notice anything?  You don’t have to experience a loss just through death to experience some of these symptoms of grief.  It is described as “as we grow older, we experience little losses or ‘little deaths.’”  Before I go on about this new concept of “little deaths” let’s take a look a look at the types of death we could experience. 


Parental:  This would follow in the natural order of things, but can still be experienced as a painful loss, particularly if we had a close relationship with our parent.  Also, if we were the primary caregiver for our parent, we may feel the loss more acutely because they were such a big part of our everyday living.


Spousal:  Again, this loss may be felt more acutely if we had a close relationship with our spouse.  Some spouses do everything together and the loss of our spouse leaves us alone and without social support. 


Child:  This is a loss that definitely does not follow in the natural order of things.  This is one of the most painful losses a person can endure. 


Family Member:  This too, can be a loss that does not follow the natural order of things.  This could be a sibling, in-law, cousin, niece and nephew, etc.


Pet:  Although this may be a loss that follows in the natural order of things, just by the nature that we typically outlive our pets, it still can be experienced as a very painful loss.  Particularly if the pet was treated like a child, or if the pet was the sole companion for a person. 


Friend:  The loss of a friend can be very painful.  Particularly if this was our best friend, our only social support or our confidante.  The uncomfortable aspect of losing one of our friends is that it tends to make us face our own mortality. 


The complication we can find ourselves in is when we experience these “little deaths” and then we also experience one of these other types of death.  When someone experiences back to back losses, or has not resolved a loss issue before another one comes along, we can experience complicated grief or mourning.  Symptoms of complicated grief are:  chronic symptoms of grief, exaggerated symptoms of grief, delayed symptoms of grief and masked symptoms of grief.  If you’re not sure if you have complicated grief, you can ask yourself a few questions.


  1. How long have you been feeling the effects of grief?
  2. Are your grief reactions interfering with your activities of daily living?
  3. Did your grief reactions surface after some time has passed since your loss?
  4. Are you experiencing symptoms that you think are NOT related to your loss?


There are other bereavement issues we can face besides complicated grief.  Such as, when we are forced to face our own mortality.  This can be particularly bothersome as we grow older and more friends die.  Often, people find themselves with no friends and no social supports and then begin to wonder why they are still here and what are they supposed to do now.  Facing our own mortality can lead to fear, anxiety and depression. 


As we grow older we also start to question our productivity and generativity.  This simply means that we are not sure how productive we can be anymore and wonder what we could possibly contribute to society.  This line of thinking can lead us to devalue ourselves or fear that society devalues us as well.  We can have low self-esteem, low self-image and this too can lead to anxiety, depression and we may find ourselves withdrawing from the world around us.


Part of devaluation is the thought that we are not valued by the people in our lives.  We feel that we are burdens to our family and as we begin to lose our independence and family takes over more of the decision making for us, we begin “learned helplessness.”  It’s almost as if the fight has left us and we don’t want to cause any more hassles or be any more of a burden than we already are, so we just clam up and go with the flow – whether it’s what we want or not.


Finally, when we start to experience these “little deaths”, actual death, complicated grief and other bereavement issues, these can all lead to “bereavement overload.”  Unless, we can find some good coping strategies, we may go down a dangerous path of depression, decreased health and social isolation.


A good perspective on coping strategies is to think of them as prevention for avoiding bereavement overload.  Firstly, focus on your health.  Are you taking good care of yourself?  Pay attention to your nutrition and exercise (within your capabilities, of course).  Keep regular visits with your doctor, take your prescribed medications, keep track of your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels.  Maintain a sense of self.  You have value and you have a lot to contribute to your family, to society and to the world.  You have an important role as an older person.  You have younger generations looking up to you as a role model, as a story teller, as the person to hand down family and cultural information to continue the family legacy. What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of characteristics or ideals would you like to promote?  How do you want to be remembered?  What kind of meaning do you want from your life?  What kind of footprints will you leave behind?  The more active you become physically and mentally, the more you will be able to maintain your independence.  If you have any regrets, now is the time to change things, to make amends.


If you would like more resources, I hope you find the following links helpful:  (1-888-687-2277), 601 E. Street NW, Washington, DC 20049


Remember – “. . . But the greatest of human possibilities remain to the very end of life. . .” By Robert Butler.



Until next week, please be gentle with yourself.




P.S.  If you have found this posting or previous postings helpful, please consider making a donation to The Bereavement Center.  We are a non-profit organization that serves the community, and we operate solely on donations from families, clients and the community.  As always, your donation will be greatly appreciated and acknowledged.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Suicide Survivors


“If he loved me as much as he said he did, why did he kill himself?  Why would he do this to me?”


 “I know my dad was sick, but how can someone be so sick that they don’t care about their kids anymore?  Didn’t he know how sad I would be?”


“They said it was suicide, but I think it might have been an accident.  My sister would never have killed herself on purpose.”


“He knew I was on my way to his house.  It’s as if he purposely killed himself at that moment so that I would be the one to find him.  Why would a father do that to his son?”


“I came home from school and found her dead on the couch.  I got scared and called my dad, but we couldn’t save her.  They said she took too many pills.  I don’t understand that.”


“We never fight.  But we did that night.  Those angry words were the last words I said to him and now he killed himself.  How do I live with that?”



These are all people that have one thing in common – they are Suicide Survivors.  A Suicide Survivor is not someone who tried to complete suicide and survived.  They are the loved ones left behind to grieve the loss of someone who has completed suicide. 


Whenever someone loses a loved one, it is extremely painful, but there seems to be some losses that are a bit more complicated than others.  Losing a child is one example, losing a loved one to suicide is another example.  Why should losing a loved one to suicide be more complicated?  Because of all the questions that have no answers, the guilt, the anger and the blame.  Not only is a suicide survivor dealing with typical grief issues, but they have all this other stuff going on as well. 


When we counsel someone who is going through the grief process we advocate the use of support systems to help talk about the loved one and cry about the loved one.  In most cases, this can be a difficult task because the griever does not want to burden their family or friends.  For a suicide survivor this task is even more difficult because it can be difficult talking about the suicide.  Perhaps they fear that they will be judged, or their loved one will be judged.  Also, the details of the death may be difficult to talk about.  People often share how their loved one died, but in the case of suicide, these details can make people quite uncomfortable and the suicide survivor picks up on these subtle cues and learns to keep these details to themselves. 


When you take away these support systems from grievers, there is no way for them to movethrough the grief process and everythingstays bottled up inside.  This can lead to a prolonged grief process, physical and emotional reactions.  This is where a grief counselor can be most effective.  The suicide survivor needs to talk about their loved one and the details of the loved one’s death.  I try to provide an environment where they feel safe, where they feel they can say anything they want and they won’t be stopped or judged.  Many times, that is all they need, just to be able to say all their thoughts and feelings OUT LOUD.  I also try to provide an educational setting where the suicide survivor can eventually accept that their loved one’s death was not the survivor’s fault, but a choice made by their loved one.  I wish there were one case that I could share, but the nature of the suicide survivor is that they often maintain a relationship with me, as needed, throughout the years.  I believe this is due to the complicated nature of their grief. 


Are there success stories?  Sure!  If a suicide survivor can learn to decrease the expectations they have of themselves in grief, they are a success story.  If they learn to shift the responsibility of their loved one’s death off of themselves and onto the loved one, they are a success story.  If they are able to share the memories of their loved one, without fear of being judged, they are a success story.  If they can remember ALWAYS that we do the best we can, with the information we have, at that time, they are a success story.   Most importantly, if they can learn to love and trust again, they are a success story.