little over a year ago, a friend of mine lost her
brother to sudden death. He collapsed of a heart attack
at age 50. She had spoken with him the day before; he
thought he had the flu.
Four months later, her 88-year-old father died. His
health had been failing. She got to say goodbye.
My friend still grieves. She cried when we talked the
''I miss them terribly,'' she said. ''I've had people
say it gets better. I don't think that's accurate. It
doesn't get better. You just get used to it.''
After her father's death, hospice nurses offered to
arrange for grief counseling for her and her mother.
Now, a major report suggests that because grief is so
much a part of the natural human experience, most of us
neither need nor benefit from formal counseling or
participation in a bereavement support group. For some,
grief counseling may even make matters worse.
The report, issued by the nonprofit Center for the
Advancement of Health in Washington, D.C., resulted from
a three-year review of studies on grief and grief
therapy conducted since 1984. It concluded that only in
complex cases - when there is unrelieved depression, for
example - is there a clear need for professional
therapy. Further, formal counseling is least needed in
the immediate aftermath of a loss, although that is when
services are most likely to be offered.
The report noted that grieving is an individual
process and not everyone needs the same kind of help. In
most cases, those who have suffered loss find their
greatest support in friends, relatives, neighbors and
Robert A. Neimeyer, an expert in death studies at the
University of Memphis and chairman of the committee that
prepared the report, described grieving not as a process
of letting go, but as one of holding on to memories with
less pain and finding comfort in them.
''We've had a perception of grieving as a process of
letting go and that is still the dominant theory in
grief therapy,'' Neimeyer said. ''Now that assumption is
being questioned. In most world cultures, grieving is
experienced as maintaining a sense of contact and
connection to those we have loved and lost. A major role
of spiritual belief systems is to offer such a continued
connection in a supportive way.''
Studies indicate that nearly 70 percent of bereaved
spouses feel experiences of contact with their deceased
partners even a year later.
''It might be sensing their presence at the foot of
the bed at night,'' Neimeyer said. ''Or smelling their
distinct scent. All these sensory perceptions that were
once regarded as hallucinations are no longer being seen
as such in most cases.''
A majority of people are comforted by these feelings,
Neimeyer said. Still, the paradox is that those who
experience a strong sense of continued bonding tend to
suffer higher grief.
My friend's experience seems to parallel what is
explained in the report. She now talks about feeling
warmth from memories in place of stinging pain. She
continues to work at acceptance.
''We had closure with my dad,'' she said. ''The
grieving process for him has been totally different than
for my brother. With my dad, it was the natural order of
things, as much as we didn't want to let go. The
acceptance with my brother has been very difficult. Some
days I don't want to believe it.''
Certain times, she said, tend to be most painful:
When she wakes up at night, when she drives, when she is
She told me that sometimes, she closes her eyes and
tries to imagine her brother hugging her, as a way of
What helped her greatly, she said, was to hear others
tell stories of how they were touched by her brother or
father. ''It made me feel good that someone else cared
about them,'' she said.
Now when she goes to funerals, instead of fumbling
for words of comfort, she shares a memory of the
Beyond that, she said, the most important thing in
her healing has been faith and prayer and the sense that
her father and brother are still with her in spirit.
Whatever form it takes, grief is part of the human
experience, as death is not optional. We can look for
solutions within medicine or psychology, and for some
that may be necessary. The findings of research,
however, suggest that which makes sense: For most of us,
family, friends, colleagues and faith communities
provide the necessary support. When it comes to figuring
out how to move on, there are no answers to fit all, and
each must find her or his own way.
(Diane Evans is a staff writer at the Akron Beacon
Journal. Though she has researched the information in
this column, she has no training in medicine or science.
Readers should consult carefully with their physicians
before relying on anything in the column. If you have
questions or suggestions for Evans, contact her at the
Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH
44309-0640, or by e-mail at