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Relatives, friends aid 
in grieving process

March 26, 2004

A 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 other day.

''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. Both declined.

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 co-workers.

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 totally alone.

She told me that sometimes, she closes her eyes and tries to imagine her brother hugging her, as a way of gaining closure.

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 deceased.

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.

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(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 livingwellthebeaconjournal.com.)


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