Cecilia M. Ford, a member of WVFC’s medical advisory  board, has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987; her current areas of focus are chronic illnes and depression, eating disorders and body image disorders, sexuality and relationships, and  parenthood and careers. This is the first of a series of columns on this daunting but essential topic; look here soon for Dr. Ford’s thoughts on preparing and best surviving, a loved one’s death, living with chronic illness and uncertain diagnoses, and other issues.

Dear Dr. Ford,

I am concerned about my sister, who lost her husband to lung cancer. Although he has been gone over 18 months, she still is deeply grieving. She keeps the calendar of the month he died on the wall, she refuses to clean out his closets, talks of him constantly, marks the date each month that he passed, and speaks of feeling his “presence.” In some ways, she is more “involved” with him now than when he was alive.   I’m worried about her, but I feel unable to talk to her about this because she feels others don’t understand her grief. She’s only 58, though, and it seems that she needs to start letting go if she is going to be able to move on.

Alice

Dear Alice,

You are right to be concerned about your sister. And your sense that grief involves movement is also accurate. While on the one hand, we never truly “recover” from the loss of a loved one, mourning is a process, not a static condition and when it takes hold and settles in a permanent way, it is a sign of trouble.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss physician, was one of the first to study the stages of grief and loss, (On Grief and Grieving 2007, On Death and Dying 1969). When she started out, there was as now a great deal of discomfort, even among doctors, about confronting issues relating to death.

Kubler-Ross identified that grief is not stable or static, but instead, is an active and transformative process with several, usually predictable stages, including shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, and acceptance. While all of these stages are normal, becoming stuck in any one of them denies one the opportunity to move on, exactly what your worry is for your sister.

For example, your description reminds me of someone I know, who was racked with grief over the death of his wife and seemed unable to think of anything but his terrible loss. It was not until he was able to admit that he was also angry — not only at fate, but also at her (for dying early, for smoking, for leaving him, for all the many imperfections in their life together for which he’d denied himself that anger) that he began to move on through some of the other stages. Acceptance came eventually, after that.

It is true that the loss of a spouse is especially difficult, because he or she is the one person who shares almost every aspect of our lives on a day-to-day basis. When that person dies, almost every aspect of one’s life is emptier. This is especially true for men, who don’t tend to have as many close friendships as women and who often are not emotionally intimate with anyone but their wives. Widowers who don’t remarry quickly tend to die much sooner than widows, who can and do rely on friends. In order to help your sister, you will need to be empathic to her sense that she is all alone in her grief.

In a sense, she is right and becoming more so:  The longer she grieves this way, the more isolated she is becoming.  Urge her to seek help, not because her feelings are wrong, disproportionate, or disturbed, but because the burden of carrying them alone is too great, and because she does need to feel that someone can understand her.

Seeing a professional, I would tell her, is particularly appropriate now, because this person will not have known her husband—the issue is to get help her with her feelings—not to analyze them or explain them away, but to shepherd them, really, through the valley of death.

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  • Elaine Williams November 7, 2008 at 9:31 am

    As a widow myself, I found this article particulary wonderful and right on target. elaine

    Reply
  • Liza Near November 7, 2008 at 8:23 am

    Just a quick comment on this great article on grief. I have been so fortunate to be a part of an organization up in Westchester County called the Bereavement Center of Westchester. Our cornerstone program is called the Treehouse – an 8 week program where families come once a week and divide up by age and have about an hour and 15 mins to be with people their own age who have all lost a sibling or a parent. The program is a non-profit so these times will be tough for fund raising but to be able to spend time each week with these brave family members and help them know that its okay to cry and that they are not alone is so worth every minute of looking under rocks for money! Point is – I am happy to read about Dr. Ford and am happy that grief and dealing with it is getting more and more “easy and normal” to talk about.

    Reply