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Estranged Losses

Grief and loss can be complex, even when our relationships with the deceased are pure and uncomplicated. Typically, we expect to miss the presence of the dead in our lives, even after we are well on our way to adjusting to the loss. But what happens when someone from whom you are estranged dies? Someone you don't miss, or someone you haven't interacted with in years because they walked away from the relationship? Such “estranged” losses require a different kind of adjustment, not least because they may evoke feelings and emotions that do not feel permissible to discuss with others. You may also be impacted by how you received the news of the death – finding out through an impersonal channel like social media or a newspaper report can leave us with a sense of shock, disbelief, and alienation. But estranged losses are not uncommon, and we are entitled to acknowledge and process the feelings they evoke.

Spending Time in Nature Can Help Heal Grief

A grief support client recently told me her life and body no longer felt “real” since the death of two siblings and her father within the past year. The sensation of not feeling fully “real” or “there” is common during the initial mourning period. To help grief clients reconnect to body, mind and emotions in a restorative way, I usually suggest that they spend time every day or as often as possible in nature. Research has shown that time spent outdoors in sunlight and greenery is associated with many beneficial physiological changes, such as helping to reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels (a hormone associated with stress), while at the same time enhancing respiration and the release of positive biochemical hormones that help us to feel a greater sense of positive well-being.

Getting Started With Keeping a Journal

As a writer and a therapist, I’ve always believed in the importance of journaling during the grief journey. Simply keeping a journal can help regulate emotions, provide an outlet for all the big feelings you are grappling with, and serve as an incredible way to reflect on your life as you move forward. The truth is that we never get over the people we lose but it’s understandable that finding ways to move forward in our lives and be in the world without the people we love can feel daunting when you are going through a big loss. It’s also true that one of the most effective tools I’ve learned for this is writing about it.

Sadly, school shootings such as the one in Uvalde, Texas, are not a rarity here in the United States. Neither are mass shootings in other public places, such as entertainment venues and grocery stores. When they occur, news about them blankets news media and social media, and often features in conversations among friends and family. Children hear about these tragedies. What’s more, children in many school districts are trained in gun-violence prevention measures such as Know the Signs and active-shooter drills. They are, in essence, taught to anticipate violence and loss.  No matter how much we would like to protect them from these horrific realities, our children are all too aware that they happen. With awareness come uncertainty and grief. It’s normal for kids to be afraid that a shooting will happen in their school. It’s normal for kids to be sad, angry, and curious about these massacres. We help children by affirming their normal thoughts and feelings and creating an atmosphere of open communication and love.

Coping with Your Grief Over the Uvalde Murders

Uvalde, Texas, is grieving. America is grieving. A single man has committed a crime of unimaginable violence, taking the lives of at least 21 people—19 of them children—and now an entire country is bereft. Whether you live near Uvalde or far away, whether you personally know someone connected to the tragedy or not, you are probably grieving. Because you have empathy, you are grieving on behalf of the families whose loved ones were so senselessly taken from them. Grief is normal and necessary. In addition, you may be experiencing a loss of a sense of safety for your own family and others you care about. You may have lost a sense of goodness in the world. You might also have lost trust or pride in your country or community. You are also probably wrestling with why this happened, as well, and your search for answers is part of your grief.

Grief Dreams

Have you ever dreamed of someone who died? “Grief dreams” (dreams of the deceased) have not been extensively studied, yet what research exists shows they are common. 53-75% (Black et al. 2019) of recently surveyed bereaved individuals had one or more dreams about someone important to them who has passed away; they reported both positive and negative dream imagery, but overwhelming appreciated and felt helped by the dreams. Even reliving trauma related to the death seemed to have a positive impact in most cases, helping the dreamer to process and incorporate the loss.

A Bond Unbroken:  Remaining Connected to Friends Who Have Died

Losing a friend can be a shattering event, one that we will likely experience more than once over the course of our lives. Because friends can take on multiple roles in one relationship (how often have we heard, "She was my best friend, but she was also like a mother/mentor/sister to me"?), we can feel this loss experientially on many different levels.  We may be surprised at the depth and strength of our feelings and be uncertain about how to move forward and begin to cope after a friend dies.

For several years I presented weekly wellness classes to adult men and women cancer patients at a cancer support facility. Most of the classes focused on ways for participants to optimize wellness while undergoing various treatments for cancer. Such classes provided a sense of direction and hope at a time when fear and pain dominated life’s daily landscape.  I also presented classes to terminally ill patients, often attended with their family members; these classes focused on providing direction and hope through activities that fostered life review and the exploration of meaning so that participants could come to a sense of peaceful completion at the end of life’s journey. One activity we always did was the writing of an ethical will - it is an activity I still do with my private end-of-life clients. Recently I began urging some of my grief support clients to explore ethical will writing to great benefit as a tool for processing the sudden or tragic death of a loved one.

"I want you and dad to keep living."

The grief journey. I’m sure it’s a little different for everyone and that something in the above list resonates with and makes those grieving feel a bit better. At least I hope so. But the truth is, my experience so far is, that when I wake up panicked at 3 a.m., the only two on the list that I hear are the last two. There truly are no words. And the worst thing ever is burying your child – in my case, my only child.

Just as we benefit from having an active support system when we are grieving, so too do we want to support others in our life who are experiencing bereavement. It is compassionate and healthy to be there for friends and family, colleagues and acquaintances who are navigating grief after loss.