Family Gatherings in Times of Grief
By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
There are times in our grief where we can do nothing but brace ourselves against the storm of pain and bitterness. We have just enough energy to survive the day and no more. And then finally, as the storm begins to be more predictable or we’ve released ourselves from the fear that it will consume us, we turn and face ourselves into the wind. We feel energized rather than depleted by the challenge that this tragedy has brought to our lives. Morning has been all night in coming, but surely it comes.
There is a strength that comes from accepting what has happened in our lives and responding to it. And it’s an act of courage to go headlong into grief, where we can see what’s coming toward us and say “yes” to it. Saying “yes” certainly does not imply that we like what we see or what we get. We didn’t choose for our life to be disrupted this way. But saying “yes” to the experience depletes the negative power that would otherwise exert itself over us.
We have learned that no matter what we do, we cannot change what has happened.
It would have been easy to get stuck in the “aint-it-awful” pit. No one would blame us. It would be easy to become cynical and say, “Sure, I learned a lot: not to expect anything, not to trust anyone, not to care.” The choice is always ours. We can choose to become angry and bitter, or we can open ourselves to all of our life, learning and growing from all of our experiences.
To cope with the death of a child, or someone we hold dear, we will probably need to summon inner resources that we’ve never had to call on before. But they are there when we need them, inactive when we didn’t need them, and available now to help us through.
When we move from asking the “why” questions to asking the “how” questions, we have turned the corner and reclaimed our life. We are no longer helpless victims searching for a reason “why” this terrible thing happened. We are now motivated to discover “how” we can cope with the situation.
Let me give you an example. You are heading into one of the more difficult times of the year for those who are grieving. It’s holiday time, which means family gatherings, groups of people having a good time, and they want you to join them. Imagine yourself sitting around the Thanksgiving table with family and friends. You have been bereaved for only a few months. You’re not sure you want to be there, but you don’t want to disappoint others by being absent. They think it will be good for you to be out socializing, and after all it is family. They may not have a clue how much you are dreading this gathering.
So what could possibly go wrong?
- No one mentions your loss.
- Someone mentions your loss.
- Someone says something insensitive about how you are handling your grief.
- Someone sits in the chair where your loved one always sat.
- There are lots of people, lots of loud noise, and it may be agitating you.
- If you are a bereaved parent whose baby recently died, there can be new additions (babies) to the family that others are making a fuss over not realizing how painful it is for you because you were expecting family to be cooing over your baby.
- You could drink too much and lose the composure you had tried so hard to keep.
This is just a short list of the possibilities of holiday traps that can trigger great emotion. It doesn’t take much. In fact, it’s embarrassing to realize how worked up we can get over minor, unintentional mistakes that others make in our midst.
Thinking about the potential upsets may be helpful. Planning what to do or say can help you feel more in control. Reminding yourself that most of your family members mean well (there’s always a few where that may come into question) and don’t mean to hurt you. And remember, before this huge loss happened to you, you might have been one of the insensitive ones. Having an escape plan in case things get too hard to handle and letting the host know you may only be able to be there for a short time gives you the power to move forward rather than being sideswiped and out of control.
Imperfect ourselves, we must be gentle to others.
This has been a hard-won education. The new insights we have gained may not have been welcome early in the mourning process and perhaps can only be absorbed after we have some distance from the intense anguish of grief.
Whenever there are shadows in front of us, it’s because we have our back to the light. When we turn and face the light, the shadows will go away.