Circles of Grief

By: Dr. Sandra L. Graves, Ph. D
Monday, November 9, 2015

Dr. Sandra Graves explains in this article that, "For all who grieve the death of a loved one, it is important to know that we stand together in an ever widening ring of circles. The impact of a death is like casting a stone into the water. The ripple effect of the incident has many layers and reaches far beyond what may be expected. Each circle stands alone, yet is connected to the center. The circles touch each other before they radiate outward. Each circle in our life has a different significance, both to each of us because we are unique and also because each circumstance is different."

by Dr. Sandra L. Graves, Ph. D

On a routine hectic day in my office, I was called to the phone by a fellow worker. Her face was pale as she hurriedly announced that a colleague of mine was dead. The word, "shock" doesn't really describe the immediate reaction to such an acknowledgement. Time stands still and a physical reaction takes place before the mind can absorb enough information to change the body into social behavior. I picked up the phone and shared the moment with the close friend who had called.

I drove a lengthy distance to the funeral to pay tribute to a young man, his family, his community and ultimately, I realized, to all of us. On the way home my thoughts turned to not only this event but to the thousands of grieving people whom I have met.

For all who grieve the death of a loved one, it is important to know that we stand together in an ever widening ring of circles. The impact of a death is like casting a stone into the water. The ripple effect of the incident has many layers and reaches far beyond what may be expected. Each circle stands alone, yet is connected to the center. The circles touch each other before they radiate outward.

Each circle in our life has a different significance, both to each of us because we are unique and also because each circumstance is different. The death of my young friend had many tangents. At the inner circle was the immediate family–three generations who were all bound by disbelief–two very young children, a young wife and two parents under the age of 50. The next circle represented the close relationships of business partner and employees, best friends and associates in civic organizations, the teachers who remembered my friend when he was a boy in their classrooms, the minister who baptized him, wed him and only a few years later conducted his funeral. Further outward, but still near the center, were those whose lives were affected by the life that had just left us–colleagues, dignitaries and friends of friends. The circle then reached the community as a whole, those who knew him and those who did not, who mourned the loss of an expectation that life was the way it was supposed to be.

How does each of us in each circle cope with our loss? How are you, who stand in your own circle in another city, coping with yours? My guess is that we are all similar in some ways, which means that the ripples are even larger as we grow to understand how death is and can become the symbol of our definition of life and living. Who among us has not been a part of our own circles and put events, things and people in perspective according to the shifting values following a death? Who among us has not shook our heads when we learned of the death, when we stood together at the visitation and funeral and when we get together to share memories?

What are the signs of Grief and Coping?

Shaking our heads is actually an immediate sign of coping–a ritual that is performed which is nonverbal and universally understood. This gesture says "I don't understand, I don't want this to have happened, this isn't right." This gesture allows us to touch each other, grieve together in an acceptable fashion and signifies our realization that a major change has occurred. We ALL resist change. We say NO to change, particularly change that is painful. In the face of NO, we can question HOW and WHY. These are universal words which help us to search for meaning–not just in death, but in life.

The field of psychology asks questions about concrete living and is an outgrowth of philosophy, which questions life in the abstract. Those who cease to question either tend to cease to live. We need our questions, our outcries, our sometimes feeble attempts toward explanation. When those around us in the circle use platitudes and talk of "God's will", they are seeking purpose, as much for themselves as for those whom they believe they are comforting, while others around us in the circle talk of details in the coroners report or the medical examination. We all are seeking reasons. Whether concrete or abstract, we look for information and a context into which the event of death is placed. This search for information is one of our most basic coping strategies.

I had a client recently who talked about his daughter's death as a "line outside the circle of my life, a line that makes no sense." Most of our grief "work" is an attempt to find the sense, otherwise our experiences seem crazy.

What can these circles mean?

The inner circle of parents begin to look ahead to a life without the events anticipated to be experienced with their child. I do not believe that we have any idea how many hours in our days are spent anticipating the hours tomorrow will bring until a death occurs. For my young friend's parents, the pain of watching their daughter grieve and the feeling of helplessness to ease the pain was coupled with their own loss. Their grandchildren were frightened, with a fear that could not be eased by holding them, distracting them or talking to them–all those things grandparents are usually so capable of handling.

The young widow, caught between generations, friends and confusion shook her head to rid herself of this new reality. Her children cried out for her and needed the security of her presence. We are remarkable as human beings under stress. We do things we cannot believe we have the strength to do. Yet, she the widow, is both child and parent; the spouse alone reaching toward her children with one arm and her parents with the other.

All of you who stand in the inner circle, widows and widowers of any age, bereaved parents, grieving siblings, children whose parents have died, all close relationships need to remember how close you stood soon after the death, but also must remember your need to back away and allow each other to breathe. Each of us must experience our own pain alone while keeping the delicate balance necessary in reaching out to others for support. When those in the inner circle find themselves smothering each other, telling each other what they should do, becoming too dependent or too isolated, it is time to remember those first critical moments when we reacted instinctively from the heart and from the strong survival instincts within us. Survival in any society depends upon each member of that society. Reach for the next circle. There are the "historical" people who share memories with you, who can tell you stories you have heard a million times and loved, or can tell you new stories about the one you loved. In reaching out to others who grieve with you, you are also giving the care and respect toward another human being in pain. If you listen, you will hear their need for others in other circles. We often forget that friends and close acquaintances grieve expectations, hours spent in debate or laughter, plans which must be changed, financial arrangements which must be altered–the same anger you experienced that the "pebble" dropped into the water too soon.

To perceive death as "too soon", in my estimation, is a tribute to a life well-lived and loved.

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