…it is not about imposing order and logic.
by Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD
“Instead of struggling against the force of confusion, we could meet it and relax.”
— Pema Chodron
The death of someone loved brings about significant change in the life of the mourner. Change of any kind starts with disorder and confusion. Companioning is not about understanding the disorder and confusion, figuring it out, or trying to make it better.
The challenge for the companion is to stay present to the disorientation, and trust that the natural unfolding process will eventually result in re-orientation. When it comes to matters of the soul, the last thing the mourner needs is to be joined at the head level. When disoriented and confused, he needs companions at the heart level. If you can give up the hope that disorder and confusion can be quickly and efficiently moved away from, then you can help the mourner be more self-compassionate and not feel such urging to be rid of these normal symptoms of the journey.
The Disorder of Grief
Disorder and confusion is a time of waiting, a time of paralysis, a time when the world doesn’t make sense in the way it did before the death. The mourner may experience a sense of restlessness, agitation, impatience, and ongoing confusion. There is often an inability to complete tasks. The mourner is often forgetful and everyday pleasures may not seem to matter right now.
The mourner may experience a restless searching for the person who died. This searching and yearning can leave her feeling drained and can be accompanied by the “lethargy of grief.” These are only a few of many care-eliciting symptoms the mourner may have when experiencing disorder and confusion.
The unfortunate reality is that many grievers do not give themselves permission to surrender to or relax into their disorder and confusion. We live in a society that often encourages the repression or denial of any kind of disorder and confusion, and in its place we impose order and logic: “You just need to get ahold of yourself and get on with life. Being upset isn’t going to change anything.” The result of this is that many people either grieve in isolation or attempt to run away from their grief through various means, including order and logic.
Using Logic to Order Grief
While there are a number of unique ways by which people repress, deny, or move away from the disorienting symptoms of grief, I will limit my discussion here to the minimizer/intellectualizer who tries to use order and logic to overcome grief. This person is usually very sensitive to feelings of disorder and confusion, but when he feels them works to minimize them by diluting them through a variety of rationalizations.
This person often attempts to prove to himself that he is not really impacted by the loss. Observers of the minimizer/intellectualizer may hear him talk about how well he is doing and how he is back to his normal routine. On a conscious level his logic may seem to be working and certainly conforms to society’s message to quickly “get over” one’s grief. However, internally the repressed feeling of grief build and emotional and spiritual strain—soul symptoms—result.
This person often believes (often because of unconscious contamination of a mourning-avoidant culture) that grief is something to be thought through but not felt through. This is typically an intellectual process in which words become a substitute for the expression of authentic feelings. Any disorder and confusion is threatening to the minimizer/intellectualizer, who seeks to avoid feeling a loss of control. Worse yet, she might find an “expert” counselor who shares these beliefs and tries to use techniques to overcome the disorder and confusion.
Unfortunately, the more this person works to convince herself that the feelings of grief have been overcome, the more crippled she becomes in allowing for emotional and spiritual expression. The result is often a destructive, vicious cycle.
In my experience, the need for the mourner to stay logical and orderly are usually problems in allowing oneself to feel and express deep feelings. Some people struggle with a high need for self-control, others may have an intolerance for experiences of disorder and confusion accompanied by pain and helplessness, while still others may lack a support system that encourages the expression of their feelings.
Yes, the disorder and confusion that accompany grief can be overwhelming to the mourner. When she is encountering this disorientation, everything in her may want to shut down. Yet, in the process she may be tempted to shut out precisely what she needs. She may see the disorder and confusion as the enemy.
As a companion, you, on the other hand, realize that there is no enemy and that these symptoms are the result of being torn apart by grief. The disorder is a biofeedback mechanism reminding the mourner to stay open to the loss. Now, the question becomes: how will she host the disorder and confusion? Will she try to will it away through order and logic, or will she be patient, self-nurturing and seek the support of compassionate companions?
Without doubt, one of the reasons many people are preoccupied with the question, “How long does grief last?” has to do with society’s impatience with grief. Persons who continue to express grief are often viewed as “weak,” “crazy” or “self-pitying.” Grief is something to be overcome instead of experienced.
The result of these kinds of messages is to encounter the adoption of rational, mechanistic principles of order and logic to defend against disorder and confusion. Refusal to allow tears, suffering in silence and “being strong” are thought to be admirable behaviors. Yet, the most helpful approach to grief is to approach it head-on and honor the value of symptoms that reflect special needs.
The Silent Mourner
The lack of expression of outward mourning has brought about the evolution of the “silent mourner.” Even persons who want to be supportive cannot identify this mourner. The relegating of grief to behind closed doors reinforces the importance of being outreach-oriented in your companioning efforts.
All too often, our society fails to support mourners who suffer from soul-based symptoms of disorder and confusion. An emphasis on being rational and under control influences the mourner to reintegrate into the social network and keep their tears, fears, and pains to themselves. As a responsible rebel, I invite you to join me in an effort to reverse this trend that fails to acknowledge the need for compassion and support to people who experience normal symptoms of disorder and confusion of grief. Supporting people in grief is about love; it is not about logic!
This article is excerpted from Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s book Companioning the Bereaved: A Soulful Guide for Caregivers, available at bookstores and at Dr. Wolfelt’s website, www.centerforloss.com. Dr. Wolfelt is an internationally noted author, teacher and grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is an educational consultant to funeral homes, hospices, hospitals, schools and a variety of community agencies across North America. If you’ve missed the previous Companioning Tenets, CLICK HERETenetsofCompanioning_24x36
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