Having lost my mother only weeks ago, I’m doing the best I can to continue to work, pay bills, stay engaged with “life,” and be a source of encouragement to my father. Oh. And stay positive, because as you know, our society has a low tolerance for anything less! It sometimes seems that the “compassion well” ran dry. To be clear, this has not been the response where my mom’s death is concerned. To the contrary, people have been gracious and kind and definitely compassionate. But her death triggered something for me that needed a much closer look. (I thanked her a few times for this!)
Wondering whether it’s best to stay as busy as possible (which I have been doing) or to “sit” with grief (which I also feel the need to do) I did some research and found a lot of great information, but far too much for one post. So for the sake of this post, the message doesn’t concern how to grieve or how long to grieve, but rather the importance of distinguishing between grief and depression because they are very different. More importantly, I’m writing this to help prevent inappropriate actions and advice to those in your world who are grieving. In other words – be more compassionate.
Kelly Buckley was at the receiving end of inappropriate actions and advice. Shortly after losing her 23 year old son, she encountered a perplexing (but common) response from a doctor during a routine exam when she suddenly teared up over her tragic loss… “Paxil or Prozac?” he asked her, without so much as a simple condolence or a empathetic ear. Whoa.
Kelly, a medical professional herself, understands what the majority of the population doesn’t. That grief and depression are not the same. And while medication has its place and should be respected when used in the right circumstances, it is too often the quick response of an ever growing population that doesn’t want to be bothered with your grief! (Or maybe they just don’t understand it.) When anti-depressants are subscribed without listening, comforting, or communicating, you run the risk of numbing the pain and preventing necessary growth or the need to uncover core issues.
Thankfully, my own family doctor took a different approach. She took my hand and let me cry while she whole hearted listened. Then with compassion she explained what I already knew. That grief should not be dodged or rushed because it is an important and natural process (i.e. growth). And in my case, growth and uncovering core issues is far more important than numbing the pain! I’ll explain…
As I said, my mother’s recent passing triggered something for me. It gave me a lens to evaluate situations that I hadn’t fully processed…or misinterpreted…or stuffed. Namely, the ending of a long-term relationship with Mr. Wonderful back in the winter. He couldn’t hack the mourning I experienced through several life changes that happened over a short span (relocation, son leaving the nest, career change, etc.) His actions and advice were inappropriate and his complete lack of empathy actually prolonged my grief process. Perhaps it was the labels he used to demean me, like “depressed”, “bipolar”, “psychotic” (and some I can’t mention), that nearly broke me. Hadn’t he used those same labels to describe his ex-wife to me? Because I’d stuck by him through his own set backs (some physical issues that required hospitalizations), I was blown away when his response to my emotional state was, “I can’t put up with your sadness, you’re on your own!” And his parting gift (given to me on my birthday) was the news that our relationship was officially over because he’d found someone new. Thanks dude, but the cake would have been enough.
Was I depressed or was I grieving? I wasn’t sure. But either way, he had me believing I was unfit to be in a relationship. One of our last conversations was just before I left for Florida where I had hoped to spend a few weeks healing, mostly from that final straw – the breakup. He toyed with the idea of joining me, said we could try again (wonder what his girlfriend would have thought). I went there to grieve, but more importantly to get as far away from the source of my pain as possible, so of course my answer was no.
And who schedules a vacation there anyway? And brings my replacement along? You guessed it. Mr. Wonderful. My family doctor was more outraged than I was when she found out! If I hadn’t held her back, I think she would have hunted him down with a club! Did I mention that I love my doctor? “Passive Aggressive!” was the phrase she uttered as she shook her head in disgust. “He knew you were going there to grieve so he brought his new girlfriend to the same place? Honey, no, you don’t need medication! You just need to set much higher standards with men!” Grieving = growth.
About a month after my return from Florida, my mom passed away. Grief of a different type. I got to thinking about the black dress that women in some cultures still wear after the death of a loved one. In my own family, the black dress of mourning hasn’t been worn since my grandmother’s generation. A judgmental, impatient society branded it as “morbid” forcing many to forgo something that held such importance. The dress wasn’t “morbid,” it was a “statement”. It replaced the need to explain oneself. It was the unspoken message that everyone understood. “While this dress is on, please don’t expect me to come to your block party, or to volunteer at the church bazaar, or to square dance…because I’m in mourning.”
The black dress (dresses) would be worn for weeks, months, sometimes a full year, depending on the mourner. I have a feeling that the women who kept it on the longest probably had a Mr. Wonderful who made them feel like shit for grieving and maybe even undermined their healing – and so they just kept the darn dress on! (Where endings with Mr. Wonderful(s) are concerned, vivid colors all the way.)
Thanks, mom. I could sense your presence with me today.
Be sure to visit Kelly’s blog on the “Hello Grief” site.
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