My family recently had to make the heart-breaking decision to have one of our dogs put down. This was not an easy decision because rather than suffering a traumatic life-ending event such as a heart attack, he was slowly deteriorating due to severe epilepsy. The medications that he took were not quite doing the job as well and they completely altered his temperament. He became a shell of his previous energetic self, a walking zombie who lacked energy and slowly paced the house, rarely lifting his head to make eye contact. We decided that it was not fair to Gonzo to allow his “quality of life” to disintegrate. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, but now that he is gone, I find it important to discuss this experience to help others learn to speak the Language of Loss and negotiate the complex emotions and tensions that you experience with the loss of a loved one.
Grief and Mourning
Grief is the inner feelings and emotions we experience when a loved one dies whereas mourning is the outward expression of that grief. This is an important distinction for several reasons. We often cannot control the emotions that we experience but we can control whether we acknowledge our emotions and how we express them to others. Acknowledging that you are experiencing grief is the first step to overcoming it. As a Communication Scholar and Conflict Management Practitioner, however, I am more concerned with the manner in which we express our emotions. Many people jump right to anger, both at themselves and at the one who passed. Other people will act like nothing happened and will continue their daily habits and preoccupations. Mindless habits are numbing agents that deaden our natural emotions. Habits, schedules, and daily preoccupations keep us securely anchored in a small world that we can control. Openly mourning demonstrates that we don’t have control of all aspects of our life…it is a humbling experience. This scares many people. So many people just bury themselves in work and routines to block any painful thoughts and emotions; they are unsure of when they should begin to discuss or acknowledge their loss with others. This boils down to timing.
Timing and Stages of Grief
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula that tells us when people should enter each of the different stages of grief. This is unique for each person and does not unfold in a linear fashion. People may get angry first, then think they have accepted the event, only to fall back to surprise and shock the next morning. Don’t be alarmed because this is natural. People enter and experience the 7 Stages of Grief in different ways, so the important part is to just know that the stages exist and that it is normal to experience all of them in different patterns. The 7 stages are: Shock and Denial; Pain and Guilt; Anger and Negotiation; Depression and Loneliness; Rebounding; Renewal; and Acceptance and Hope. I will not outline each stage, as there is a plethora of literature on the internet, but will rather highlight a few behaviors that I experienced to help people learn from our loss.
I deal with grief by surrounding myself with loved ones and remembering the one who died. This is a useful way to mourn a loved one, but what I have noticed is that I use my social network to mask painful feelings. I don’t spend enough time alone thinking about the event and coming to terms with what I am feeling. This Social Mask is a way for me to avoid assessing my internal feelings. I fall into my habit of being a highly social and extroverted person. I have since realized that part of our “self” dies with a loved one, but that over time we can learn to rebuild our “selves” in new and unforeseen ways. I simply tried to enter the rebuilding phase too soon, and I figured this out once I kept falling back into the anger, guilt, and depression stages. I finally came to terms that Gonzo was gone and not coming back on my own, and only then did my conversations with others about him really help me to focus on the positive memories I had with him. I want to leave you with a few communication tips for talking about your painful emotions when you lose a loved one. Although these tips will not remove all your pain, they will help you to learn the language of loss and understand that it is a natural process.
Communicating About Loss
1. Be honest with yourself (especially men). It is acceptable and normal to experience a wide range of emotions in a short time period. Don’t arrest your recovery out of fear of appearing weak. Weak men are afraid to express and discuss what they are actually feeling. Don’t wear a Macho Mask.
2. Wounds heal with time. Give yourself time to experience a range of emotions. You don’t get over losses quickly.
3. You are not alone. Use your social network to talk about what you are going through. This will help you deal with the negative emotions and focus on the positive ones.
4. Have a “timeline conversation” with a loved one about when might be an appropriate time to begin discussing the loss and how you are each dealing with it. Timeline conversations help prime people for future conversations and help them move past the denial stage.
5. Deal with the painful feelings on your own and in combination with others. Talking about the loss with others is useful but is not a panacea. Self-Reflection and Communication are mutually reinforcing processes. Be sure you do both.