Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms,
You would never see the true beauty of their carvings.
-Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, MD
Fore words. To listen: concentrate and make an effort to hear someone. To heal: treat a scarring wound by assisting in its natural repair. To love: appreciate; care deeply; regard with affection and compassion; feel a warm personal attachment also to humanity.
The power of listening is immense and immeasurable. It changes lives.
Being heard helps the mourner to mend the broken bonds of relationship after loss. In the company of others who listen, the sense of meaningfulness of life can be restored. Respect for grief is required. Mourning is “a process of healing the fractures caused by suffering and loss.”1 Being heard is fundamental to that healing.
Seen from a macro, historical perspective, we have generally lost our understanding of death as a natural part of life. “It is amazing that with our advances in technology, we have actually lost common knowledge regarding one of the most fundamental facts of life: that it ends.”2 Modern technology is one important factor that has made us strangers to death.
Moreover, this would change our concept of grief. If we have lost common knowledge of the fact that life ends, it follows that we seem to have lost common knowledge regarding grief as well. Grief is largely the aftermath of loss. We no longer understand it. Grief hurts even though we would much rather medicate and forget about it. It takes awhile leading to forever, even though some smart people say otherwise. And others are indispensable also as listeners, even though we have become too harried and hurried to hear.
Grief is not abnormal. It is not immoral or insane. It is not a mental disorder. “You are not broken,” says one highly experienced grief expert, “You are heart broken.”3 Grief is normal and necessary. We need it. We need it for full expression of our love and respect for the dead and for preservation of the living self. In our modern technological quest for life forever and total freedom from pain of every kind, we have lost our sense of grief as a necessity. Good grief!
To think of grief as a sickness is an insult to grief itself.
Grieving takes awhile, maybe a very long while, meaning, forever. Loss changes us. A Self transformation takes respectful time to form. Expressions of love and longing for the lost cannot and should not be hurried, either. We need time to get acquainted with our changed future. We need others who can listen and reflect our changes. They confirm who we are and who we are becoming.
We are a nation now constantly on the move, made possible largely by modern technology. No time to waste. We are always impatient to get going to anywhere other than where we are. Also, says one mourner, “If I’m always going, no one can really leave me.”4 Running from death and grief – while (unconsciously) searching for the lost. We have slim tolerance for delay and slowdown. We find postponement to be exasperating. Both the listener and the mourner wish to escape: get over it, snap out of it, hurry up and run for it.
Listening is too often seen as impeding that lose-no-time, move-on drive. We have lost common knowledge regarding death and grief. Listening is quality time devoted to others; it is recklessly, fearfully sacrificed to undue haste. No regard for consequences is considered. No understanding of grief as a healthy necessity. No grasp that listening could be healing and that being heard feels like being valued and deemed worthwhile.
In the case of grief, we need quiet and steady perseverance and intense focus. We need an ability to survive, manage, and control agitation and turmoil and unrest. In a word, we need patience. Time for reverence and outrage, release and despair – grief work. Slow – Down. Delay becomes not only inevitable but also advantageous and advisable. Attention is diverted from living to dying. Notice shifts from the mundane to profound. Perhaps we forget that delay is usually beneficial. It can work in the service of remarkable, desirable personal growth.
Not everything should be done in a rush. Listen to grief. This listening is a lesson for the listener as well as the mourner.
Mourning is a process of healing – although never a return to what was. It is a process of reintegration into the world of the living.5, 6 Listening nurtures and facilitates this evolution.
Listening is the essence of compassion.
One discerning physician gently instructs the families of her dying patients this way: “You don’t get to skip the grief part [of your loss].”7 We really don’t get to skip the grief after significant loss and still remain sane. Not an option. We want to skip it and try to skip it – now especially with the help of potent designer drugs spinning out from new medical technology – but that simply doesn’t work.8 We have lost common knowledge regarding two fundamental and related facts: life necessarily ends for each of us at some time, and survivor grief then necessarily follows the death of a loved one. It seems hard for us to understand that we need grief and grief work in order to heal.
We need to grieve, not just to avoid it by living the rest of our lives in a hurried medication mist. However tempting, we must not skip the talking, the listening, and the time that are essential to coping with grief. Being heard helps to quiet the inner screams and tortured nightmares of daytime. It eases our death terror, a universal sensation.9 It helps to recapture elusive emotional stability. It confirms our elemental sanity. “A little light drives away much darkness.”10
One psychological theory, called the Broaden-and-Build theory, suggests that a single positive thought may have a wide spin-off effect. A positive thought leads to a positive emotion. That can broaden out and build into enduring personal resources: physical, intellectual, social, psychological. These biopsychosocial resources support coping and “flourishing”11 mental health. Finding positive meaning even in adversity triggers a positive emotion. This increases the likelihood of finding positive meaning and positive emotion in subsequent events. This is a path of durable personal growth. “The often incidental effect of experiencing a positive emotion [e.g., joy, interest, contentment, pride, and love] is an increase in one’s personal resources. These resources function as reserves that can be drawn on in subsequent moments….Positive emotions should enhance people’s subsequent emotional well-being….”12 An upward spiral was seen in research data. “Individuals who experienced more positive emotions than others became more resilient to adversity over time…”13 It is noted that we devote insufficient attention to the positive attributes of mental wellness.14 Symptoms of mental wellness syndromes such as post-traumatic growth (PTG) should be further specified, described, detailed, and carefully researched. Positive emotions have long-lasting consequences for psychological growth and social connection.
Listening encourages positive thoughts. Listen to grief. We can give new life – if and when we listen. Non-judgmental listening soothes the mourner’s confusion born of loss. It lessens perceived isolation and loneliness. It fosters interconnectedness. It renews self-confidence. It boosts self-esteem. It reinforces resilience. It lifts morale. It raises hope – yes, hope – trust in a future that yet remains unknowable. It represents a promise that life may end but relationships do not die and love will live on. It promotes strength and growth.
For someone whose grief has been met with judgment, an empathic ear can make an enduring difference.15
Everyone sustains loss sometime. The best listeners know listening from inside loss. We do well when we recognize that “these people” who grieve are also ourselves. We are many; we are one.16
It seems ironic that, when someone listens to our tears, we can feel happy again.
Love is a renewable natural resource created expressly for sharing.
Genuine listening, focused and non-judgmental, is an act of love.
And love returned is love renewed.
1. Rabbi Jonathan H. Sacks, PhD, To Heal a Fractured World, New York: Schocken Books, 2005, p. 221. Please see also: http://www.rabbisacks.org
2. Monica Williams-Murphy, MD, and Kristian Murphy, It’s OK to Die, USA: the Authors and MKN, LLC, 2011, p. 31.
Please see also: website www.oktodie.com
3. Joanne Cacciatore, PhD, blog: Center for Loss and Trauma, 26 June 2014, http://drjoanne.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-holy-longing-is-yours-caveat-emptor.html
Please see also: website www.missfoundation.org
4. Lyn Girdler, “The Sound of Loss,” blog: The Manifest-Station, 28 June 2014, http://themanifeststation.net/2014/06/28/the-sound-of-loss
5. Rabbi Sacks, op. cit., p. 221.
6. For a rich, intense musing on disintegration and reintegration in traumatic grief, please see: Joanne Cacciatore, PhD, “My Grief Theory: Black Holes and Novas,” blog: Center for Loss and Trauma, 2 July 2014, http://drjoanne.blogspot.com/2014/07/my-grief-theory-black-holes-and-novas.html
7. Monica Williams-Murphy, MD, e-mail, summer 2013.
8. We can easily accept that a child may be afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when grownups are afraid of the light. (–after Plato)
9. Robert Jay Lifton, MD, The Broken Connection: On Death and the Continuity of life, New York: Basic Books Inc., 1983, p. 399. Please see also: http://www.hiroshimapeacemedia.jp/mediacenter/article.php?story=20081230213542604_en
10. Rabbi Jonathan H. Sacks, PhD, speech delivered at the Becket Fund Canterbury Medal Dinner, 15 May 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocXAqbVy9o8#t=97
11. “To flourish means to live within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience. This definition builds on path-breaking work [by Corey L. M. Keyes, 2002] that measures mental health in positive terms rather than by the absence of mental illness.”
Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD, and Marcial F. Losada, PhD, “Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing,” American Psychologist, vol. 60, no. 7, October 2005, pp. 678-686 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3126111
12. Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD, “The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology: the Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions,” American Psychologist, vol. 56, No. 3, March 2001, pp. 218-226
13. Barbara L. Frederickson, PhD, ibid.
14. Corey L. M. Keyes, PhD, “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 43, no. 2, June 2002, pp. 207-222
http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/23185_Chapter_67.pdf: “We devote much less attention to mental health than to mental illness. Maybe because so little attention has been devoted to mental health, we don’t have a rich vocabulary to talk about it.” (p. 601)
Please see also: http://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/ps/access/NNBBHS.pdf
A definition of mental health according to the report of the U.S. Surgeon General: “Mental health is a state of successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and to cope with adversity. Mental health is indispensable to personal well-being, family and interpersonal relationships, and contribution to community and society.” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mental Health: a Report of the Surgeon General, Rockville, MD: National Institute of Mental Health, NIH, 1999, p. 4)
Also explored in this report is the question of cultural values in defining mental health.
The concept of “psychological wellness” was developed by Emory L. Cowen, PhD, “The Enhancement of Psychological Wellness: Challenges and Opportunities,” American Journal of Community Psychology, vol. 22, no. 2, April 1994, pp. 149-179, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7977176
15. Eli J. Finkel, PhD, “The Trauma of Parenthood,” The New York Times, Sunday, 29 June 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/29/opinion/sunday/the-trauma-of-parenthood.html.
16. Line from the song “Colors of the Spirit” by rock band Journey,http://www.lyricsfreak.com/j/journey/colors+of+the+spirit_20075856.html
It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.
— John Robert Wooden
Rea Ginsberg is a retired director of social work services, hospice coordinator, and adjunct professor of clinical social work.
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