Hopefully last month’s edition of “From the Docs” helped to get you thinking about how your own experience with loss can impact your daily interactions with others while on duty. These next couple questions with Susan Whitmore, founder and CEO of griefHaven, further explore just how much grief can have an impact.
CAN I STILL DO MY JOB EFFECTIVELY WHILE I AM GRIEVING?
Some of this depends upon the job, but for the most part, people do their jobs quite effectively while grieving. No one grieves all the time — grief comes and goes in waves. Sometimes we are impacted more deeply, and the grief takes us to our knees. Other times we have softer feelings of sadness and missing the person. Part of the goal of grieving is to learn the various coping mechanisms that do and don’t work for us. Once someone returns to work, it takes time for them to find out what those are. Sometimes it might mean compartmentalizing their grief so that they can be there for someone else in need. Other times it might mean taking a break by walking away or closing one’s office door and letting the grief out. After my daughter, Erika, died and I returned to the law firm (before I started griefHaven), I had several times throughout a day where I would sit at my desk doing my work, while also wiping tears running down my face. So each person needs to find his or her way.
Grief brings with it many different reactions. Some of the most common are feeling as if things aren’t real, anger/rage, insomnia, reliving what happened over and over, exhaustion and guilt/regret.
When someone we love dies, our brain struggles with the reality that this person is no longer in this world. Over many years, our brain created what Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor calls a brain map. For example, every day at 6 p.m. a man’s wife comes home from work. There is the sound of the garage door opening, the dog getting excited, the garage door closing and the wife walking into the house. This happens for 30 years. After she dies, even though he knows she has died and is not here, his brain will still be looking for her, expecting that door to open. It takes many times of that door not opening before the brain creates new memories that take the place of the old. Very slowly, little by little, we learn to live without our loved one and learn that he or she is never coming back again.
The confusing part of the grieving brain is that it can create a sense of being in a fog or living in a dream, as if nothing feels real. This can impact our ability to remember simple things. If that is the case, a person might make more mistakes than before at work or space out at times. But mostly people find that returning to work is a saving grace, for having a purpose and something to wake up and do every day is a good distraction and helps the person from wandering regularly to those deeply painful and traumatic places.
So, yes, a person can and should grieve while also doing their job. If they need to excuse themselves for a minute because the grief hits, that’s OK.
WHAT ARE THE TOP THREE MYTHS ABOUT GRIEF?
First, that there are stages of grief. There are no “stages” of grief. Grief comes in waves, coming and going. As time goes by and a person does the grief work, the waves come less frequently and, when they do come, they don’t last as long. Secondly, that most marriages end in divorce when a child dies. No one is quite sure how this rumor got started, but somewhere along the way the idea of this rumor gained footing. In fact, most marriages go on to be richer and deeper than ever before. Of course, losing a child puts a huge strain on the relationship because of the enormity of the loss. Yet couples almost always find their way, eventually growing ever closer. Lastly, that grief has an end; you will eventually get over it. There is no end or “closure” to losing someone we love, for it is a lifelong journey, not something one can officially “get over.” We learn to live with our losses while bringing our loved ones with us into our future lives. One of the goals of grief is to figure out how to bring your loved one right along with you in the way that works for you to keep his or her memory alive.
This interview with griefHaven’s Susan Whitmore just barely touched on the impact that loss and grief can have on you in both your personal and professional life. If you think you need some help navigating your grief, please contact Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500 to schedule a confidential and free individual counseling appointment. A huge thank-you to Susan Whitmore and griefHaven for participating in this interview and the support offered to our LASD employees.