After seeing firsthand that grief is lasting, sociologist finds ways to cope
There is a story many know about Queen Victoria of England, who mourned her husband Albert by leaving his room, his clothes in the closet, and all his things exactly as he left them the day he died. Here in the U.S., people always thought that quite strange. Here, we are expected to "get over it" or "get past it," especially as the years move on.
But that's not how it works. How it works is a little-known thing I call "long-term grief."
A lot has been written about the stages of grief -- notably Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. And there are other insightful books on the death of a spouse, a child, a parent.
But there is something else -- long-term grief, the subject of this column. This type of grief doesn't "go away." And you don't "get through it," nor "get past it." What one can do, over time, is figure out some positive ways for how to cope with it and manage it.
Long-term grief goes on for 20 years or more, probably a lifetime. If you, or a family member, or a friend have lost someone very dear, you know what I mean. You are experiencing this or have seen others with long-term grief.
It's not something people talk about much -- but it's there, not far below the surface. There are all the memories of happy times. But there is no end to the grief. It lingers. Even years later, it just sweeps over you, uninvited.
I thought it would be helpful to share with others some experiences of people who have navigated this ongoing journey.
It is common during funerals and memorial services for people to say things like this: "It's a blessing they're not suffering anymore," or "In a way, I'm sure it's a relief," or "Now at peace."
These are usually wrong and not comforting. Even if there is relief, such a feeling may carry with it a sense of guilt, and so is not comforting to hear.
Of course, one must bear the first days, weeks, months of gut-wrenching pain while facing the immediate reality of death. We are carried forward by all the activity and support of family and friends and all the ceremonies and events. But then what to do?
So the journey starts … leading eventually to finding ways of coping with and managing long-term grief.
My own wonderful husband of 44 years, Baheej, died six years ago of a totally unexpected stroke. It was the night after we came home from our health clinic, where he had a very favorable annual check up. He had driven us home about six hours from where we had stayed the night before at a beautiful riverside hotel.
When we got home, we were tired and left the luggage in the car. We sat down to watch the TV news and have a little supper. I fell asleep in front of the TV and when I awoke at about 10 p.m. I saw something had happened to Baheej. I called 911.
Baheej was a special person, joyful and a wonderful father, husband and friend. He was a sociology professor. His students loved him. He spoke English, Hebrew and Arabic fluently. A Christian Arab from Nazareth near the Sea of Galilee, he came to the U.S. to get his Ph.D. and became a citizen. He was caring, generous, helpful, affectionate and brilliant. It is so very sad to lose all that brilliance. Six years later, I still weep thinking about him.
I'm not Queen Victoria, but most of his clothes are still in his closet, and his office is still left with all his things in place. For me, the journey had begun.
• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a Ph.D. in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at sakhleif@ comcast.net or see her blog longtermgrief.tumblr.com.