I had planned to post on Monday about the Christmas Blues, with helpful survival hints for those who are sad rather than happy this time of year. Now the whole nation is looking at a sad holiday, and a post on grief seemed much more appropriate.
Yesterday, we experienced a tragedy that had grown men weeping unashamedly in front of television cameras–priests and first responders, friends and neighbors of those who had lost children, and even our political leaders.
I heard comments from both sides of the political fence calling for a discussion of “sensible” gun control. (NOTE: this is NOT a post about gun control!) While I have very mixed emotions myself on this topic and know as a psychologist that the issue of violence in our country is much bigger and far more complex than that, I pray that such discussions can occur and remain civil. I doubt my prayers will be answered, and not just because it’s such a political hot potato.
I fear that this tragedy will add to the divisiveness in this country, rather than heal it, because of grief.
There are two very important things to know about grief. One, it is quite illogical and messy, and two, it happens in stages.
Grief blows our sanity out of the water, temporarily at least. People say and do crazy things when they are grieving, and everyone grieves in their own way. Please keep this in mind, not just for yourself, but as you listen and respond to those around you. Don’t take the crazy things they say or do too much to heart, and try not to react to them if they are aimed at you. And give yourself permission to think crazy thoughts, but try not to act on them.
Sadly, we will probably see an increase in suicides this holiday season, beyond the normal up-tick.
Grief happens in stages but the stages don’t always follow a set pattern. Almost always there is shock, numbness and denial first. That is where most of us are today.
Often but not always, the next stage is anger. This is the one that concerns me regarding political discussions. We can pray that our political leaders keep their cool, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
But I am hoping that those of you reading this may avoid some bad experiences this holiday. I would suggest NOT having political discussions with friends and relatives (even ones you think will agree with you, because maybe they won’t; remember, grief is illogical).
Why do we get angry when we grieve? Because we humans have an innate need to find order in our world, to have things make sense. And when something doesn’t make sense, we get pissed off. When we are grieving for an individual loved one, we often get angry at them for dying on us. This is, of course, highly irrational and makes us feel horrible about ourselves, so we often suppress that anger.
Just one problem with suppressed feelings. They don’t go away. They just go underground and come spurting out in other directions.
This is what so often causes family fights over inheritances. It’s not really about who gets Mom’s antique dresser. It’s about ‘I’m angry at Mom for dying but can’t admit that, so I’ll take my anger out on my siblings.’ This of course, is operating subconsciously. Consciously, we really believe that we’re pissed because our siblings (who are also pissed at Mom but can’t admit it) are being so insensitive and selfish.
In this case, I don’t think we’ll have trouble admitting we’re furious that this tragedy happened, but we need to be very careful about where we point that anger. When we’re grieving about something like this, that is so senseless, it is easy to fall into the trap of finger-pointing so we can, one, find an explanation for the unexplainable, and two, have an outlet for our anger.
The next stage in grief is often depression. And the big problem with depression is that it changes our perception filters. When we are depressed, the world and life seem much worse than they really are. This can turn normal grief depression into a downward spiral. Again we need to let ourselves feel the pain and sadness so that we can get those feelings out of our system. But we also need to look for reasons to feel hopeful, and to remind ourselves of the good things in our lives and in our country.
Our nation is flawed, but it is still a great nation! We need to work together to fix the flaws.
Another stage of grief is often bargaining with God. This is more likely to happen when we or someone we love is in the process of dying. We ask for more time or beg for a trade. Take me, not her or him. After a death, this can take crazy forms and can get mixed in with the anger. We may demand answers from God, again looking for order and explanations in a not always orderly world.
This tragedy at Sandy Hook will have many questioning their faith. I have no answers for them but I pray that they find answers that ease their hearts and souls. For myself, I keep reminding myself that we all have free will. This tragedy was not God’s doing; it was the act of a human. As my husband posted on Facebook last night, “Today even God is weeping.”
The progression through these stages of grief is not smooth and linear. It is messy and cyclical. We often go through them several times, in varying order, before we reach the final stage (and sometimes even after we’ve reached that stage).
The final stage is acceptance. In individual grief, this is the point where we come to grips with the loss and begin to truly move on. With regard to tragedies like this one, it’s more about we put it aside and stop thinking about it and get on with life.
Honestly, I hope we never get there with this tragedy. It is not okay to accept such senseless killings. We do need to figure out ways to make our society less violent. I have no answers to this myself, but I pray that we can find those answers in a civil and cooperative manner. Our country is better than this!
Please feel free to leave comments below regarding grief, but know that comments on either side of the political issues involved will be deleted. I do NOT want to have a discussion at this time about gun control or the causes of violence in our society. Right now, we need to band together and help each other grieve.
I will post the Christmas Blues post later this week. Then we will be on a semi-hiatus. We will have a couple light posts on Christmas traditions in some interesting, and warm, places, so our readers can do some vicarious traveling over the holidays. Posts on more serious topics will resume mid-January.
Posted by Kassandra Lamb
JoAnn BassettDecember 15, 2012 at 8:40 pm
Thank you, Kassandra, for giving us some ways to find order in this chaos. I AM feeling angry (I guess I’m quick to go to that second step!). But I appreciate your comment about not holding people to their words and even actions while we all go through the grief process. And I completely concur that it’s wise to avoid political and religious discussions regarding tragedy. Keep your own counsel, people. It can avoid a lot of further damage this holiday season. I also worked in the “helping profession” and I am aware of the sad up-tick of anger, violence and depression during the holiday season. Let’s do whatever we can to love one another. An extra dollar in the bell-ringer kettle, another Toy for a Tot. I’m focused on doing what I can to lift my own spirits and those around me. It’s not much, but it’s how I’m dealing with my overwhelming sadness and anger.
Kassandra LambDecember 15, 2012 at 9:00 pm
Doing a little extra to help others. Yes, JoAnn! Thank you so much for adding that idea. Doing something positive not only brings more joy into the world but it is a powerful antidote for those helpless feelings.
shannon espositoDecember 15, 2012 at 9:25 pm
Thank you for speaking out about this tragedy as a professional. It’s so hard not to be angry, not to want an answer to the question, “Why did this happen?” So senseless and yet life goes on. And that even makes me angry. I think the important thing to remember is that not everything is going to make sense and have answers. Sometimes it’s just about holding each other up so we can stand to face another day.
Kassandra LambDecember 16, 2012 at 4:42 am
I know what you mean, Shannon, about being angry that life goes on. Every time someone said something mundane to me today, like “Good morning,” I got pissed. We see these tragedies pull the country together but then things go back to normal. Hopefully this time we can come together to find some solutions.
K.B. OwenDecember 16, 2012 at 2:03 am
Kass, thanks for a well-considered response. Besides profound sadness and pity for the families going through this, losing children only 6 or 7 years old, I feel…fear.
It was such a wonderful school, with good people and a good community, and yet the unthinkable happened. I imagine the two groups of parents rushing to that school – the ones sobbing in relief as they are reunited with their children…and the other group. I don’t know how they are managing to bear it right now. I held my youngest in my arms last night – a 6th grader – and tried not to cry. Thanking God for the gift of still having him, and thinking that I would just want to die if something happened to him.
I feel so helpless.
Kassandra LambDecember 16, 2012 at 4:51 am
Helpless and scared are right up there with grief for me too, Kathy. My oldest grandson is starting kindergarten next year. I can’t help but think, “This could happen in his school.”
Rhonda HopkinsDecember 16, 2012 at 9:28 am
Thank you for this Kassandra. It is definitely needed.
Jennette Marie PowellDecember 17, 2012 at 4:29 pm
I don’t want to even turn on the news, because it’s all about the shooting, and I find it so disturbing that it only makes it worse when we see the same sound bites repeated over and over and over. I feel so bad for those this had affected directly; not only do they have to deal with their own grief, but they have to put up with the constant presence of the media. And I, too, and dreading the political conversations that are sure to come. Thanks for addressing it in a sane yet compassionate way.
Kassandra LambDecember 17, 2012 at 8:39 pm
Thank you, Rhonda, for helping to spread the word.
Jennette, I can only begin to imagine what those families are going through. I am hoping and praying that something meaningful can come out of this in the form of constructive action. I plan to be writing e-mails and letters to my Congressional leaders reminding them that it is time to be civil and work together. We’ll see.