(This was first posted on Feb. 1, 2013. Contrary to the first paragraph, it ended up NOT being the final post on depression–a couple more to follow.)
I believe this will be the final Friday Depression post. I’m thinking of moving on to other counseling topics, and I would love your input. If there is something you’d like to suggest as a future post, please comment here, or on my page, or via Facebook or email. I really hope you’ll help me out with some ideas. The response to these Friday posts has been so encouraging to me. I’d like to continue with something else that will be helpful.
Today, I want to address how depression and grief are closely related. In my practice, I often see widows or widowers who are so deeply grieving that they can hardly function in their daily lives. They come to counseling hoping to find out what is wrong with them, and when I say, “There is nothing wrong with you. You are experiencing a normal grief reaction to the deepest loss of your life. Go ahead and grieve, and don’t worry about the people who tell you to get past it now, and move on with your life. They don’t understand, although they believe they are helping you. They haven’t experienced your particular path, even if they have themselves lost a spouse. Each individual has to grieve his own loss in his own way. There is no right way to grieve. Nobody gets to make the rules for how you deal with your loss.”
Back in the early 1900’s, polio was a greatly-feared plague that crippled and killed children by the score. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross worked with polio victims, and witnessed often the deep grief of parents whose precious children were torn from them. She observed their grief and developed what we now refer to as The Five Stages of Grief, a model to help people understand that what they’re enduring is normal. Here is a chart of these stages of grief, with a sixth stage included:
Shock and denial is the typical reaction to the death of a loved one. I believe God has provided this reaction as a buffer to help us absorb what has happened. I remember when my nephew was killed in a drunk driving accident when he was only 23; then, 19 months later, his dad, my only brother, was killed in a one-vehicle rollover. The grieving over my nephew was compounded by the fresh shock of his dad’s way-too-early death. He was almost 49. I live very far away from where they were, so the loss for me wasn’t nearly as difficult as it was for my mom, niece, sister, and sister-in-law. Still, there was a period of time in which the unreality helped me to begin to accept that I would never see them again in this life.
One important observation here is that these stages may or may not come in the order shown on this chart; also, most people cycle through them multiple times during the grieving process, It’s not a one-size-fits-all deal, nor is it once-and-done.
Anger is a natural part of grieving. A life has been cut short, and there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to bring it back. Don’t feel guilty about being angry. Anger is never called a sin in the Bible; it is how we act out our anger that makes sin a part of the picture.
Bargaining is also normal. Some have called this “foxhole Christianity,” because of the tendency of soldiers dug into holes in the ground to say, “God, if You’ll just get me out of this alive I promise I’ll serve You for the rest of my life.” Bargaining is an attempt on our part to make some sense out of what has happened.
And now, depression. The loss is overwhelming. Sometimes, it is accompanied by financial instability, which is very frightening for a widow, especially, who has never handled the finances. The survivor is swamped by loneliness, fear, dread of the future. Anxiety comes barging into the person’s life, dominating and controlling like a bully on the school playground. There is no escape. Loss of sleep becomes a state of being; hunger goes away, desire for friends and companionship dwindles to nothing. There is no joy, no future, no purpose, no point in going on. Deep weeping, sobbing, moaning and fear begin to characterize the person whose life has suddenly been turned upside down. For many, it means selling a beloved home; moving in with children, or going to an apartment. The loss of treasured belongings triggers more depression. It seems as if the pit just keeps getting deeper. Despair is very black, and very lonely.
That is often the point at which people come to seek professional help. Sometimes an anti-depression/anti-anxiety medication is indicated and is helpful. But the most helpful thing I can do for people in this situation is to assure them repeatedly that it is normal. What they are experiencing is normal, and they are not crazy, insane, losing their minds. It takes time–a lot of time–to process such a fundamental life change. Sometimes it’s even worse if the marriage was difficult, because now the survivor experiences guilt on top of everything else.
If you are walking this difficult path, or someone in your life has had such a loss, it is important to talk. It helps the person to repeat the story of what happened. It may seem like endless repetition to those who listen, but it is therapeutic and even necessary for the person to be able to verbalize this most cataclysmic event. Patience on the part of others will help the grieving person to heal. And don’t forget, some day it will be you.
In my experience, it takes up to three years before the most acute grieving is done. It does slowly get better during this period of time, but there are difficult days that roll around every year that slow down the process. Birthdays, anniversaries, the date of the death, family holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, all bring a fresh sense of loss. This is normal.
Finally, acceptance of the new normal begins to set in, and the person begins to be able to make plans and carefully enter a new phase of life. Here are some things you can do if you are trying to help a person through the grief process:
1. Listen. Endlessly.
2. Reassure the person that her grief is normal.
3. Share the tears. Go ahead and cry with her. It’s good therapy.
4. Pray for and with the grieving person. A broken heart is acutely painful.
5. Never tell the person, “It’s been six months–a year–two years–you need to put this behind you and get on with your life,” You are piling guilt onto grief. Don’t. It’s unkind.
6. Include the grieving person. If she is a widow, she will be acutely aware of how alone she is now. If he is a widower, he often just wants to sit at home and fall deeper into depression. You can help.
7. Watch, learn, and listen. Someday it will be your turn.
Hope will surface again, especially for the believer who knows she will one day see her loved one again. God is always good. Death is a normal part of life.