Making Decisions in Grief
The James Reid Funeral Home
Bereavement Support Program
Monday, October 1st, 2018, 7 pm
Sarah Reid Hedberg
Thoughts While Lying in Bed. . .
Do I really need to pick up that prescription today?
There’s never enough parking near the pharmacy. I hate driving in the rain. That new pharmacist doesn’t know my name. I’m sure she’ll take forever finding it and my hip will get sore standing.
John would have made it fun, making little jokes, taking my mind off these things. Everything’s so much harder now.
Then there are the practical questions:
Should I book a winter trip down south?
Muriel was sick for so long, I just never thought I’d travel again. A year after her death, I’m physically able, I have the money, but I wonder how it will be to go to our timeshare without her? Maybe I should pick a new spot, but then I won’t have anyone to go golfing with or out for dinner. I’m 78, a bit old to make new friends, don’t you think?
What do I do for Thanksgiving?
The first year after our son Dave died, we didn’t have anyone over and I didn’t cook a meal or decorate. I just couldn’t. People were nice and invited us over, but we didn’t want to go and pretend. Thanksgiving Sunday and Monday felt as long as a week, maybe a month. We both were thinking of him, seeing him in his chair. Maybe we should have done something. This year, I’m going to cook the meal and my sister and her family are coming.
Making decisions in grief is demanding.
What is a decision you are facing?
This month at this Public Information Evening with the James Reid Bereavement Support Program, we will explore the dynamics of making decisions in grief and offer support as you face them.
Our discussion will follow three topics:
- common experiences of bereaved people
- decisions many people face in grief
- guidelines for making these decisions.
1. Common Experiences Of Bereaved People
Linda and I talked a month after her husband died. Her life was very busy with bank & lawyer appointments to settle his estate. Out-of-town guests had just left, and she was alone for the first time in their house. She thought she was doing pretty well, considering. She was waking in the night still—she had when her husband was sick for the last year and a half.
Four months later, Linda sounded very shaky. “I thought it would be better by now,” she said. The estate was under control, and she’d slept through the night a couple of times. But she was thinking about her husband more and more. It was sinking in that he wasn’t coming back. She was having panic attacks, even while driving. Sometimes it felt like she couldn’t cope. She didn’t know if she should go on the trip she’d planned with her daughter. She’d lost 15 lbs, which was okay, but she didn’t know how. She cried with frustration that she’d forgot her grocery list that morning and found it filed under Utilities in their file folder. She quietly mentioned that she didn’t want to be here anymore.
Grief is a normal and natural response to the experience of someone dying. It doesn’t feel normal however! There are common experiences that many bereaved people go through. They may make us feel we are crazy, but we’re not. We’re grieving.
What is normal in grief?
- Waves of feeling. Doing okay, and then grief hits out of nowhere. Bad enough you don’t want to be here.
- Low energy, G.I. problems. Heart or chest pains. Change in appetite, sleep.
- Mood swings. Wonder why daily life is important. Fixate on a thought.
- Forgetfulness. “Ditzy” behavior. Decreased competency.
- Reading not possible for some. Focus is blurred. Preoccupation with loss.
- Busyness easily taxes the body. Get burned out & need to recalibrate.
No two people grieve exactly alike.
It is essential to give oneself permission to do or say or feel things one’s own way. Grief is very personal. And yet it is a universal experience, and a verifiable one too.
Poets are one testimony:
Henry VI, Part III Act II, Scene I, Line 85
To weep is to make less the depth of grief.
O’ Lord have mercy on me in my anguish. My eyes are red from weeping; my health is broken from sorrow.
In our times, we have biochemistry:
Think of it like this: let’s say you have 100 currents of brain power for each day. Right now, the enormity of grief, trauma, sadness, missing, loneliness, takes up 99 of those energy currents. That remaining 1 current is what you have for the mundane and ordinary skills of life (Devine).
And scientists are able to explain why “grief brain” occurs.
Why is this happening? Your brain is trying to recover. You are experiencing a deep biological response to your loss, just as you are experiencing physical, psychological, and emotional responses. Hormones and chemicals are released, internal reactions are disrupted, important bodily systems shift into emergency mode. And it all starts in the brain (Fane).
Consider these areas of the brain and how scientists believe grief symptoms affect them:
The parasympathetic nervous system: This section of your autonomic nervous system is in the brain stem and lower part of your spinal cord. In this system, which handles rest, breathing, and digestion, you may find that your breath becomes short or shallow, appetite disappears or increases dramatically, and sleep disturbance or insomnia become an issue.
The prefrontal cortex/frontal lobe: The functions of this area include the ability to find meaning, planning, self control, and self expression. Scientific brain scans show that loss, grief, and traumas can significantly impact your emotion and physical processes. Articulation and appropriate expression of feelings or desires may become difficult or exhausting.
The limbic system: This emotion-related brain region, particularly the hippocampus portion, is in charge of personal recall, emotion and memory integration, attention, and your ability to take interest in others. During grief, it creates a sensory-oriented, protective response to your loss. Perceiving loss and grief as a threat, the amygdala portions of this system instructs your body to resist grief. You may experience strong instinctual or physical responses to triggers that remind you of your losses. (Fane)
Grief affects our brain chemistry. The short-term experience of grieving after an intimate loss is an experience of the body, soul, mind, and heart.
These experiences lessen in intensity over time. The waves will bring them back by times. The time between the waves will lengthen, and the intensity of them will shorten.
2. Making Decisions In Grief
Therefore, bereaved people have difficulties making decisions. It makes sense: you are not who you were. The death of your person is changing you. I hope you are starting to understand why. Grief brain is real. It won’t always be your brain, but it is now. Think of it as a new member of the family. It’s a little less robust than you, it’s a little more needy, and a little like a toddler, or a teenager! But it’s yours, and it helps to welcome it in and treat it with TLC while it’s with you.
Some common decisions bereaved people are faced with:
- What to do with his/her things?
- What to do with friends who don’t get my new reality?
- Where to sleep in the house?
- To move or not to move?
- Whether to take medications or not?
- What to do with his or her cremated remains?
- To go back to work/school or change or stop work/school?
- How to reach out to people, find companionship?
- Whether mom/dad should now go to a retirement/nursing home?
- What to do when I feel crazy, depressed, and/or very overwhelmed?
3. Guidelines for Making Decisions
Most grief professionals advise against making any major life changes or decisions for 6 months to a year after the death of someone close. What’s behind this? All the common experiences of grief that we looked at in the first point usually lessen objectivity. Our decision-maker inside of us is not what it was.
And yet, a change may help you to heal. Your setting, for example, may be holding you hostage to painful memories that moving may free you from. Only you know.
What would he or she have said? Many people can imagine their loved one’s opinion on the decision. Does this help you make the decision?
Reading articles and books and speaking with others and groups like this can help you sort through your decisions.
There are websites with advice, such as this article on a common decision from whatsyourgrief.com:
Sorting Through Belongings
Though the practical items may have deadlines and consequences if not quickly addressed, equally as important is to prioritize those which will help maintain your sanity. That will vary from person to person. Some people are going to feel like they are losing it if they can’t bag up everything immediately and start getting rid of it. Other people are going to want to keep everything in its place for as long as possible. Like so many things in grief, there is no right way or wrong way. But one thing that is almost always helpful is to make a plan. Bagging everything up and trashing it without thinking it through? Not a good idea. Avoiding going through items for years because you just don’t want to face it? Also not a good idea!
The death of your loved one was your primary loss. Stemming from his or her death are secondary losses: of live-in companion, or being a daughter or son or joking buddy. A big secondary loss is a decision-making partner. You’ve lost your sounding board.
Our life before our husband/wife/child/mother/father/friend’s death:
- was familiar, thus fewer choices had to be made daily
- had a routine, a system, a rhythm
- was in relationship: when & what to eat influenced by other’s preferences; work was necessary for providing; health needs of other controlled your time; entertainment options were those that couples or families do (going to movies, restaurants, age-related shows such as puppet shows, school/work events, or Legion Dances)
After their death, we can allow ourselves to choose.
“Getting up out of the chair is different from choosing to make a choice to get up. We can choose to have a choice” (Mulder). Think about it! …
Our choices can be fluid, can change. They don’t have to be right or wrong (unless they are moral choices). Keep choosing.
For example, social situations may surprise us in ways we cannot prepare for. We may find ourselves breaking down in the midst of a party when someone says they are sorry for our loss.
But we can choose to have a choice: we can leave early, excuse ourselves from a challenging conversation, we can blow our nose loudly and laugh. We can decide to stay home next time, or to bring a close friend.
An Australian example: “You can think, oh, I will go to Melbourne next month and buy ticket; then you learn about something going on in Sydney and think, “oh, that wasn’t such a good choice. I will go to Sydney. I will lose that money on the flight. I will lose that money. How will that affect my life?” (Mulder)
“Choices, good or bad, give us an awareness” (Mulder). They teach us to pay attention to how we live. As we take up the awareness of our choices, we can be clearer, more intentional about how we live.
Our grief has likely sensitized us to our fragility. A bereaved person is experiencing reality they did not choose. This is humbling. Bereavement can make us more compassionate. This can help us to make choices, if we are less concerned with making the right choice. We can feel, in our sorrow, that we are only human, doing our best in an imperfect world.
We can allow ourselves to listen to our instincts and to learn, and re-learn, to make decisions in our grief.
Devine, Megan. Grief Brain is a Real Thing. Refuge in Grief: Emotionally Intelligent Grief Support. Retrieved from http://www.refugeingrief.com/grief-brain/ Oct 4, 2016
Fane, Barbara. “Grief Symptoms: How Grief Affects the Brain.” http://barbarafane.com/grief-symptoms-how-grief-affects-the-brain/ Oct 4, 2016
Mulder, Wendy. (May 27, 2014). Moving Beyond Grief [Audiopodcast]. Retrieved from iTunes
Sorting through belongings. (Feb 1, 2013). What’s Your Grief. Retrieved from www.whatsyourgrief.com/sorting-through-belongings