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Grieving has no playbook, but an informed approach can ease suffering

"Knowing the difference between pain and suffering can help you understand what thing can be changed and what things simply need your love and attention,” Megan Devine said.
Gabriel Perez
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"Knowing the difference between pain and suffering can help you understand what thing can be changed and what things simply need your love and attention,” Megan Devine said.

Loss comes in many forms, from the death of a loved one to the failure of worldly endeavors.

Here is a general assumption most will agree is true: Almost every human being who’s ever lived will undergo some form of grief or mourning, that they will struggle to recover emotionally from the loss of a loved one.

Another assumption that is generally accepted is that all humans have their own way of processing that grief. They all deal with it differently from, say, their siblings or their parents or the aunts and uncles or their best friends.

I am going through it myself. A little more than one month ago my wife of 51 years passed away from a savage form of brain cancer. You’ve heard of glioblastoma, yes? It has taken the lives of notable politicians, such as U.S. Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy, as well as Beau Biden, the elder son of President Joe Biden.

That it struck Kathy Anne down so rapidly and with such brutality only has worsened the grief I am feeling at this moment. We took her to the ER on Dec. 26, where the doctors informed us she had a mass in her brain. A surgeon took some of it out the next day. Kathy Anne was preparing for radiation and chemotherapy treatment when, on Jan. 26, she suffered a grand mal seizure … from which she never recovered. She passed away on Feb. 3.

Here is another truth: Anyone who endures such loss must take comfort in this bit of truth: No one is alone in their struggle; others have gone through it before and for as long as human beings exist there will be many more who will suffer the immense pain far into the future.

Does any of that lessen the pain in real time? Are we supposed to take that knowledge and then pass it off as something that will just go away – like a common cold or a headache? Not a chance.

They write books about grief and mourning. The world is full of experts who profess to know how they have dealt with it and they impart knowledge to the rest of the world based on their own experience.

Megan Devine is one such “expert” on grief. She suffered a horrible loss when her partner, a fellow named Matt, drowned. Devine holds a master’s degree in psychology and has written a book titled “It’s OK That You’re Not OK.”

She writes: “We all want to talk about our pain. We all carry stories that need acknowledgement. But right now? Right now, when you are in pain, when your loss is primary and powerful? That is not the time for a two-way, give-and-take discussion about the losses we all sustain. Grief comparison and shared grief stories do not bring you comfort. Of course they don’t.”

I know of which she writes. Friends and family members want to say the correct words, except that when they tell you that they “know how you feel,” they really don’t know. They cannot get into the heads or the hearts of the aggrieved. Those who can either are clairvoyant or they possess some unknown super-human power that is exclusive to them only.

Nick Patras is head of counseling at Texas A&M University-Commerce; Patras earned his doctorate in counselor education. He has seen grief and mourning up close, first as an employee in the funeral industry and then as a counselor at TAMUC.

“Our focus here is on the students,” Patras said, explaining that college students must deal with the “death of a grandparent, a parent or even the death by suicide of friends. These students have to navigate their way through the mourning process.”

Grief and mourning, Patras said, “are unique to each individual. Their level of grief will depend on the level of the relationship with the individual they are mourning.”

Students, he said, also occasionally have to deal with a rather unique form of mourning. “Sometimes students who are on academic probation must deal with the loss of their educational and career aspirations,” Patras said. “Students come here and enroll in pre-med, or pre-vet or pre-nursing,” he said, “and then they see their academic potential taken away. They decide that ‘This just isn’t for me.’ Then they see their hopes and dreams are derailed. Many students then go into a form of mourning over that loss, too.”

We all have heard of the various “stages of grief.” They remain a mystery to many of us who are going through it. My own stages deal mostly with the intensity and frequency of emotion that pours forth unexpectedly. It comes without warning, although it is most common when the discussion turns to Kathy Anne. It is getting easier with each day – or maybe two – to discuss life with her without blubbering.

One piece of advice that is worth retaining is to “live each day as if it’s your final day.” Yes. I’ll take that advice. Take nothing for granted and do not allow the little irritations to get you down. It’s OK to burst out with anger, but then let it disappear.

But as we trudge on through the beginning of the rest of our life it becomes easier to avoid even the angry bursts. Honest to goodness … it’s true!

Devine writes: “The way to live inside of grief is not by removing pain, but by doing what we can to reduce suffering. Knowing the difference between pain and suffering can help you understand what thing can be changed and what things simply need your love and attention.”

Devine devotes a section of Chapter 7 to the difference between pain and suffering, noting: “Pain is pure and needs support rather than solutions, but suffering is different. Suffering can be fixed, or at least significantly reduced.” Pain, she implies, remains in some form virtually for as long as we live.

Kenneth Haugk founded Stephen Ministries after his wife died in 2002 of ovarian cancer. He is a pastor and a clinical psychologist who also has written a booklet, “A Time to Grieve.”

In the book, he cites the “Three Ns” of grief. He calls it “normal, natural” and “necessary.” He writes, “(S)ometimes people still feel pressured not to grieve. The message they receive is that grief is optional, abnormal, or even a sign of weakness. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Grief is a normal, natural and necessary process.” Haugk implores us to “give yourself permission to grieve.”

I have no particular need to grant myself “permission” to grieve. It comes naturally and easily.

The only times I “apologize” is when I cannot complete a sentence while speaking of Kathy Anne. The response always has been in the weeks since her passing that “It’s OK. Take your time. I get it.” The understanding from friends is most appreciated and, indeed, these words expressing that appreciation seem so inadequate.

Feb. 3, 2023 was – without a doubt – the worst day of my life. I watched my bride slip away. The days that come along will be better than the previous days. President Biden – who lost his first wife and infant daughter in an auto accident in 1972, and then his grown son to glioblastoma in 2015 – tells us that one day we will smile when we think of those we have lost.

I know that day is out there.

The triumph over grief and mourning, Patras said, occurs when someone can “come to grips with the new reality and whether that new reality makes sense. It’s all about making sense of that new reality.”

It’s good to rely on the wisdom of those who have experienced deep emotional pain. As Megan Devine writes: “No one can enter the deepest heart of grief. We here, even the ones who know this magnitude of pain – we are not there with you inside your deepest grief. That intimacy is yours alone.

“But together, we recognize each other and bow to the pain we see. Our hearts have held great, great sorrow. Through that pain, we can be there for each other. As our words knock on the doors of each other’s hearts, we become way stations for each other.

“The truth is, also: you are not alone.”