Excerpts from How We Grieve: Relearning the World

From Chapter 1 - Stories of Grieving:
Listening and Responding

Martin and Louise

Myra, a seventy-eight year old woman, dies in a nursing home after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis. She was admitted to the home only two years earlier when her caregivers at home became physically and psychologically exhausted and reluctantly saw no alternative. Her partially demented husband, Fred, her children Martin and Louise, and five grandchildren ranging in age from five to twenty-three survive her. Nursing home personnel wonder how to bring the news to Fred and support him in his grief. Martin and Louise sigh in relief that her long agony is over yet long for her return, Louise far more intensely than Martin. Martin feels more responsible than ever for their father, yet both feel childlike, as if their parents had abandoned them. The grandchildren need them, yet their own grief makes it hard for them to attend to the children's needs. As adult children who saw Myra's inevitable death coming, they sense that others expect them to "handle it" easily. Consequently, although they feel acutely the need for support from others, they admit this to no one. The grandchildren hurt in their own ways, some grieving for the first time and others confused by the responses of their bereaved parents and siblings.


Nineteen-year-old Jennifer gives birth to a stillborn baby. She feels helpless, ashamed and terribly alone. She has never known such pain. While she is in the recovery room, her well-intentioned parents, John and Denise, attempt to arrange with a funeral director an immediate and quiet disposition of the body. Feeling helpless and somewhat ashamed themselves, they hope to protect their Jennifer from more difficult experiences and painful choices. The funeral director resists. He risks the ire of John and Denise but insists that Jennifer is competent to give direction to her own experiences. He believes that he would be guilty of professional malpractice were he to fail to solicit her wishes directly. He insists she has a right to see the baby if she wishes, to name it, to participate in planning for disposition of the body and the like.

Bill, Diane and Margaret

Bill and Diane, in their late twenties, are stunned by a telephone call while on a second honeymoon, weekend vacation. They left their three children, Ann, Mike and Jimmy, with Diane's sister and closest confidant, Mary. She agreed to stay with them in their own home so that their parents' unusual, brief absence would not disturb them. The call brought terrible news that all four died while sleeping in their home of asphyxiation caused by a gas leak. On hearing the news, Bill pounds his head on the wall and Diane melts into uncontrollable sobbing. They cannot believe what they have heard until they see for themselves. The multiple losses are nearly too much to bear. They were playing in a distant place when all died. The prospect of returning to the home where so many had died daunts them. Although they have always planned a large family, It will be some time before it is possible even to make love, much less contemplate having children again. Indeed, the future is nearly entirely clouded as they experience themselves as deprived of their purpose in living. The women's mother, Margaret, discovered the bodies after trying unsuccessfully to reach Mary by phone in the early morning (when the children usually watched cartoons on TV). Margaret has seen too much. She turns to her husband, Earl, for support, and he tells her that the best thing is to try to forget. She does not press him further both because he is a stubborn man and she fears that he is susceptible to a second, and possibly fatal, heart attack. She does not sleep for months.

Ed, Elise and David

Bobby, age six, dies unexpectedly in an emergency room of gunshot wounds to the abdomen. His parents, Ed and Elise, bring him there after an incident where he removed his father's pistol from a nightstand while playing with a friend, David. The weapon accidentally discharged as he handled it. Ed's guilt crushes him. Attempts to distract himself at work are unavailing. Elise's anger lingers barely beneath the surface, and she suffers from repeated and prolonged bouts of uncontrollable weeping. They hold their feelings inside out of fear of losing the other and thereby compounding their losses. Neither Ed nor Elise can fathom the meaning of a seemingly pointless death of a child so bright with promise. Bobby's brother and sister, Johnny and Melanie, who had seen him playing with the gun previously and said nothing to their parents, silently wish the nightmare would end and Bobby revive. The grandparents, who lectured Ed about the dangers of keeping the gun in the house, cannot console him. David is in shock, given what he witnessed. His parents, Bruce and Barbara, seek professional help for him considering his persistent nightmares, excessive clinging to them, and refusal to return to school. They worry about the long-term effects of this early traumatic experience.


Mark, thirty-eight years old, dies of an inoperable brain tumor and his wife, Kathryn (a nurse), and two children, Josh (5) and Sarah (3) survive him. Although the couple anticipated Mark's death (putting their financial house in order and completing a Living Will) and planned for life after he died (including career development for Kathryn and even possible remarriage), the death nevertheless devastates Kathryn. She and Mark always cooperated extensively and wonderfully in parenting the children. Constructing an independent life, with her children dependent on her now more than ever, presents many challenges. She faces possible physical and emotional overload in meeting both her own needs and those of the children. In her pain and anguish Kathryn searches for the resources to see her through her loneliness and the hard choices and difficult years ahead. She wonders about the fairness of Mark's life ending so early and her children facing a future without a father and about her own capacities to carry on without him. She finds consolation in prayer. She refuses to allow her love for Mark to die along with him. She vows that her children will know who their father was through regularly telling them stories about episodes in his life. The death transforms Josh's and Sarah's lives, too, and they undoubtedly will miss him at virtually all key points in their personal development.


A single woman, Sheila, twenty-eight, kills herself, writes no suicide note, and leaves family and friends with the mystery of her motivations. Her parents, Colleen and Jack, divorced when she was a teen. Although Sheila lived with her mother, she became seriously estranged from her before she escaped to college in a distant state. Hesitant reconciliation began only about a year before her suicide. Each of Sheila's survivors searches her/his soul for the means of understanding the tragic action, and each struggles to reconcile a love for her with hatred for what she has done. Most are uncomfortably silent about Sheila and her death. The sudden and unexpected disruption in their lives embarrasses some who are bothered by the social stigma of suicide, prompts others to resent the apparent selfishness of the act, and tempts still others to pretend the death was accidental. Colleen alone pursues greater understanding of Sheila's life and death through seeking out the friends who knew her in her last years. As she does so, she struggles to understand and forgive herself. She is especially torn by her belief that suicide is an unforgivable sin, and she seeks greater understanding and consolation in prayer.

Stories Are the Heart of the Matter: The Point of Thinking about Grieving

I am well acquainted with stories like these. Most of us have experienced such loss. Some of us may recognize a family member, friend, or ourselves among the people I describe here. Such stories never fail to move me, and when I hear them I want to offer support. Listening itself is helpful, but I want to do more. Those who tell their stories appreciate an attentive, patient ear and long for more in response. They want to be understoodand to be supported as they come to terms with what has happened to them.

Countless such stories shared with me ground my reflections here. My thoughts take root in attentive listening and careful interpretation of what I hear, sometimes between the lines. I hope that the reflections in the pages and chapters to come are faithful to the stories and provide keys to understanding the myriads like them waiting to be told wherever persons lose someone through death. I want my thoughts to motivate others' careful listening and to suggest ways of supporting those they hear.

Each person mentioned above has a life story to tell. Part of what it is to be a person is to embody such a life story. No biography replicates any other. To understand these persons as individuals, you must learn details of each life story and how each person finds identity as those details unfold. Losses through death hold a unique place in each survivor's life story. Individuals and their experiences do not become all of sudden alike when losses occur. No story of loss replicates any other. To understand any one of the experiences of loss sketched above, you must learn details of the story each survivor has to tell about how loss changes profoundly the individual's experience of the world and limits what is possible in the next chapters of each biography. You must learn how the death disrupts differently the flow of each survivor's life story. You must learn how each faces distinct challenges and struggles to go on in the next chapters of life


I flesh out each of the stories sketched above in greater detail in chapters to follow. I do so, in part, to illustrate some of the diversity of experiences of loss through death. I cannot, and do not, pretend to be comprehensive in capturing the limitless variety of possible loss and coping experiences. I strive only to be representative.

I also elaborate on these stories to sustain focus where I believe it belongs, that is, on the poignancy of disruption of life entailed by loss and on the daunting challenges persons address as they cope. In treating concrete, vivid, personal accounts prominently, I reverse the usual emphasis in developing ideas about loss and coping. Commonly, writers and speakers emphasize their ideas and treat stories as merely anecdotal. I believe that stories of loss through death are the heart of the matter in reflection on loss and coping. As I see it, the point of developing any ideas on the subject is to enable better understanding of, and more effective response to, individuals living with loss. I believe that the most important test of the worth of the ideas I develop is whether they enhance understanding of individual stories. I regularly introduce new ideas through story-telling to show how the ideas do such service. I want to develop general ideas about how loss through death disrupts the flow of life stories only insofar as the ideas can serve as keys to understanding how specific losses disrupt individual biographies. I want to develop general ideas about coping with loss only insofar as the ideas can serve as keys to understanding how coping changes the course of particular lives. I want to develop general ideas about effective means of supporting persons as they cope with loss only insofar as the ideas can serve to shape effective support for individuals struggling with challenges uniquely their own. At best, the ideas I develop can in these ways ease entrance into dialogue with the individuals we care about and hope to comfort or serve as prelude to understanding our own loss experiences and coping needs.


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