Prime Time Living - Page 18 - A Sudden Jolt

Prime Time Living
- Page 18
A Sudden Jolt
Losing contemporaries brings a new level of grief

By Margit B. Weisgal, Contributing Writer

Four years ago, I had four friends with both parents living, a rarity. Today, there are none – not surprising since they were all in their 80s or 90s. It seemed, suddenly, we were the senior generation, the next in line to be on that downhill slope.

Relatively speaking (pun intended), we were expecting this spate of deaths. We watch our parents age, become a little more infirm, have more aches and pains and slow down a bit more every day. “It’s the natural sequence of events,” says Dr. Miriam Alexander, M.D., M.P.H., medical director for employee health and wellness at LifeBridge Health. “Others around you have been in the same position, so it’s ‘normal,’ although each experience is different based on the relationship we had with the parent.” While they’re alive, though, they act as a buffer, protecting us from reaching the top of the heap.

What we aren’t prepared for, aren’t braced for, is when our siblings and contemporaries – people our age – join that roll. Consequently, my best friend’s quick demise in a few short months left me stunned. Then, my baby brother’s death, even though he’d been ill, was a shock, causing a form of grief far different than the result of losing a parent. These losses, you say to yourself, are not normal, and they evoke a feeling of vulnerability. After all, 60 is the new 40; we’re not supposed to be weak and defenseless. They make us feel mortal.

But, says Alexander, this is the norm. “It’s usual to have very strong feelings about losing someone your own age. It complicates how painful the loss is, so our anger and incipient vulnerability – and these emotions are what we often feel, more than anything else – take different forms. We’ll say ‘if only’ a lot. If only they hadn’t smoked. If only they had taken better care of themselves. If only they’d lost weight and exercised more. If only …” “You know your parents will die. I just never thought about my sister dying.

She was overweight, she had all kinds of problems, but you think you’ll always have that person there to talk to,” relates Catherine Tuerk, a clinical psychotherapist in Washington, D.C. “You’re going about your business, focused on a list of tasks you have to complete, when you’re brought up short because you know she’s no longer around.”

George Bonanno, writing in “American Psychologist,” posits “that resilience represents a distinct trajectory from the process of recovery, that resilience in the face of loss or potential trauma is more common than is often believed, and that there are multiple and sometimes unexpected pathways to resilience.”

And we are resilient. We bounce back from death, even with those closest to us, because life does go on. That does not mean these people weren’t significant.

They were – and are. They remain an intrinsic part of you. “I believe people are alive as long as I remember them,” says Minna Paulsen. “At home, there’s a memorial wall with photos of those I care about who are no longer around. It’s another way to honor them and say I miss them. And memories of them make me smile.”

Each death is unique, just as each relationship is unique. Losing your best friend, for instance, means losing a part of yourself, the part you two shared, and is irreplaceable. You were each other’s sounding board, therapist and confidant.

Within your family, each brother or sister has a different connection. You don’t always understand someone else’s grief after a loss. It’s intensely personal. Respect that each of us mourns in our own way.

We may go through a roller coaster of symptoms, physical, mental and emotional. Use whatever coping mechanisms help you manage your sadness. Reach out to friends or, if needed, find a support group or therapist. This, too, is to be expected.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying,” defined the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In 2005, she wrote “On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss,” acknowledging the stages of grief may come at different times, not necessarily in that original order. And maybe there are a few other stages in between.

Eventually, we all come to acceptance. We just do it in our own time frame. One additional thought. As much as we miss these people being in our lives, we are richer for having known them. Yes, there’s now a hole they used to fill, but treasure that they were there because the alternative would have been unthinkable. There is no right way or wrong way to deal with death. Echo Frank Sinatra and do it your way. And that’s OK. •