My podcast guest for December was internist and psychiatrist Dr Katherine Shear, from The Center for Prolonged Grief at Columbia in New York City. I am always excited to interview my guests and bring their information and perspective to caregivers. My plan to speak to Dr Shear in the midst of the holiday season was to bring some comfort to those who are grieving.
People don’t associate grief and the holidays, but for many, they go together like peanut butter and jelly. The holidays add another layer of stress to grievers, pressure to carry on as usual, be happy and excited while being anything but.
Dr Shear’s insight into grief as the response to loss was eye opening. She said, “if death is a permanent state, which I think we believe it is, then we’re always going to have some response to that. And the other half of adapting is restoring the capacity for thriving or well being for our own selves. So what that means is that that grief is going to be with us for the duration, but it’s not going to stay the same. And in general, what it does is it gradually subsides in intensity and in a sort of dominance in our minds, so that it moves really into the background. I like to say sometimes it softens or quiets down, and it stays there, mostly stays there. But then it can also get activated, even years later, by certain events that happen, or times of the year or whatever.”
Listening to her expertise and the compassion she conveyed made me feel less anxious and untethered. I hope anyone who listens feels that way too.
Over these last seven months since my mother passed, all the grievers I have spoken to share the same theme. Along with their overwhelming grief, they feel alone and unsupported. They feel misunderstood and rushed to “get over it already.” The lack of empathy from people in their lives is shocking and very disappointing. As Brene Brown explains, rarely does an empathetic response start with “at least” and yet how often do we hear that.
The intellectual side of my brain wants to understand what happens when we grieve. I’ve read many books which were helpful, but much like my caregiving journey, the most help I have received has been through those who have been there, done that. The experience of engaging with people who have been there is invaluable. The validation and support, sometimes from complete strangers, help.
If you are grieving, please know there is nothing wrong with you. Grief is not a problem that needs to be fixed. Your grief is valid, and you are allowed to express yourself however you want. If you do not have support in your life, if you feel like no one understands what you are feeling, please reach out to a grief group or grief counselor who can help you work through it.