Grief comes in stages. The first stage is shock. When Jim was fired he couldn’t believe what he heard…it was too unreal … the words didn’t seem to register. He finished out his last day at work “in the fog.”
Helen’s husband, Mac, was killed in a tractor accident. When the emergency room people confirmed his death she didn’t cry. She sat down and calmly began to figure out whom she should call first. She decided to call the dry cleaners to see if Mac’s black suit was ready yet.
Shock is nature’s way of helping a grieving person cope through the first hours and days. It is not unhealthy; it is natural. Shock, like fog, slows us down when we need it most.
Many people don’t realize they’re in shock. Betty lost Scott to cancer. Scott was 48. The diagnosis, surgery, new hope, final despair and death all happened with half a year. Betty prided herself on her “computer-like mind.” To prove how well she was coping she told her brother two days after Scott’s death, “I’ve decided to get married again.” She didn’t think she was anything but logical. Underneath her impeccably logical mind was shock. She was trying to prove to others that she was in control of her life because if she could make others believe it then she could believe it herself. Under her statement was a delicate fear: “How can I make it alone?” Betty was more comfortable being “Mrs.,” and she wanted to keep it that way.
Disbelief plays a part in the first stage of grieving. Remember when you heard the news that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated? Was your first reaction something like, “I don’t believe it!” “It can’t be true!” “Is this some kind of a sick joke?” Disbelief is a way to buy some “time out.” Time to get things sorted out and to organize a less radical defense mechanism. Disbelief helps you “take it a little at a time.”
Some people remain unconvinced of the death until they see the cadaver. Viewing the corpse presents the griever with the stark reality of death. Miners may risk their own lives to recover bodies from a dangerous mine…to give evidence to the new widows that their husbands are “for sure dead.” Verification of death helps in mourning. This is a reason why widows of soldiers missing in action have such a hard time with their grief.
Disbelief plays a part in divorce, too. Nancy couldn’t believe Ed would go through with the divorce because, “This can’t be happening–we just built a new home!” Mary’s husband moved to another bed, then to another apartment; but Mary denied the importance of his leaving, “We’ll get back together. We have to.”
Often people deny their loss because they are insecure, frightened. C. S. Lewis, author of A Grief Observed a book written after his wife’s death, describes how grief and fear are alike: “No one ever told me that grief felt like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”
What should be done for a person in grief-shock? Be near, or be available. This is NOT the time to comfort the mourner! Don’t try to talk or reason the mourner out of his grief. The Hebraic Talmud instructs, “One should not comfort the mourner while his dead lies before him.” The Rev. Robert Bailey, author of “The Minister and Grief” warns against superficial “God-talk,” like “It’s God’s will;” “It’s part of His divine plan.” Too often the would-be comforter, embarrassed with his own discomfort and desperately wanting to supply answers, offers trite clichés and simple recipe solutions like “time heals all wounds.”
Instead of trying to offer comfort, a friend can do a valuable service by simply and directly expressing his own grief. In ancient times grieving people in some cultures smeared ashes in their hair, tore their clothes, and even hired professional mourners to help them grieve. Be a professional; grieve.
Offering condolences is appropriate. Condolences are not ways of talking a mourner out of his grief nor are condolences sermons. “Condolence” (from the Latin words “con” and “dolores”) means literally, “sorrowing with.” Offer condolences; share you grief. It helps…both of you.
Above all, do not try to comfort the mourner by saying, “I know just how you feel.” This is one of the worst clichés to lay on a person new to grief. You don’t know just how he feels. Don’t claim to. Period.
This first stage of grief, shock, usually lasts two or three days. Shock beyond three or four days may provide early evidence of an unhealthy grieving process, a chronic and unyielding grief. This type of grief reaction is rare. Very few people are unable to work through their grief. Grief, like a wound, leaves scars; but the wound does heal. Prolonged wailing, weeping (in a detached manner), divorced from a sense that it’s really happening, is a clue to trouble. In such rare cases the mourner should be referred to a professional helper. Since people in trouble with their grief almost never seek help on their own, a friend may be needed to insure that help is sought.
What about medication? Certainly sedatives (alcohol included) prescribed simply because a person is grieving are improper. Chemical calmness may prolong numbness and inhibit grief work. Yet during this time of emotional upheaval nighttime sedation may be indicated on an individual basis to insure adequate rest. Nighttime, when activities are slack, is an especially difficult time, but a mourner should try to cope without medication. “Better life through chemistry” is a great slogan, but it offers too easy a solution which turns out to be no solution at all–only a delay.
Dr. Parkes, a national expert on how people grieve, reports that intense, painful grief in the earliest mourning is healthy. He found that widows who grieved openly, painfully with severe bouts of weeping, agitation and sad longing in the first weeks after the death of their spouses, were less distressed and incapacitated at the end of three months than were widows who expressed little or no grief.