BEREAVEMENT: When Support is Strength

What helps us to get on with life in moments of grief is a strong social support system

SupportingThere are no pharmacies that fill-out a prescription of confidantes, friends, well-wishers, or pro re nata [PRN, or "as needed"], but "people-need-people" situations are indispensable in life.

The most poignant and difficult thing in life is the loss of a loved one. It's a time when grief's journey can be made only by holding on to the supportive and healing relationships of those around us.

When someone dies, life for those close to them is never the same again.

The loss of a loved one can be profoundly traumatic: physically, emotionally, as well as spiritually. During bereavement, the grieving process also triggers a host of physiological events in the affected person, family, and friends.

There are several ways through which grief increases our vulnerability to physical illness. Research shows that like other stressors, grief frequently leads to changes in the endocrine, immune, nervous and cardiovascular systems, all of which are fundamentally influenced by brain functions.

Of course, the extent of grief experienced depends on the relationship with the dead. While the world over, a spouse's death has the potential to cause maximum grief among adults, and that of a parent among children, the simplest - sort of — to handle has been a parent's death for an adult and a pet's death for a child.

Some of the major symptoms of grief experienced by a person are agitation, crying, aimless activity, or total inactivity. These are short-term symptoms, but long-term consequences may lead to social withdrawal, decreased concentration, anxiety, restlessness, decreased food intake, depression, sleep disturbances, muscular weakness, cardiovascular and immunological changes.

Sharing the grief

Psychologists tell us that people who have a high capacity for intimacy are better able to cope with stress. Women tend to overcome loss better than men due to their close social ties, ability to openly discuss their problems and feelings with others, and cry without ado. Tears are one of nature's safety valves which flushes out toxins produced by emotional shock.

What helps one get on with life is a strong social support system. There is power in it. Sharing your pain with others will not make grief disappear, but it will make things more manageable.

Psychologists identify four aspects of social support:

  1. those that enhance self-esteem and give a feeling of being wanted;
  2. those which help in problem-solving;
  3. those which smoothen the necessary networking, and
  4. those which provide the necessary resources for meeting life's transition.

These can blunt the effects of loss and bring about quicker recovery from bereavement.

A number of environmental and individual factors also interact to form a support system for the grieving person.

Support system in a nutshell

Supportive religious and social rituals. Rituals bring together the people of the community, or that of a group in a common bond. It is this bonding and solidarity that take away the feeling of loneliness, or being "left alone to cope with the loss" of an individual.

Supportive values and beliefs. Faith and individual belief in certain values, or tenets of certain thought, or wisdom, can play a big role in healing. All ancient faiths discuss death and its meaning. Words help; words also heal.

Social network. It is in the first stage of maximum grief that friends and family act as guardians against stress. As a person's life situation changes, different kinds of support systems are better able to meet one's needs than others. So, if during the early phase of grief, a small network is most helpful, a small group might just make a person feel trapped within a set up of expectations and social contacts rather than fulfil the need to move on to newer roles later.

A lot also depends on the kind of people who offer us support. Well-meaning relatives may tell us to "Be strong," or "Think positive." At times, they paint a reassuring picture of life after death. But, these solacing techniques sometimes block the normal healing process.

Community support. The concept of bereavement care specialists is almost alien to India. Hence, finding a good counsellor to help through the grief process can be a good idea. The family doctor can often refer you to a good counsellor who can check if your reactions to loss are normal.

If one has lost a relative to a serious, chronic illness, there are support groups where people come together and share a common bond of experience. This can be invaluable in helping you heal. In these groups, each person shares his or her unique grief journey in a non-threatening, safe atmosphere.

In India, support groups are not yet common, though with a little doing you might just find what you need, especially in the metros. What these support groups do is help you make sense of the loss and develop a new self-identity. Many people discover that as they move forward in their journey of grief, they ultimately find that some aspects of their self-identities change positively.

Online support groups for the grieving is a relatively new phenomenon, but they can offer genuine words and support.

Then, there are those who believe that the best thing that they can do in the situation, or as a tribute to their loved one, is to reach out to help others from the community. The pain of grief gives rise to a renewed sense of meaning and purpose of helping to save the lives of others: one which helps them assist humanity in their own way.

Compassion for others comes easy here. They know what loss is all about.

Monetary support strategies. One of the biggest challenges that spouses, or families, can face when the earning member is gone is financial insecurity. A support system can take the form of employers who accommodate another member of the family into the organisation so that the family's livelihood is not threatened - this is a fairly common practice in our country.

Grief is natural

Despite the most profound emotional pain that it gives us, grief is a natural emotion, even a healthy one.

Writes Glen Davidson, psychiatrist, thanatologist [one who studies death and dying in their psychological and social aspects], and author of the book, Living with the Dying and Understanding Mourning: "If we don't grieve, we become chronically disoriented. Don't think of yourself as a burden - that nobody is willing to listen to you. It is only through telling your story again and again. that we come to accept the reality of the loss."

Support is vital for us to make the journey of grief bearable. The person who died will never be forgotten, but the right support system gives you the courage to let go and also the will to move on.

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