'Grief and Mourning'
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #62
‘Grief and Mourning’
CAERS Substack Article #62
During my medical training many years ago, not only do I not remember any lectures specifically focusing on death or the dying process, I don’t recall any on grief and mourning either. In retrospect, that seems rather odd given that every patient any health care professional will ever see must eventually die, so they might be best to prepare for it. Hopefully modern medical training has improved in this regard.
Death is likely the one event most associated with grief and mourning, and understandably so. But death does not evoke just those feelings. Many times I have seen people struggle with other significant, and troubling, emotions following the death of someone important in their life. Sometimes these emotions seem to spring up out of nowhere, not only surprising the one grieving but unsettling them, too. If their loved one had been battling illness for some time prior, there can be a sense of relief. This can be even more difficult to acknowledge if one has been their caregiver; it can result in an undeserved sense of selfishness about feeling such relief. If the relationship with the deceased had been less than ideal, grief may not be the predominant emotion. There may be relief that the painful relationship is finally over, or even a belief that justice has been served. And of course, all of these may sooner or later be mixed with a sense of guilt.
Anger is another common emotion: anger that the deceased has been taken from them, or that the deceased was somehow responsible for their demise, or that they chose/allowed themselves to leave too soon. The latter can be particularly common if the loved one in any way contributed, consciously or unwittingly, to their own passing.
And all of these feelings can arise with other losses, not just death. It is not uncommon for many of us to grieve and mourn serious change in our health, or that of a loved one. The day that one receives a diagnosis of a chronic disease, even if it will not necessarily change life expectancy, one’s ‘previous self’ to some degree ‘dies’. One’s identity changes, and the possibilities that lie ahead change as well. Dealing with the emotions that result can be very challenging. It is one thing to allow one’s rational fear to acknowledge and deal with the true realities of the situation; it is quite another to fall victim to irrational fears of highly unlikely worse-case scenarios, something to which we are all prone.
I have found that we are not always aware of the degree of grief and mourning that exists in situations other than death. Any time we have a major loss these feelings are often present in the background. Many of us have likely noticed that although life has returned considerably closer to normal from the darkest days of the pandemic, it has not returned exactly back to the way it had been. Jobs may have changed. Financial status may have changed. Relationships have likely changed. Even our perspectives on the meaning of life, values, plans for the future, societal functioning, trust in our major institutions and so forth have likely been altered, and some to a considerable, and perhaps irreversible, degree. The world we see now may appear remarkably different to us; it may seem better or worse but it is likely not the same as we thought it was pre-pandemic. No matter it’s exact impact on us, we may mourn nevertheless; I know that I do. Change is seldom easy.
Do you think that you have been grieving or mourning at all during the pandemic? Did you recognize it at the time, or sometime later? Have those feelings completely abated for you? Have you learned anything about yourself in the process?
Many, if not most, of us have likely been more conscious of our health and our own mortality in the last three years. It might be a good idea for us to talk more about these issues now that life is settling back to a more usual routine. That will be the topic of my next article.
J. Barry Engelhardt MD (retired) MHSc (bioethics)
CAERS Health Intake Facilitator
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