By Bonnie Miller Rubin, Chicago Tribune reporter
November 28, 2012
It's the season of merriment and joy — or at least that's what every TV commercial, magazine ad and thousands of other messages will keep telling us over the next month.
But what if you don't feel buoyant and twinkly? If you've lost a loved one in the past year, the non-stop bombardment of good cheer can make you feel even more lonely and out of sync with the world.
Ruth Field, a Northfield-based therapist, understands — not just professionally, but personally. On July 24, 2011, her 26-year-old son, David, died in a motorcycle accident, and she found herself thrust in the role of bereaved parent. She is also the founding board president of the Child & Adolescent Bipolar Foundation (now called The Balanced Mind Foundation) and formerly a staff clinician at The Josselyn Center, also in Northfield.
On Dec.16, Field will be leading a workshop, "From Heartbreak to Healing: Getting Through the Holidays When Someone You Love Has Died" at the Winnetka-Northfield Public Library. Here's a sneak preview:
Q: What do you know now that you didn't know before your son died?
A: That the depth and intensity of the grieving process is far greater than I ever could have realized ... that it crosses over to the unimaginable. I also know that loss is pervasive in our lives — maybe not everyone will lose a child, but we will almost certainly lose someone ... and then there is job loss, divorce. It all involves saying "goodbye."
Q: Can you prepare for it?
A: I compare it to standing on the beach, with your back to the water. You know there's going to be another wave. You might not know when it's going to hit, or how strong it might be ... but you know it will come. Fighting it will leave you sputtering for air, but if you let it wash over you and go back to sea, you'll have a better chance of maintaining your equilibrium.
Q: What is the biggest misconception about losing a child?
A: The sense that you will somehow get over it. You never get over it. ... However, you do learn to move through it ... and that has to be the goal, because getting over it is impossible. ... No matter how well-trained or well-meaning you are, you can't understand it unless you've been through it.
Q: So how did you "move through it"?
A: For me, it helped to do a lot of journaling, and (I) am now in the process of writing a book. Like many other bereaved parents, I felt moved to document my feelings — not just for my own use, but to help others. When something traumatic happens, there's a lot of denial and attempts to escape. When I got the news about David, I screamed "no!" So, you have to move beyond the "no" and learn to live with what has happened. And that takes a certain acceptance that doesn't come naturally or comfortably to anyone.
Q: What's the difference between a therapist and a grief counselor?
A: Therapy and counseling are the same thing. Some therapists are generalists; others have niche specialties. Presumably all mental health professionals are trained to treat the whole person. I think the distinction lies in the function and not the person. In other words, when I'm working with someone around grief and loss issues, I'm a grief counselor. When I'm working with an individual around other life transitions, I'm more likely regarded as their therapist.
Q: How do you tell the difference between grief and depression?
A: Depression is a medical diagnosis; grief is a normal life process. Many symptoms overlap and sometimes bereavement can trigger depression.
In order to be diagnosed with depression, a person has to meet specific criteria over a period of time. This is why it's a good idea to work with a professional who can help you monitor your mood, thoughts, energy, and functioning following the death of a loved one. If you're not starting to return to previous levels of functioning as the months go by, your therapist might consider a diagnosis of depression. He or she would likely discuss with you the idea of medication and refer you to a psychiatrist while continuing your therapy.
Q: What do you say to someone who feels guilty? ... For example, if a spouse had only nagged about getting a colonoscopy or mammogram they would have had a different outcome?
A: It's important to acknowledge what we feel badly about. I'd encourage (the survivor) to just get it all out there. Imagine that (the deceased) is sitting with you and have that conversation. Often that can elicit some greater understanding that can alleviate guilt. With David, no one liked his motorcycle hobby. So, I did what I could ... like stressing wearing a helmet. He did wear a helmet ... and he still died.
Q: Did you beat yourself up?
A: I beat myself up more over all the things left undone and unsaid.
Q: Are there stages to loss?
A: I don't subscribe to the idea that you move through grief in some kind of linear fashion. People got that idea from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, but she was actually talking about accepting one's own death. Everyone's grief experience will be different, depending on the circumstances and the relationship. Grieving an elderly person is different than a young person ... and certainly, someone with a lingering illness — where you "pre-grieve" when you learn that a disease is terminal — is different than a sudden, traumatic death.
Q: Any advice for friends and family who might be with someone grieving this holiday season?
A: It's very important to say the person's name; to not act like the person never lived. ... So, I'd bring it up one time. For example, if there's a sweet potato casserole on the table, I might say "That was one of Dad's favorite dishes." And then I might add, "How do you feel that I brought this up? Because I need to know for the future." All things are talkable. It helps remove the mystique about death.
Q: Family traditions are so freighted with emotion. Is it better to shake up the seasonal formula rather than trying to soldier on the same way as before?
A: It's important to have every family member weigh in on this ... and do it before you make your final plans. Ask yourself, "Who do I want to be this year?" Maybe I can't handle being a partygoer, but I can be a helper and work in a soup kitchen. ... Clarifying the "being" helps us figure out the "doing."
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