The idea of ink-stained fingers dates back to my childhood. I am just old enough to have written with real pens and ink wells, before the dawn of the retractable ball-point pen; a distant memory of a simpler time. Today, when I write, I worry more about carpal tunnel syndrome than I do about blotching the paper or my fingers with ink. Now it's about ergonomics, not smudges. Today, I am often more preoccupied with fonts and enhancements than with content. This is not necessarily a good thing. As odd as it seems, the ink-link creates a metaphor from past to present relative to dealing with the emotions of grief and loss. As our society lurches forward, it seems that the expression of real emotions in response to real events gets subverted by the false enhancements embedded in the often incorrect diagnosis and chemical treatment of feelings.
One of our stories involves a brand new widow, only minutes after the death of her husband of 52 years. The widow was weeping inconsolably, as her children struggled to keep her from sliding to the floor. The concerned and well-meaning attending physician, a long-time friend of the family, reached into his white lab coat and extracted his prescription pad. He scribbled out some indecipherable gibberish that would later be decoded at the local pharmacy for a mind altering drug. He handed the scrip to one of the children with these words, "We don't want your Mom to be depressed. Have her take these pills to help her make it through the coming days and nights." And he started to stride out of the room, confident that he had done his job effectively. He did not make it to the hall. As fate would have it, John W. James, the founder of The Grief Recovery Institute, happened to be there in support of a dear pal, who was a life-long friend of the man who'd just died. Within a millisecond after the doctor handed out the prescription and his cliché phrase, John stepped between the doctor and the grieving family. He said,
"Doctor, Mrs. Smith's husband of 52 years just died, don't you think she's entitled to a little sadness - a lowered state of feeling for a while?"
You might wonder if John would really say a thing like that. Yes he would, and yes he did. As the doctor stood there dumbfounded, John continued,
"Don't you think your job is to sit with her and talk with her and help all in the family remember their relationships with their husband/father/ grandfather who died? Oh, and you too, who had known him 30 years?"
The doc was not taking John's lecture/interrogation very well, and clearly wanted to be anywhere but where he was. At that point in time, John had helped tens of thousands of people deal with the ravages of their grief, and the aftermaths of the treatment they'd received from professionals who, in theory, should be expert in dealing with peoples' reaction to the death of a loved one. We speak of the medical, religious, funeral and psychological professionals who are most likely to be interacting with grievers in the time immediately following a death. Perhaps John's fire was fueled by the thousands of parallel stories he'd heard from the broken hearted people who had met little effective help from the very people who should know more or better. So John got himself between the doctor and the path down the hall and went on,
"Doctor, do you have any idea how many widows or widowers, or bereaved parents or siblings wind up addicted to the very medications you prescribe for them because you don't know how to talk to them about their feelings? Oh, and do you know how many spouses die of no apparent medical cause, in the weeks and months immediately following the death of their spouses, due to the lack of awareness about emotional reactions to loss, within the medical community?"
The doctor, looking every bit the startled deer in the headlights, shook his head numbly and once more tried to break away.
"Hold on doctor, I'm not done with you yet. Are you aware that in the intervening weeks and months - and sometimes years - that you medicate your patients' emotions with psychotropic drugs, you have robbed them of the ability to access and complete all of the memories they accrued within their relationship with the person who died? And that the eventual withdrawal from the unnecessary medications you prescribed are almost always much more painful and difficult than the original, normal and natural reactions to the death itself?"
Seeing and hearing no response from the doctor, John continued, propelled by the obvious weight of those thousands of grievers whose lives had been impacted by the lack of helpful guidance from medical and other professionals.
"Next week, after you recover from my diatribe, call me. We'll go to lunch, and I'll teach you some of the stuff they left out of your training at medical school."
If you think this is a manufactured story, think again. Sadly, it's 100% real and true. And it needs no enhancements or fancy fonts to highlight the tragedy contained within it. Worse, it replicates itself thousands of times every day in our modern world, and continues to make it seem as if real feelings are inconvenient and inappropriate and should be eliminated. And if you think it's an attack on the medical profession, you'll have to re-think that too, because there is a positive postscript to this story. Recall that early in the article we referred to the doctor as, "The concerned and well-meaning attending physician, a long-time friend of the family..." Well he really is a good doctor and genuinely cares about that family and the others in his practice and his life. He did call John and arranged to have John come to his office and deliver an in-service for the doctor and all of his staff, on how to interact with the people who are affected by losses of health and other fearful issues. Most doctors, like the majority of people who enter the care-giving professions, are good people. All they are lacking is the correct information to make their interactions with their clients more complete. Rather than an attack, let's label this as a call to arms. Make that a call to the hearts of the professions and the professionals who must be encouraged to add an essential component to their tool kit, by learning much more about people's reaction to loss and what to do about it.
To learn more about people's reaction to loss, grief, and helpful information and tools, you can download our free Grief eBook, order your copy of the Grief Recovery Handbook, or visit our Grief Blog.
Photo Credit: 123RF Stock Photo - flynt