Ms. Caroline Kennedy and multiple deaths – The New York Times

June 24, 2013

Hello Dear Reader,

Below is my letter (unpublished) in response to an article in the New York Times a while ago.  I referred to the complaints in the article that Ms. Caroline Kennedy was not adequately passionate and dedicated to her campaign for the office of New York state senator as successor to Ms. Hillary Clinton.

Dear Editor,

Your article “For Kennedy, Self-Promotion…” of today, December 31, 2008, on page A 19, makes the lengthy point that Ms. Kennedy is not an impassioned candidate for senate office.  As evidence, it describes her reaction to being “eagerly ushered into the Kennedy Room”, a conference area at the Democratic headquarters in Rochester.  My heart skipped a beat when I saw the photograph of the confined conference space, decorated with large blow-ups of images of her dead father, mother, brother and uncle,  years before their tragic deaths, and of herself.  “She never responded to the pictures”, the mayor of Rochester  complained, as reported by the article’s author.

Tragedies such as the ones Ms. Kennedy experienced traumatize the survivor beyond imagination, forever leaving painful scars.  The sudden confrontation with images of the deceased can often trigger another wave of pain. Most individuals respond by activating their protective facade, hiding their piercing grief from the outside world. How should Ms. Kennedy have reacted? With exclamations of joy at the oversized reminders of the worst moments of her life?

Society is in denial of death.  Those who have not lived through tragedy will never be able to fathom its dimension of trauma.  But all of us can at least attempt to be more thoughtful when planning to confront a survivor with memories of pain too difficult to put into words.

Dr. Ursula Weide’s Comment:

Ms. Kennedy’s restraint is understandable as she was traumatized since early childhood:  her father, John Kennedy, and her uncle, Robert Kennedy, were assassinated. Her mother succumbed to cancer, and her only brother, sister-in-law, and several cousins died tragically.
Fears about more tragic losses – of possibly even her own children – are obvious consequences.   One loss is enough to rob us of our sense of safety. For Ms. Kennedy, it never ended.
How do you think you would have reacted to the sudden confrontation with pictures of your deceased loved ones, so publicly, and scrutinized by the media?

Your comments are more than welcome.

On Language – Can We Ever Understand Each Other?

December 8, 2008

Recently, I spoke with an acquaintance, interested in better understanding grief, about communication between those who have been there and those who have not.  Since I do not like many of the “grief concepts” and the related advice out there – many of us cringe when we hear it, no matter how well-meaning it may have been – I tried to explain that I do not like the concept of “acceptance.”  Yes, I can hear your thoughts!

This person said, “How can you ever move on without acceptance?”  To which I responded, “I prefer to phrase it in this fashion:  yes, confronting reality to be able to look towards the future.”  This was met with a bland stare.  And the colleague then concluded that it “was all a matter of definiton.”

What are your thoughts?  Please let us know!!  To me, at least, it seems that the same words take on a different meaning, depending whether you have been there or not.  And “acceptance”?  What do you think?

What is some of the “language” you are wondering about?  

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Kindly,

Dr. Ursula Weide

Stages of Grief and the Elections?

October 5, 2008

On August 31, 2008, the New York Times published an article entitled “Can You Cross Out ‘Hillary’ and Write ‘Sarah’?”  It commented on the loss of Senator Clinton to Senator Obama in the presidential primaries and the choice of Sarah Palin for Republican vice presidential candidate.

The article began on page 1 and continued on page 7 where one of Senator Clinton’s supporters and a former counsel to President Bill Clinton, Mr. Lanny Davis, said about himself (quoting the Times) “that he was riding such a roller coaster of emotions that he finally Googled Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief.

“Denial, yes,” he said.  “Anger, definitely.  Bargaining, well, O.K.  And depression, that’s definitely what I was going through.” (end of quote)

Today, we have gone so far beyond the stages – they were a first attempt at trying to make sense out of the grief following the death of a loved one.  At least, Kubler-Ross put the subject of death on our public agenda almost thirty years ago.

But the stages have become so deeply rooted in lore that now even the loss of a primary election is equated with grief, and the stages are resorted to for a comforting explanation of one’s emotions!

For additional information, you can  also click on the VA Tech-Grief Stages button on my website http://www.coping-with-loss-and-grief.com

Please DO share with us your opinion of and/or experience with these stages!  Have you experienced any of them, in any particular order, or do you wonder about their concepts – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance?

And what do you think of their application to an election loss?

We value your opinion!

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Dr. Weide

Surviving Grief – an Act of Will?

September 27, 2008

Dear Friends,

Following up on my earlier post about surviving grief as an “act of will” – here is what one of my grief group members said.  “People assume that coping with grief is like losing weight – eat less, exercise more, and you will lose weight.”  

Translated into grief terms, this means “Get a life”, “Put on a nice dress and go to a bar to meet another man”, “Just have another child”, “Get a volunteer job so that you can move on”, “Think of all the good things in your life and you will feel better” “Death is just a part of life – so what are you so down about?”  Sounds familiar?  

Here it is what the rest of the world does not understand – grief controls us, we do not control it.  What we can do,  however, is to learn to manage the grief.  By developing our personal coping skills.  We may have them already but may be unaware of them.

Please share your experiences with us!

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Dr. Weide

Grief – “An Act of Will” says the Washington Post!

September 18, 2008

Hello Friends,

On June 15, 2008, the Washington Post Magazine published an article “The Escape Artist” by Laura Wexler recounting the life of Jody Arlington and reviewing a book on her life by Kathryn Harrison.  Jody, as a teenager, was in the house when her 18-year old brother killed her parents and her younger sister. Today, Jody is 40 years old and, by her own account, living a well-adjusted life.  (She did not contribute to the WPM article.)

I had no issue with the article which was written in a neutral and respectful fashion without making judgments about Jody’s traumatic grief reactions nor expressing any expectations of how a traumatized survivor should act, think and feel.  The references to the book (which I have not read) indicated the same approach.

But I had an issue with Tom Shroder and his Editor’s Note:  for three-quarters of his introduction to the above article, he talks about how he lost weight.  Then he concludes that Ms. Arlington’s ability to live with her grief and trauma is due to an act of will – just as his decision to lose weight.  I quote:  “How can some people beat the astronomical odds against them, seemingly through a sheer act of will?” He even traced this act back to a particular moment – when Ms. Arlington entered Georgetown University.

One of my bereavement support group members once hit the nail on the head when she said that “People assume that coping with grief is like losing weight – eat less, exercise more and you will lose weight!”  So here it was in writing, and in the Washington Post Magazine! Unfortunately, this is not the way it works as those of you reading this and who have experienced traumatic grief or are in the middle of it right now are well aware of.

The day after publication, I did something I had never done before – I tuned into the on-line discussion of this article with both authors.  With the intent to correct any misperceptions about grief which may be expressed during the discussion.  There were none as the contributors focused on the horrifying events and not on grief. I finally sent a message which read:

“As a peer of traumatic death survivors and as a mental health professional, I think that you and Ms. Harrison were respectful of Ms. Arlington. I just wish that others – such as Mr. Shroder – would take the time to do likewise.  Death is a complex and frightening issue, and even only commenting on it appropriately takes the effort that you and Ms. Harrison clearly invested in your protagonist.

So I wish that other authors would do their best not to inadvertently propagate stereotypes which add to the hurt experienced by survivors of traumatic death.  You aptly described the lurid notions Ms. Arlington’s environment had about her “collusion” in this horrible tragedy.

Assuming that someone such as Ms. Arlington can just decide to “leave the crippling events of the past behind” (quoting Mr. Shroder) adds to the survivors’ sense of “being crazy.”  Which, of course, survivors are not.  They have normal reactions to an abnormal experience. But it adds injury to insult.  And continues to traumatize them.  I hope that Mr. Shroder hears me.”

Mr. Shroder had the decency to get back to me.  This is what he wrote:

“I hear you.  I think that you misread me.  Just because I believe that some human beings are capable, through an act of will (emphasis added), of transcending even the most traumatic circumstances, does not meant that I am denigrating those who can not achieve the same near-miraculous result.”

Here it was again!  The act of will!  I had sent Mr. Shroder a lengthy message in response to his Editor’s Note but I think he had not  yet read it at the time of his reply to my on-line chat comment.  Perhaps then he would have had a different reaction to it.

Dr. Weide

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Tomorrow: If it is not an act of will, what is it?

Sadness vs. Traumatic Grief

September 16, 2008

Dear Friends,

I need to begin today by making a very important distinction which is misunderstood by most of the rest of society.  Sadness is what we feel when we lose, for example, an aging parent.  Even though the loss is forever and the pain may be quite intense, even impairing our functioning for a while, this type of loss is integrated relatively quickly.  This is what about 85% of all survivors experience.

But traumatic grief, often also called complicated grief, or traumatic bereavement which I prefer, is quite different – and experienced only by about 15% of survivors.  There are other terms out there as well such as “pathological grief”, used with relish by many mental health and other health care professionals.  But I do not like any term which implies there being “something wrong” with the person.  How are we to respond to the untimely death of a spouse or partner, child, parent, sibling or other loved one?  Or their violent death such as in an accident, through suicide, or homicide?  Or to having participated in the terminal care of a loved one, possibly also involving an Intensive Care Unit?

These are all traumatic experiences and traumatic losses.  The symptoms of trauma, possibly depression, anxiety and thoughts of one’s own death I see in my practice to me are “normal reactions to an abnormal experience.”  Our brains are not “programmed” to handle such events and go into a protective mode which leads to thoughts, feelings and behavior unfamiliar to us.

This is what this blog is all about – the 15% of traumatized survivors.  And the gulf between them and the rest of the world, basically insurmountable through our common means of communication.  Because the extreme pain of a traumatic loss can not be imagined by those who have not been there, and our language lacks the expressive dimension adequate to transmit what we are going through.

Dr. Weide

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Tomorrow: No, learning to live better with traumatic grief is not an act of will!  A response to an article in the Washington Post Magazine.

Welcome again!

September 13, 2008

Hello Friends,

Thank you for hanging in there with me for so long.  I have finally solved the technical problems and will be able to post regularly.  So much has been said about grief since I opened this blog, I have quite a backlog of subjects to discuss with you.  I will address the first one this weekend.

Request:  when you send a message describing your experience with death and grief, please do not speak ill of specifically named individuals.  Your disturbing experiences with family members and others in your environment are certainly valuable to share.  But please do not name the person, if you do, I will not be able to publish your post.

I know that anger and irritability are symptoms of traumatic grief.  But we need to keep the blog neutral enough, the purpose is not to vent anger with specific individuals which are easily identifiable by those in  the sender’s environment.

To t:  I will be happy to post your message from long ago – but please edit it according to my request above instead of naming specific individuals.

Thank you for your understanding.

Tune in again soon!

Dr. Weide

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Welcome to the Bereavement Blog!

June 23, 2008

I am Dr. Ursula Weide, a Licensed Psychologist, Licensed Professional Counselor and a Certified Thanatologist (Grief and Bereavement Specialist). Please note that the grief I will be referring to in the blog is death-related only. There are other losses in life causing grief as well but this is not what we will be talking about. Please do respect this.

My husband died of a heart attack when he was 47 so I will be speaking from personal experience. And in my psychology practice, I work with many – mostly young – individuals who have lost a child, sibling, spouse, parent or other loved one through tragic circumstances. These deaths were sudden, untimely, violent (accidents, suicide, homicide), occurred in an ICU, or after a terminal illness. Traumatic stress symptoms often are the consequene. Please check my website http://www.coping-with-loss-and-grief.com for more details.

One of the truly difficult aspects of coping with traumatic bereavement is the lack of understanding of our environments of what we are going through. We are supposed to “get over it”, “get a life”, “move on”, “just have another child.” These are all quotes, and you most likely have heard similar insensitive comments which have made you wonder why you just could not do what these well-meaning individuals recommended.

I would like to engage in a discussion with all of you who have had and continue to have these experiences. Since we have had similarly traumatic experiences, this is a safe place to provide support to each other. We have been there and understand each other.

Within the next few days, I will post excerpts from correspondence with a Washington Post journalist who compared learning to cope with traumatic grief with the “willpower” to lose weight. Please stay tuned!

And feel free to begin sending us your own experiences with “good advice”!

Dr. Weide

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