November 1st, 2001, by Russell Friedman
When my mother died suddenly nine years ago, I was thrown into the vortex of human emotions that almost always accompanies the sudden death of a loved one. The fact that I am an alleged expert on recovery from loss does not make me immune to pain.
I am Russell Friedman, and I write this article with my partner John W. James. Between us, we have collectively spent the past 50 years helping people deal with death, divorce, and other losses. We would like to offer some ideas which we believe will be helpful to anyone who reads them.
There are tens of thousands of people who are directly affected by the death of a loved one as the result of the outrageous actions of September 11, 2001. In addition to those directly impacted, we as a nation, and to a great extent as a world, are reeling from the sudden death of freedom, safety, and control.
THE PLANET GRIEF
In the time immediately following my awareness of my mother’s unexpected death, my heart, my brain, and my soul went to another planet. The planet grief for lack of a better word. Within an hour, I was sitting at a table with three of the most important people in my life. My spouse, her daughter, and my partner, John. They were eating lunch, and I was in the middle of a movie. The movie was the full-color version of my memory of my life with my mother. Thousands of images swirled through my brain and my heart, without chronological order, and not sorted as to whether they produced happy, sad, or neutral feelings.
Perhaps because I help others deal with these kinds of situations, I was hyper-aware of what was going on, and was not afraid of it. Mostly I gazed off into my own inner space, and sobbed, and occasionally argued with that part of my brain that did not want my mother to have died. Every once in a while, I would capture a piece of emotional film which demanded more attention than others, and I would blurt out whatever I had just discovered. Mostly they just listened and nodded, as there was no need for anything else. My other best friend became the box of tissues that I clutched with all my might.
At a point in time, which was a little more than an hour after I had first been notified of my mother’s death, something very profound happened. All of a sudden an awareness came into my being, and my whole body erupted into tears. It was a different kind of crying than when I had first been told. John hushed the others, and whispered to me, “Russell, what’s going on?” I was crying as hard as I could, and almost couldn’t talk, but through my tears, I managed to choke out the words, “She was my champion.”
John gently said, “We hear you, but what do you mean?” Again, in my almost zombie-like state, I squeezed out the words, “She was my champion,” and the tears streamed down my face. John, as delicately as humanly possible, whispered to me, “Yes, we hear you, but can you tell us exactly what you mean?”
Although I felt very far away, John’s words seemed to break through to me, and I understood that he wasn’t sure either what I meant, or why I was saying it. So, after blowing my nose, and wiping my eyes, with a choking voice, I said, “The three of you know my story and all of the things I’ve been through, my divorces, my bankruptcy, and other painful events. And it just hit me that the reason I have always been able to get back up, to somehow bounce back in life, is because my mom never gave up on me, never once. She was my champion.” And with that I burst into tears, and I vaguely remember John’s voice, a million miles away saying, “Oh, now we see what you mean.” John jumped up and hugged me, and I sobbed. And Alice hugged me and I sobbed, and then Claudia. We all sat back down at the table, and they went back to their lunch, and I went back to my planet to find more memories. Later John helped me verbalize those and other emotionally important thoughts and feelings indirectly to my mom.
As you read this, you might wonder why I had never thanked my mom for that before she died. The simple answer is that I never thought of it in that light until she died. It just never connected in that way. What you have to know about me, is that because of what I do, and having had to help so many people deal with undelivered emotional communications, I live my life as honestly as I possibly can, especially with regard to telling people directly about the positive emotions I have about them. So you have to know that if I’d had that thought any time prior to my mother’s death, I would have woken her in the middle of the night to tell her. But the death of a loved one provokes a different level of emotional connection than when someone is alive. Your brain can and will go into different nooks and crannies and connect thoughts, feelings, and ideas differently that when someone is still alive. The death of someone important to you produces an almost unimaginable amount of emotional energy in the search to put all the pieces in place.
Most people who have been present during a long-term illness and who had the opportunity and openness to talk with the dying person about everything will usually tell you that after the death, they thought of other things – different things.
Another point we hope you will take from this is that undelivered communications of an emotional nature are the cornerstone of what can turn into unresolved grief, if not dealt with effectively. In the case of that one aspect of my relationship with my mother, it was a positive thing that had not been said directly to her while she was still alive. Undelivered communications range from positive to negative, but all come under the heading of the things we wish we had said or had done differently, better, or more, as well as those things we wish the other person might have said or done, differently, better, or more.
And last, we believe that in the hours, days, and weeks immediately following a loss, memories are most vivid and most available. We believe that as our hearts, brains, and souls grapple with the new reality they have been thrust into, it is actually the most effective time to access things that we may not have thought of in some time.
ADAPTING TO A NEW REALITY
Let’s go back to that fateful day when my mom died, which happened to be the day before Thanksgiving. Imagine flying from Los Angeles to Miami on Thanksgiving. By the time I got to Miami I had a notebook full of other discoveries I’d made of things that I needed to say.
The events of that week in Miami, while unique to me and my family, are probably parallel to what has happened billions and billions of times, since people first graced this earth. Our little group circled the wagons, and each with our own box of tissues, remembered my mom. Each of us told our stories. We laughed at the funny memories, cried at the sad ones, and each of us remembered her the way we had known her in life. For my part, I was able to do more of those things I had done with John the day my mother had died.
When I got back home to Los Angeles, a new reality reared its painful head. On the first morning that I woke up in my own bed, as I drew my first conscious breath, the fact that my mother was no longer alive hit me like a lightning bolt. I managed to get to the shower, and I can assure you that there was as much water running down my face as was running down my back. The tears seemed endless.
Keep in mind that all along I had been doing the kind of emotional actions I talked about earlier, with tears attached. I communicated, indirectly, to my mother, everything that I became aware of as the days turned into weeks. But the reality of her physical absence from my life was different from the emotional ideas built into things that had or hadn’t been said or done between us.
Now I was faced with the painful reality of adapting to life on this planet without one of the people who had always been there. When it is said that everyone grieves in his or her own way and pace, I believe it refers to the idea of this adaptation. When people talk about time being a factor in healing, I believe they are alluding to the need to acquire a new habit of existing with a new, and altered reality – an unwelcome one, at that.
Recovery from loss. Actions help you adapt.
At the Grief Recovery Institute, we believe that recovering from loss and adapting to a new reality are separate but equal. We believe that both are going on simultaneously and that it is helpful to know what they are, what they mean, and that they are normal and natural.
While we believe that most people make the transition to the new reality in their own way and at their own pace, we know that better information about the emotional element of recovering from loss, helps speed up the time span in which that transition can take place.
OUR COLLECTIVE BROKEN HEARTS – THE AFTERMATH OF 9-11-2001
The primary grievers are those people who were directly impacted by the deaths of loved ones in the horrific events of September 11. Needless to say, we all realize that they must be experiencing a level of pain and confusion that is probably beyond our comprehension. The absolute truth is that we DO NOT KNOW HOW THEY FEEL.
But, as members of the family of human kind, we are all affected. We are all mothers or fathers or sister or brothers or children or friends. We are all people. We are all people with broken hearts. We have all experienced a loss of safety, a loss of trust, a loss of control, and a loss of freedom.
There is another phenomenon that is affecting most people. When there is a national tragedy with the accompanying feelings of sadness, fear, anger, and confusion, our hearts and brains search to understand how to react to the emotions aroused by the event. In the process of connecting those feelings, our minds will search through a lifetime of memories and identify anything which has produced similar feelings. Many people will be having strong memories of people, animals, and events that happened decades ago, along with more recent memories. Do not be surprised if you start to have substantial emotions about loss experiences which happened a very long time ago. It is natural to remember things that have sad feelings attached, because we have all just been inundated with images and realities that are very sad to perceive.
Unresolved grief is cumulative and cumulatively negative. While time sometimes dulls the pain, time does not, of itself, complete what is emotionally unfinished between us and people who have died, and others from whom we are estranged. Although most of us did not have direct relationships with the people who died, we all have our relationships with people whom we remember. It might be a good time to talk about those relationships, and if painful feelings persist, to complete any unfinished emotions attached to those relationships, and to help your children deal with memories from their lives.
From our hearts to yours.
Russell, John, & Leslie