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Grief, American Style

Dealing With Loss
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

In 2001, we learned as a country what it feels like to be really scared, really sad, really angry. It was a rough year. Some of us experienced tremendous loss firsthand when loved ones perished at the hands of terrorists. But even those of us far from "ground zero" were deeply affected. What should we do to prevent sadness from following us intothe future? How, exactly, should we grieve?

 

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"When there is a national disaster such as Sept. 11th, or a plane crash, we can reduce [our experience] to five losses -- of safety, trust, freedom, control, and innocence -- plus we have a collective broken heart," says Russell P. Friedman, executive director of The Grief Recovery Institute, a non-profit organization headquartered in Sherman Oaks, Calif. He has personally spoken with more than 50,000 bereaved people and is co-author, with Institute founder John W. James, of The Grief Recovery Handbook and When Children Grieve.

 

For the majority of us -- those who did not lose a loved one in the attacks, "the brain goes back over every loss we've ever had," says Friedman. The grief we feel is founded in empathy, based on our own experiences, even though they differ from the current situation. "As a human being who has experienced loss, others' losses touch our hearts."

 

Our need to hold vigils, to create makeshift memorials, "has less to do with the people who died than with the losses we've each experienced individually in our lives." And while it is sad, it is also positive. "What happened [Sept. 11] opened up our humanity to ourselves, if only for a while," Friedman tells WebMD. The reason for these large demonstrations is that we're all part of the family of humanity. It's proof positive that we are not emotionally or spiritually dead. In that respect, it's positive."

 

And for many of us, these rituals do help us work through our pain and anxiety, put things in perspective, reach a sort of closure, and move on.

 

But what about those who were directly affected by the attacks? Those who lost a child, a spouse, a best friend? And what about all of those who have experienced a more 'run-of-the-mill,' untelevised personal loss? With or without terrorism, parents die, children succumb to cruel diseases, marriages end, jobs are lost.

 

As people born and raised in Western society, the way we deal with these losses leaves a lot to be desired, says Friedman. In fact, it leaves many of us haunted, and in real pain, for years. "Loss is inevitable, but we're given no feasible structure with which to handle it," he says.

 

"The truth is, almost everyone in the western world, with very few exceptions, is socialized with six major myths regarding grief," he says. These pervasive behaviors and attitudes are fully entrenched in our psyches, "and in times of crisis, we go back to them." The problem is, the myths don't help us. Indeed, they may deny our healing.

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