Discover more from Finding Words in Hard Times - with Jon Swanson
021 - Some thoughts about why we get stuck in thinking (after loss).
Welcome back (or welcome)
My commitment for “Finding Words in Hard Times” is to send you a newsletter with stories and tools to help you be more comfortable as you help others in hard times.
Now that I’ve finished a busy winter and spring with teaching and other research, I’m back to digging more into grief-related research. (I’m a researcher with Arbor Research Group. We help mission-driven organizations make research-informed decisions.)
In this issue, I’ll share one of the articles from that research, talk about a way I’ll start labeling some of my resources, and give you three things to look at.
Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years.
I think all the time about timing. Here’s what I know: what’s true isn’t always timely. It’s true that we all will die. That’s not a helpful thing to say to a loved one three minutes after the death.
In an effort to help us think about timing, I’m going to add a timing graphic to some of my posts. It will highlight the most helpful time for the ideas I’m sharing.
For example, I added the “minutes” graphic to last week’s post about the inability to think that happens shortly after a death. This week, I’m using the “months and years” graphic to remind us that we aren’t ruminating when we think about our loss in the hours and days after the loss.
When thinking feels stuck.
A review of Maarten C Eisma and Margaret S Stroebe (2017) Rumination following bereavement: an overview, Bereavement Care, 36:2, 58-64.
Last week, I came across an article about grief rumination.
After someone we love has died, it makes sense that we think about that loss. To wonder what could have been done differently. To wonder whether we are responding the right way to the death. To start figuring out how to take the next step.
I heard it just the other day, half an hour after a death: “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Sometimes after weeks and months, it feels like we are getting stuck in those thoughts.
It’s called rumination: “repetitive and recurrent thinking about causes and consequences of the loss and loss-related emotions” (Eisma and Stroebe, 60.)
Eisma and Stroebe identify five characteristics of this thinking:
1. Imagining ways the loss could have been prevented,
2. Thinking about the unfairness of the loss,
3. Thinking about the meaning of the loss,
4. Thinking about our emotional reactions, and
5. Thinking about other’s responses to the loss.
Reading that list, we recognize them. We’ve imagined what would have happened if we’d paid closer attention, we’ve wondered why our family always has these losses, we’ve wondered what kind of message the universe is sending us, we’ve wondered whether we are over or under reacting, we’ve wondered why other people aren’t caring / are caring too much.
The challenge with these thoughts comes when we have the sense of being stuck in them, of feeling like we are in thought loops.
To discover ways that we can help ourselves and others, Eisma and Stroebe explore two research-based explanations for rumination.
The first explanation is that when we experience a loss, some people respond by ruminating (that looping). Other people may deny the loss, or distract themselves from thinking about the loss or problem-solve about how to think differently.
The second explanation suggests that rumination is a way to avoid thinking about the loss itself. In the words of Eisma and Stroebe (62), it may be linked “specifically with avoidance of painful aspects of the loss, such as separation with the deceased.”
If the first explanation is accurate, that this is about unhelpful thinking, the most helpful thing would be to help people distract themselves or have better things to think about.
Counselors and therapists respond by giving people other things to do and think about. And that's what the researchers tried with one group of people.
They encouraged this group to participate in activities that they found valuable and fulfilling.
If the second explanation is accurate, that this is about avoidance of facing harder thoughts, the most helpful thing would be to help people as they face those harder thoughts.
Counselors and therapists help people experience the reality of the loss (exposure). And that’s what the researchers tried with a second group of people. (This looked like inviting people to write about the parts of the loss that they were most uncomfortable with.)
Eisma and Stroebe write about this intervention (62), “For example, people who avoided a memory about a stressful event leading up to the death of their loved one were asked to describe the event and the emotions evoked by this event in a realistic, detailed manner. Next, they were asked to engage in a guided imagination exercise in which they repeatedly imagined the event and experienced the distress evoked by remembering the event, until distress dissipated.”
The results were that both approaches were helpful in reducing grief rumination. And that people in the exposure group were more likely to follow through the whole treatment than the people in the positive activities group.
Here are my take-aways from this research:
Don’t tell people (including yourself) that it’s wrong to think about their loss.
Don’t try to do therapy if you aren’t trained.
The thought-loops we experience may result from different roots, and the ways to be helpful are more complicated than simply saying, “Get over it” or “Deal with it” or “He’s dead.”
There are ways that may be helpful when we want to reduce the amount of rumination.
They may include, with help, both walking through, in writing and memory, the hard experience AND learning different ways to think and act.
Grieving is hard. We’ll never forget. And we can remember helpfully.
Here are some past posts that fit with this research:
As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.
See you next week.