I truly believe that people are well-meaning. But when it comes to helping others through their loss, some of us just don’t have the skills to aid a grieving individual. We are often uncomfortable around those who have had a loved one die, and say things that are not helpful. And we often want to rush the other person through their grief, as it is difficult to sit in sadness.
In No Time for Tears: Coping with Grief in a Busy World, Judy Heath addresses a number of different aspects when it comes to loss, especially when it comes to responding to a person who is grieving and taking note of what they are going through. The book is also for grievers themselves. Most impressive, perhaps, is the way Heath deftly addresses overlooked issues, such as grieving for those not related to us by blood, or grieving secondarily for practical things, such as the way a partner took care of the kids or the house.
There are common reactions to a loss, Heath writes, such as denial, shock, and sorrow. But there are also lesser-known characteristics that can surprise a griever. These include loneliness; feeling like you are going crazy; feeling out of sync; experiencing changes in sleep, eating, and energy levels; having panic attacks; and being unable to focus.
These are, Heath explains, normal reactions, but we do not always recognize them as such.
Shock, too, can be part of the picture: a way of telling us that we have suffered a trauma and that our body is protecting us from too much stimulus; a sort of buffer. Heath describes this feeling as floating through a fog.
When my father died, I know my mother had this type of reaction. She had lost her husband of sixty years. Now, three years later, she says she doesn’t remember much of the first few weeks after his death and that she felt like she was just moving along and letting other move her.
As for that more famous emotion — denial — Health writes that some denial is healthy, as it provides a cushion for grief. But when it disrupts a person’s forward motion in moving through their grief, that is a signal that they may need professional assistance. Anger, too, can be useful, Heath writes. It is a natural reaction to loss. In fact, if we deny our anger and instead let it build, it can become toxic.
And, Heath points out, there we don’t really have much control over emotions related to grief. And those emotions can sometimes feel conflicting, such as if we are relieved that a long illness has ended, but also angry about it. Knowing the types of emotions and reactions that may lie ahead can be helpful — a way to anticipate, somewhat, the unknown, and try to recognize that we are not quite in control.
Heath also cautions us to be on the lookout for “judgers.” These are the people who tell us how we should be feeling or where we should be in the grief process. They are well-meaning, but misguided. We all experience grief in our own way. So Heath encourages readers to take care of themselves first and not be pushed to do things around grief that make them feel uncomfortable, just because another person says they should.
One way Heath does say we can help ourselves is by telling what she calls the story of the death. This is the story we tell others and ourselves about the circumstances of how our loved one died — and Heath believes it is critical to the grieving process. Stories that are filled with guilt or anger may show that a person needs counseling to work through their feelings and avoid getting stuck in unresolved grief. But other stories, when told over and over, pave a road to acceptance.
An interesting aspect of the book is secondary losses — the often forgotten byproducts of loss. For instance, Heath writes, a practical secondary loss may be that after a loved one dies, the person left behind realizes that the deceased was the one who took care of finances or children, or did the yard work, and so on. Now, all of that is left to the person still living. Meanwhile, another type of secondary loss, called self-secondary loss, can be a new loneliness after a person is gone, a lack of confidence, or the loss of a future you had planned with another person. These secondary losses can continue to affect the griever months and even years later, and can open and re-open the wounds of grieving.
Because those in grief are, as Heath puts it, redefining their whole worlds, caring individuals who want to help must realize that sometimes the overwhelmed griever needs to give their minds a rest. Some people, for instance, find comfort in returning to work. There is, she reiterates, no right or wrong way to deal with the experience.
Overall, Heath’s book is quite useful in providing real case scenarios as well as practical suggestions. Notably, she also provides excellent tools and resources for some of the more overlooked types of grief, such as after the loss of a pet or a friend.
I also liked how each chapter could stand on its own. That gives grievers the chance to share with others a particular chapter that applies to their situation, which can help open communication with others about what they’re going through.
After a loss, Heath writes, we return in bits and pieces. Even though we look the same, we never will be the same again. Here is a book to help us through it, and that we can also use to become more supportive of others.
No Time for Tears: Coping with Grief in a Busy World
Chicago Review Press, May 2015
Paperback, 288 pages