Dr. Iman Williams Christians is the chief clinical officer at Lost & Found Grief Center in Springfield, Missouri. Though grief is personal to each of us, in this Q+A, Dr. Iman shares with us insights she has learned in her field. We are honored to welcome her to HOMEGROWN JOURNAL in October.
What does grief feel like? What does it look like?
Dr. Iman: Grief can feel and look different for everyone. That is what we help educate our participants on in our groups. This helps validate and normalize each participant’s experiences. I have heard anecdotes from a few. Some say grief feels like a heavy weight on their chest or a lump in their throat that will not go away. Some say grief feels like a bad dream they cannot wake up from.
We are told as a society that grief is linear. You go from A to B to C. But the truth is grief is messy. You may feel completely numb and in shock one moment and sad and dismayed in the next, or angry and frustrated in the next moment. In a day’s time, grieving people will report feeling many emotions throughout the day and all of that is a natural response to the death of someone they love.
In your profession and while working at Lost & Found Grief Center, what is an unexpected lesson you have learned about grief?
Dr. Iman: One of the unexpected things I have seen at Lost & Found are the enduring friendships that form among group members. We will see significant change in a participant’s grief reactions, in that they are able to function well in spite of their grief, and yet they continue to come back to group seeking that companionship and wanting to give back to those who are newly in their group. At Lost & Found we often talk about being in group is like being part of a club you never wanted to be part of, but you are so thankful it was there when you needed it.
I love to see those in group, parents and children, doing things together outside of group. They are forming a community that will respond and wrap around them during the tough moments like anniversaries and milestones.
When we experience a meaningful loss — a loved one, a way of life, a job, a pet, plans — why is it important to grieve well rather than bury that event or the emotions we feel?
Dr. Iman: The pain we feel after a loss is a natural reaction to loving something or someone. Some people process their loss without the need of a grief center or a therapist. Some cannot fathom processing their loss without those things. As long as you are paying attention to your emotions and feeling what you need to feel, you are processing your grief. At Lost & Found, we never say you should grieve well. Instead we say grieve in the way that feels right to you. I have seen beautiful tributes from our participants in the form of creating nonprofit organizations, raising money in the name of their loved one, social media dedications, blogs and books written. These are all a testament to the love they have for their person who died.
How do we help someone accept permission to grieve?
Dr. Iman: Often times when someone comes to us with a problem, we think we should try to fix it. The same happens when someone is grieving. We might say, “You just need a night out with the girls,” or “A nice vacation will be good for you,” when really the person just wants you to be there and listen when they are ready to talk about their loss. You give permission to grieve by being there with them, calling them on the phone, bringing food, providing child care, and doing so consistently months after the loss.
Each of us may require different needs as we grieve. And, even our individual needs may change over time. Have you seen universal truths, such as the importance of professional support or a connection with others?
Dr. Iman: There once was a belief that a grieving person needed to “let go” of the person who died. There has since been a movement to view bonds with the deceased as playing a healthy role in their grieving process. This is a recognition that death ends a life but not the relationship. What changes over time is the relationship a person has with their loved one who died. Maybe in the beginning they are visiting the gravesite every day and that serves as a way to continue that relationship in the early days, but a year later that same person could be putting together a photo quilt or building a garden in their loved one’s memory. These are all activities that keep the bond alive, and it will likely change over time. Not everyone needs counseling of professional support, but many find it helpful.
At these moments of loss, it’s sometimes difficult to tell a friend or family member what he/she can do to help in our grieving. How can we be an encouragement for others who are grieving? What is the timeframe for our help? In other words, is it important to pour out love in the first month? Or do we continue for six months? Or a year? Or … ? How do we be a friend without burdening the one grieving?
Dr. Iman: Most grieving people receive a lot of support within the first month, but then that support goes away. Being a good friend means being there for months and years to come. Reaching out by calling, or texting, and making sure to say their loved one’s name. Your grieving friend is thinking about that person anyway and will be grateful to hear you have not forgotten. Grief does not have a time frame and neither should your support. You might ask your friend after some time, “I call you every Monday; is that still okay? I just want to be supportive.” Check in on birthdays, anniversaries and special days. This will be so meaningful to your bereaved friend.
What additional thoughts about grief would you like to share with us?
Dr. Iman: We live in a death-denying society that fears talking or thinking about grief. As children we learn three life lessons about death: do not talk about or acknowledge grief, be strong and put on a smile, and get over it as fast as possible. We have this flawed perception in our workplaces, in our homes, and in our culture.
We can challenge false perceptions about grief by allowing people the space to grieve, grieving how they feel is best, and being present for them when they need us.
The mission of Lost & Found Grief Center is to strive to improve lives in our community by providing help, hope, and healing through professional grief support services. For more information, please contact Lost & Found at 417.865.9998 or email@example.com.
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