Of all the wisdom about grief imbued by Fort Worth, Texas, psychologist Patrick O’Malley, one bit in particular resonates with me.
He and I are nearing the end of our conversation about his book, “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss” (Sounds True Paperback Original; $16.95). We’ve talked about how the death three decades ago of Ryan, his infant son, has helped shape the way he helps clients with their grieving process.
We’ve talked about the much-discussed five stages of grief, and why way too much focus is put on them. We’ve talked about what he calls “grief shame,” which people feel when they wonder why they’re still grieving.
It’s all fascinating and helpful. But questions he sprinkles throughout the book — questions, he says, that “deepen the story” of your own personal grief journey — especially intrigue me, this one in particular:
“I know you miss them. What do you miss about you?”
“I think about a dear friend who died, who thought I was the funniest guy in town,” says O’Malley, who co-wrote the book with journalist Tim Madigan. “Nobody since then has thought that. I miss him. I miss his laugh. I miss who I was with him. He was a great audience. Nobody else got it.”
That’s what we miss, isn’t it? The connection, the conversation, the completion of ourselves.
Whether you’re mourning that — and the person who provided it — six weeks or six years or six decades later, you know what? That’s normal. Because no matter what others around you might say or feel, no matter how many times you read about those five stages of grief, the way you grieve is the right way.
And that’s what O’Malley wants us to know.
“It’s not moving to a point of moving on. We’re trying to learn to live with the loss. It’s integrated into our life story. That doesn’t mean it won’t change over time; it means that it does.”
“There are periods when it’s less intense,” he says, “but you can have an intense day five years, 10 years after. It doesn’t matter.”
O’Malley became especially interested in grief when he was, as he says, “a baby new therapist at an age too young to practice, 27, and I was kind of full of myself. It was 1979, and my son was born in ’80 and died in ’81, and I became overwhelmed with folks coming to me for grief.”
Initially, he used the five stages of grief identified by Elisbeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But, he says, she was talking about dying people, not grieving. “By that time, the notion of steps had morphed into grieving people because they were easy and simple and offered focus into a disorienting experience.”
Not to take anything away from Kubler-Ross, he says. But those five stages “weren’t happening for me. I went to therapy a couple of times and was really starting to feel what many people feel: that I wasn’t getting it right.”
Then in 1989, he had a client named Scott whose father had died. The two had had a business together and saw each other every day. After his father’s death, Scott began to drink more, and his wife and pastor urged him to seek help. O’Malley started by asking Scott whether he’d heard about the five stages of grief. Scott said that sounded “like mumbo jumbo.”
“Come to think of it,” O’Malley answered, “maybe it is.”
He asked Scott about his father, and Scott started talking until the session ended. A week later, he picked up where he’d left off. When he told O’Malley about the last time he saw his father, he started to cry. Writes O’Malley: “There are no theories or diagnoses needed here. Scott is doing exactly what he needs to do.”
“Telling his story was his therapy.”
Not long after meeting Scott, O’Malley himself saw a therapist — to see, he told the older gentleman, how he was doing with his grief over Ryan’s death. The therapist instead asked O’Malley to talk about his infant son.
His own experience and Scott’s were the beginning of his new way to look at grief. As O’Malley writes, “It soon dawned on me that, through their stories, my clients were being liberated from external rules or expectations and thus could grieve in a more natural way.”
He says he gets a lot of “high-achiever grievers. They want to make sure they’re not missing a beat, that they’re getting it right.” But, he says, the book’s title “is paradoxical. There’s not a great way to grieve. It’s about whatever speed the grief process is.”
When O’Malley wrote about grief in a New York Times essay, he obviously hit a nerve. For the next month, it was the website’s No. 12 emailed story and was shared on Facebook an astounding 90,000 times.
“What the article did was decrease the isolation a lot of folks felt,” O’Malley says.
There are, he reminds us, all kinds of grief, all sorts of losses — pets included — and a myriad of ways we deal with it all. The book has a section about what he calls “complicated attachments.” Maybe the person who died was abusive, or the two of you — despite being in the same family — weren’t close.
“Folks come to my office, ashamed to say ‘I feel some relief,’” O’Malley says. Maybe that’s because the person had been sick for a long time or the relationship was a difficult one. In the case of the latter, he says: “It’s not quite as simple as you’re glad they’re dead.” Maybe “it was just a hard, hard relationship. For complex relationships, grief about what they didn’t have becomes the focus.”
He offers these tips on dealing with grief — first your own, then that of others.
Listen to what your feelings are telling you
“A frequent thing I say, rather than ‘Here’s what to expect,’ is ‘Be careful to not be self-critical about what you feel. Be curious, but not self-critical.’ In our culture, so much of the time, grief shifts into being self-critical: ‘What’s wrong with me? I can’t believe it’s been — six months, a year — and I’m having a hard time getting out of bed.’ That can get in the way of the experience. Being sad is hard enough without being self-critical about it.”
Be gentle on yourself
“A fellow came to see me this morning,” O’Malley says. “His spouse died in May, and he said, ‘I don’t understand why I am so emotional.’ I said, ‘Simple translation: We don’t grieve what we’re not attached to. This is your story of love.’ Immediately you could see the look in his face of relief.”
We live in a “culture of positivity,” he says. That can make grieving people feel uncomfortable when well-meaning loved ones say things like “You’re holding up really well,” or “He’s in a much better place.” Sad is OK.
“You honor yourself and the one you lost by carving time out of your day or week,” O’Malley suggests in the book. “Find a calm, peaceful environment where you can reflect on and express the emotions of your loss.”
Here are tips for helping others:
Acknowledge the death
“There are a lot of assumptions of ‘I don’t want to make them feel worse,’” O’Malley says. But for most people, they just want to hear their loved one’s name mentioned. It’s better to approach than to avoid.”
Make sure you’re calling a month later
“Connect to let the person know you are there,” he says. “The days are long and the nights are long, and there’s the pain of the absence of someone.”
Send a text or an email, just to let them know you haven’t forgotten.
Encourage them to talk ... or not
Ask about the person they lost. What was a favorite trip they took together? What do they miss most about their loved one?