Considering that prolonged grief disorders have much to do with lack of competencies and maintenance of maladaptive behaviour, a time has dawned to reduce focus on individual dynamics of sufferers and focus on social injustices and inequities that exacerbate feelings of grief. Solution to grief-related problems lies in helping concerned individuals to become more spontaneous and authentic and try out newer ways of experiencing, communicating and being. Isolated aspects of grief should not be divorced from the context of the whole life and vice versa
Grief has been with us in one guise or another all along. Off and on, it has visited all of us. Understanding grief is concerned with one of the most intrinsic activities of human mind, namely mental events or experiences that cause grief. Grief, essentially speaking, is a phenomenal experience: a phenomenon connoting a sense mind directly takes note of. The concept of grief goads us to know not only how mental activities occur or get altered during grief but also how it affects our physical and psychological being. Grief provokes more investigation into the relationship between grief and facts of life. Let us look at the wood instead of the trees. Simplicity eludes us in explaining most simplistic situations in life. The objective of this article is to cover limited aspects of grief related situations.
A friend of mine, in employment almost a thousand miles from his home town, on his visit to home town, met his elder brother who was gripped by severe physical problems. Elder brother requested for some financial help. Younger one obliged and promised him some help in future. Months later, younger one kept his promise and sent him some amount as per his financial capacity through money order. With no mobiles/landline in the house, he got no confirmation. Moreover communication with members of his house had significantly declined with yawning time gap as he was employed far off. But younger brother had no worries. Money had gone; it would reach. Internet facility was yet to come to shape. Movement tracking was not possible on the postal department website.
About a month later, the money order came back with a cryptic message. “The addressee expired six months back. Hence money returned.” Shock came to younger one in two forms: first why none in the family thought of informing him of his brother’s death, and second: Did he delay his action in sending money to his brother? Could he present a coherent face to his relatives and friends? The aftermath of an incident causing grief assumes greater significance while life is seemingly stabilising once one travels long distances from the time of incident. But is it so?
Such incidents do occur to all of us reminding us of Pakistani poet Muneer Niyazi’s poem: HAMESHA DER KAR DETA HOON MAIN. What sensitive lines from a sensitive poet!
“Hamesha der kar deta hun main har kaam karne men,
Zaruri baat kahni ho, koi vaada nibhana ho,
Use avaz deni ho, use vapas bulana ho,
hamesha der kar deta hun main,
Kisi ko maut se pahle kisi gham se bachana ho,
Haqiqat aur thi kuchh, us ko jake ye batana ho,
Hamesha der kar deta hun main har kaam karne men”.
The eminent poet harped on the essence of time. Time is crucial in rendering help to any. A person in need may not be able to tell of his woes next moment. Then only the haze remains. To be more precise grief or its remains: the haze of grief. Had money reached in time, would something better have occurred to the elder brother? Would he have lived a few more months or years? Perhaps not. Nevertheless, grief overtook the younger brother. He had answers to none. But this element of grief stayed with him throughout. It might be that in no way, the eldest brother was a pillar of younger brother’s existence. He was a complete self-made man. Grief strikes self-made men and women too. This incident took place almost twenty years back but traces of devastated personality of my friend are still easily perceptible.
Grief distorts the equanimous infrastructure of life, though it is possible from outside, a man’s face reveals nothing or he does not display any outer disturbances when confronted with grief-causing episodes. Many times clear images of grief are not easily discernable from a man’s face which may harbour among many elements, sadness; anxiety; distorted thoughts; disoriented realties; fear, tiredness, remains of last night’s dreams and above all a sense of regret. Gloomy faces, social withdrawal, irritability, obsessional worrying are part of picture of grief. Alternatively said, these are the general contours of grief. Of late psychologists have reached some consensus on severe complexity of nature of grief. Individualistic character of grief has narrow interpretative values. Grief has many consequences. One such is kicking in of “fight or flight” behaviour with stress hormones flooding the body. Researchers have shown grief has strong effect on grief-stricken people. It disturbs the limbic system of the brain which controls memory and emotions. Resultantly the prefrontal cortex which plays a central role in cognitive control functions like attention, cognitive flexibility, decision making, etc, roll back to backwater. Excessive grief causes an individual to experience feelings of profound sadness and depression slowly leading to loneliness. Emptiness becomes prominent in his joyless life with significant slowing down of thought processes. Often times he is visited upon by guilt of “unpardonable sins” like the younger brother above. If the haze of grief continues for beyond a reasonable time and in a disproportionately greater proportion, depressive patterns and other mental aberrations raise their heads.
Grief has many ramifications. What if a person is bereft of capacity to feel sorrow and grief or is unable to express these publicly? World is replete with strange creatures and by the same corollary strange actions and reactions. The principal character in Albert Camus’s classic novel The Outsider got a telegram informing him of his mother’s death. The rest of the novel handles character’s rendezvous with the grief his mother’s death caused and its aftermath which led to his refusal to tell lies, his confession of truth, then his trial and then punishment. During trail a barrage of unpleasant questions he had to account for such as weather he “had displayed a lack of emotion” on the day of his mother’s death; if he “had felt any grief” on the day of funeral; if he “believed in God”; if mother’s death was “a personal sacrifice for” him; if he had cried seeing his dead mother, etc. What followed his mother’s death were sequences centring on “grief” but leading to other directions away from the principal theme of death and grief. The character chose to die for the sake of truth: he refused to lie. He did face the haze of haunting grief before he went to suffer punishment. Grief does not end instantaneously, it lasts. At times it is a life-time punishment.
Vladimir Nabokov’s book INSOMANIC DREAMS too merits consideration. Nabokov was a die-hard insomniac using high and strong doses of medication for sliding into dreamless and soothing sleep. So he had dreams at dawn just before waking up from restlessness of disturbed sleep throughout the night. Then he had an enlarged prostate gland causing him repeated urge to rush to loo for urination. These facts are bare minimum to see the context. Staying in a grand Swiss hotel in Montreux, Nabokov toyed with an experiment. During October 14, 1964, to January 3 1965, immediately after waking up, he recorded the rescued portions of his dreams. Thus this book is a dreamer’s log. What for? Next few days he would search for something that happened and had anything to do with his dreams. He was keen to put a theory to scrutiny. The theory believes dreams: fragmented, jumbled and mis-labelled, may not only relate to past events like death of a beloved one or divorce but could be precognitive. Let us look at following lines:
‘Got up, lay down, got up again.
Daybreak, like death, drew nearer, creeping.
If I’ll keep going on without sleeping,
I shall complain.’
A closer look at the analysis of his dreams unquestionably convinces readers that dreams may be ornamental convolution of past and future events but in no less important way, they bring readers close to Nabokov’s personal world of grief, anxiety, pain, intense depression and woes. It’s an anxious world: violent and surreal. Grief-stricken people very often see different types of fear arousing, tormenting dreams an analysis of content of which gives a graphic picture of the internal upheavals of such people. Sleeplessness enhances problems further.
What causes grief and resultant mental issues is a question which has been sought to be answered by psychologists. Way back in 1959, psychiatrist Silvano Arieti attributed severe depressive reactions to three causative factors: First, death of a loved one (like the younger brother’s brother); second, failure in a personal relationship; and third, a setback in the work to which an individual has devoted significant portion of his life. These still remain three broad categories, though one can add many more to the list. These conditions first create grief and then lead to conducive environment for aberrations in behaviour. How long does grief last? From a few days to years? When grief lasts for long time, it becomes a disease known as prolonged grief disorder just like anxiety disorders requiring psychiatric treatment.
One way to rescue oneself from severe consequences of continuing grief (deep depression, melancholy and other psychic issues) is to draw a balance between seeking pleasures from life and avoiding pain and discomfort. One has to learn to perceive and cope with real-life situations: joyous or inevitable hurts. Needed social, emotional, intellectual, moral competencies have got to be learnt though problem-solving and decision making processes in life. This in abnormal psychology is called “the process of maturation”. In an experiment, Harlow & Harlow observed that if infant monkeys were subjected to partial deprivation, (they could see but not interact with other monkeys), it would lead to permanent inadequacies in social behaviour. To handle grief, one needs to have required adequacies at one’s command. If that is not available, a person will not be able to tackle stressful situations stemming from grief and it, in turn, will pave the way for her/his disorganisation. Fear has serious links with grief.
It is during infancy and early childhood that fears are acquired as at that stage many individuals are helpless and cannot cope with external threats. Therefore, individuals who unfortunately don’t learn needed competencies and adequacies to handle external danger become vulnerable later. These competencies enable a person to come out of what psychologists Woodworth and Schlosberg call “blinding effect” or “functional fixidity”. “Blinding effect” in brief connotes a person’s inability to look beyond a few alternatives. For solving problems, say for example, arising out of grief situations, a matured individual has to initiate process of stimulating new ideas; they might show that there is more than one way of looking at things. Life does not have only one facet. There should be continual attempt to embrace more and more phenomena and options. One ought to forget single-peaked nature of grief. He has to tease out psychological nuances of his own situation and behaviour. Correct appreciation of grief, its nature and aftermath is instrumental in understanding himself.
Considering that prolonged grief disorders have much to do with lack of competencies and maintenance of maladaptive behaviour, a time has dawned to reduce focus on individual dynamics of sufferers and focus on social injustices and inequities that exacerbate feelings of grief. Solution to grief-related problems lies in helping concerned individuals to become more spontaneous and authentic and try out newer ways of experiencing, communicating and being. Isolated aspects of grief should not be divorced from the context of the whole life and vice versa.
(The writer, a civil servant who superannuated in July 2020 as Additional Deputy Comptroller & Auditor General in the rank of Special Secretary to the Govt of India from the office of CAG. He is a poet, writer and columnist. Author of three volumes of poetry, his poems have been translated into Hindi (Andhere Se Nikli Kavitayen — VANI PRAKASHAN (2017) and his book “Shadows of the Real” into Russian by veteran Russian poet Adolf Shvedchikov. His fourth book “Soliloquy of a Small-Town Uncivil Servant”: a literary non-fiction published in March 2019 by Rupa Publications, New Delhi, has received international acclaim in literary field. His next book: a collection of Essays& Critiques is expected shortly. Views expressed here are his personal views)