- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

Grief, a natural emotion, comes in the wake of loss or news of a prospective loss. Just as there are many forms of grief, so, too, are there many methods of easing the pain. Medical professionals and health care workers talk about the “process” of grieving as a necessary experience — something to live through, with or without outside help. They agree that the means of dealing with the emotions surrounding the issue are different for different individuals.

For those immediately affected, the process involves stages, says Lourdes Griffin, administrator of Washington Hospital Center’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Service. “They are just guidelines, and people don’t go through them in order: denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance. But you can have anger before the others.”

Also, just as some mourners prefer absolute privacy and the comfort of friends or family, others feel drawn to memorials, large and small, to assuage their grief. Memorials “offer us a sacred space and allow people opportunity to acknowledge significant losses in life, maybe for people they barely knew,” says psychologist Ken Doka, senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America, who is on the staff of the College of New Rochelle, N.Y.

There also is anticipatory grief, says Susan Ley, executive director of the District’s Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, who defines that as when “a hospice patient has the opportunity to say farewell and give the type of goodbye that is lasting and memorable.”

Beyond traditional forms are other concepts that sociologists see as hallmarks of the modern age.

Jack Santino, a professor in the Department of Popular Culture at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, writes about one of these in “Spontaneous Shrines and the Public Memorialization of Death,” a book he edited for publication in April this year. Such shrines are erected in public spaces, at times by the side of a road to mark the scene of an accident.

“Usually a social issue is involved,” he explains by telephone. “They can involve an element of protest as if to say, ‘This could have been prevented if a light had been there.’ … The ritualization of these spots both commemorates the deceased and touches on these issues.”

His colleague Montana Miller, an assistant professor who wrote her doctoral dissertation about public performances surrounding grief and tragedy in American high schools, has created the term “the globalization of grief” to refer to contemporary media’s way of bringing nonstop attention to national and international tragedies.

“Where is the line between international empathy and the phenomenon of ‘compassion fatigue?’” Ms. Miller asks rhetorically in an e-mail, her preferred method of responding.

“We helplessly watch death tolls rising every time a new tragedy strikes, our sensibilities are overwhelmed, and we respond in ways that comfort us at some level emotionally, usually looking for a way to express our grief creatively and communally — looking in our own hearts for some personal connection to the victims and [our] life experiences.”

She cites the phenomenon of public shrines that were erected in the wake of the death of England’s Princess Diana and memorials that piled up outside firehouses in New York after September 11, 2001.

Less dramatic but just as public are decals, Web sites and even T-shirts created specifically to honor a loved one’s death. In this way, the mourner reaches out to others — usually strangers — for sympathy and understanding and even feedback to help them in their grieving.

“While there are formal long-standing rituals that I think we all cling to, I think people find very personal ways to commemorate that often relate to the person who died,” says Ms. Ley, who holds a master’s degree in social work. “Someone particularly interested in sports will find some way to commemorate, such as attending a ballgame.

“Most of us don’t need grief counseling,” she says. “Death is part of life, and with good support, even our own internal resources — with time and the process of commemorating — we can go on.

“That is different from the same individual who encounters a second or third death close to them within as many years,” she adds. “Or when death is tragic for many reasons — death that is a suicide or somehow inexplicable. And when children are involved. I think that is when professional help is an asset.”

Media dominance has contributed to our general awareness about the needs for processing death, particularly around children, she says. “It has been a great step forward to recognize this. I think 9/11 [was] pivotal. More so than Princess Di, which was a situation unique to her.”

Such large outpourings of grief as represented by the reaction to the accidental death of England’s Princess Diana is not convincing to Peggy Cauley, director of the all-volunteer 30-year-old nonprofit Haven of Northern Virginia, a stand-alone house in Annandale that offers both individual and group support to the bereaved and seriously ill.

“You can’t really grieve in a mass. People individually have to share feelings. Once people can start talking, it often is very relieving and comforting,” she says, adding that “what we find is when people come in, they are dealing with a lot of other things as well.”

Grieving alone over a long period of time leads to depression, warns Washington psychologist Dorree Lynn, a former member of the board of the American Academy of Psychotherapists and author of the book “Getting Sane Without Going Crazy.”

“I’m a big believer in using mechanisms that work for people,” she says. “There is normal depression after loss. If it extends beyond three months, six months or a year, you have clinical depression. If you don’t get out of it, there is no stigma or shame about seeing a professional. If you have severe loss, you can’t ignore it, or your body will get back at you.”

Though there is danger in becoming immune in a media-saturated society that bombards people with tragedy, “it has [also] made us aware of the need to develop techniques to help people in a mass way,” she says.

Mr. Doka acknowledges the legitimacy of grieving anonymously, often for strangers. “We don’t have to be connected to people we know to necessarily feel a sense of loss,” he says. “When you talk about Katrina and 9/11, there is an element of trauma, which includes grief, but it also includes other components, one of which is loss of a sense of safety. We assume the world is a particular way, and then we have an event that challenges us.”

Help in grief

The following are just some of the grief-counseling resources available in the Greater Washington area, most offering both individual and group sessions on a free or sliding-scale basis:

• The Wendt Center for Loss and Healing, 4201 Connecticut Ave. NW., Suite 300. The center annually cares for hundreds of adults and children. A satellite office is at 2041 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, Suite 236.

Trained mental health practitioners also staff the center’s weekend sleep-away bereavement camp for children ages 6 to 15, called Camp Forget-Me-Not, each August for those who have experienced the death of a loved one. (This year’s session is full.) Call 202/624-0010 or click on www.wendtcenter.org.

• Capital Hospice Point of Hope Grief Counseling Center has offices at six locations. Call 800/255-3042 or click on www.pointofhope.org/services/counseling. The organization also sponsors a free summer camp called Point of Hope Camp for children ages 6 to 14 who have lost a loved one. This year’s session, taking place July 28 through 30 in Middleburg, Va., is full, but the center has a wait list at 703/460-9342.

• The all-volunteer Haven of Northern Virginia, 4606 Ravensworth Road, Annandale. Call 703/941-7000 or click on www.havenofnova.org.

• Shady Grove Adventist Hospital, 9901 Medical Drive, Rockville. A free support group for people coping with pregnancy loss, miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death. Call 301/279-6112.

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