Dealing With Death Differently

Katie Young
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Wednesday - April 23, 2008

Doug Schwartzsmith, Psy.D.
Doug Schwartzsmith, Psy.D.

The other day a friend called to tell me that her boyfriend’s mother has cancer. They don’t know what the outlook is yet. Chemotherapy could help, but maybe not. They can only wait and hope and pray and see what the future holds.

My friend Jill is beside herself with anguish - for her boyfriend, for his mother and for their entire family.

Having met her boyfriend’s mother only twice since they started dating a year ago, and because they live in different states, Jill’s energies have been mostly focused on trying to be there to take care of whatever her boyfriend needs during this time of grief.

It’s one thing to be dealing with the possibility of losing a loved one directly, but there are also a lot of emotions involved when you are trying to be the support for someone who is grieving.

Jill quickly realized, however, that “being there” in the way she felt appropriate for the situation was not being met with the response she hoped for.

Jill wanted to talk about things; her boyfriend did not. So she searched for clues in his facial expressions, the insignificant chit-chat they carried on during dinnertime and even in his silence.

She wanted desperately to be there to help him deal with his pain, but it appeared that her man was only growing more emotionally distant.

“Maybe he just needs his space and time alone,” Jill told me. “So I’ve been trying to give that to him.”

But Jill couldn’t help feeling left out in a way.

“If it were me, I’d want to talk about it,” she said. “Venting would make me feel better. The way he’s acting now, though, I just feel like he’s shutting me out completely.”

There is a delicate balance of emotions that go along with illness and grief that aren’t always easy to grasp.

According to Doug Schwartzsmith, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice and member of the Hawaii Psychological Association, a person’s first impulse is always to lighten the burden for their loved one.

“Jill might be thinking, ‘I love my boyfriend and I want to remove his pain,’” he explains. “It’s not wrong to have those impulses, but you have to be clear about what you’re feeling.”

Schwartzsmith says that Jill is likely going through her own grief even though she doesn’t know her boyfriend’s mother all that well.

“There’s also the more generic concern: ‘How do I feel about watching someone die?’” says Schwartzsmith. “So there are some heavy feelings here on a lot of levels. If Jill rushes into this because she wants so badly to make those bad feelings go away, she could end up discounting her boyfriend’s pain.”

Schwartzsmith says that you need to allow people their pain and endorse it rather than negate it.

“Jill is also assuming that talking would be helpful, and maybe it’s not for him,” he adds. “Guys don’t talk the way women do. Not even close.”

Schwartzsmith says that silence truly can be powerful. “It can say, ‘I am fine with where you are right now. I can be with you in your pain in your way.’ It’s such a hard time, we don’t want to make it harder on someone by forcing him or her to talk if they don’t want to. The goal is to make things better.”

Some people, especially women, might have the idea that if they crack that tough exterior and make a man talk, that it will be cathartic and only help him get past his pain. Not so.

“His mind is already so full of stuff he’s dealing with,” says Schwartzsmith. “And when you get on him about it, all he hears is ‘You’re doing it wrong!’”

Don’t assume that talk therapy is the cure for everything. Therapy comes in many different forms, according to Schwartzsmith: music therapy, recreational therapy, animal therapy ... the possibilities are infinite.

The best thing to do is to let the grieving person find what is therapeutic to them. For Jill, this means she can still be there for support, but it might mean a silent support that allows her boyfriend to open up in his own time. It might also mean joining in an activity to help get his mind off the grief.

Dealing with the possibility of death is difficult enough. And it’s hard to know exactly how to act or how to be there for the person who is grieving.

It comes down to this: You can’t magically take away someone’s pain. You can only support people as they deal with the pain in their own way.


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