Life After Death

Local resources for coping with the loss of a loved one

By Alisa Advani

»The holidays are considered to be a time spent with loved ones. But for someone grieving the loss of a family member or friend, the season to celebrate quickly becomes a time of great sadness.

To dig deeply into the process of mourning — beyond Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grieving — gives the bereaved useful insights into their pain. And to openly discuss the psychological and social impact of grief benefits all who face loss.

Kübler-Ross first unveiled her approach to understanding death and its emotional toll on the living in 1969. Her research with terminally ill patients that led to the publication of her book, “On Death and Dying,” identified the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

And while Kübler-Ross captured the range of emotions that death stirs, new research suggests that grief doesn’t always follow a tidy path. The Yale Bereavement Study, for instance, suggests that grieving is more complicated and involved, less a progression through stages and more an ongoing process — and one that doesn’t always involve letting go.

“Grief is a complex, personal process that can’t be reduced to a simplified checklist,” says Rebecca Bickel of Bickel Counseling in Greenwood. “Kübler-Ross got us started in our thinking about this topic. I don’t feel the new research that I have read contradicts Kübler-Ross as much as it adds to it, deepening our understanding,”

Faith-Based Approaches

With this greater understanding of grief’s passageway, chaplains like Jeff Hauersperger, support group facilitators like Bob and Mary Gerlach, and social workers like Lacey Rentschler now pull from a cadre of spiritual, conventional and novel modalities to guide the bereaved on their personal paths.

As a hospice chaplain at Franciscan St. Francis Health, Hauersperger immerses himself in each individual’s course, focusing on an open, spiritual dialogue and relying upon the strength that faith provides. “Perhaps the most common expression from the bereaved is in the form of a question,” he explains. “They will often ask me, ‘How does a person without faith get through difficult times like this?’ I know it happens, but based on what I’ve observed, I know that those with a strong faith tend to come through the process stronger than ever before and many times changed for the better.

“God’s OK if you ask why your loved one died,” he adds. “You, however, may not get the answer this side of heaven. Typically, the bereaved are changed spiritually in their faith journey.”

Hauersperger likens grief to snowflakes and fingerprints — no two experiences are alike. “Nobody grieves exactly the same way,” he says. “That’s one of the things I want the bereaved to understand: that their grief is their own and they shouldn’t compare it to anyone else’s. I also stress to the bereaved that grief is a process, not something they get over but something they must work through. They can allow the experience to make them bitter or better. They control how they will move forward.”

Hauersperger does believe that the similarities in how we grieve are what bind us together and bring us true healing. “These similarities allow people to see that they really aren’t going crazy and that emotions such as anger and denial are common,” he explains. “It’s OK to cry. In fact, it’s beneficial.”

Through shared experiences, Hauersperger says, family members and friends can help one another by being supportive and encouraging. “I tell the grieving that their loved ones would want them to continue living,” he says. “Yes, life is still worth living.”

Greenwood resident Bob Gerlach gained such tremendous reassurance and inspiration from the support group that he attended when his first wife and, then later, his son-in-law died that he now facilitates a weekly GriefShare program at Southland Community Church on Smith Valley Road.

GriefShare is a biblically based support group ministry led by nonprofessionals who undergo special training. Sessions include a video seminar featuring top grief experts, a support group discussion and a personal study and reflection segment. Both Bob and his new wife, Mary, feel they benefited greatly from their GriefShare experiences and now hope to help others.

“After 5½ years, I can now look back on my grief and realize that it was a turning point in my life to find a new purpose and direction,” Bob Gerlach says. “My wife, Mary, and I have found that helping others in grief has become a way that we can give back. In our groups, individuals are lifted up by each other when they hear that their story is similar to others.

“Often members develop a common bond that becomes a lasting friendship,” adds Mary Gerlach.

The Science of Grief

As no two people grieve in the same way, social worker Lacey Rentschler offers her bereaved clients an approach based less on faith and more on cognitive neuroscience. “At Sunstone (Health & Wellness) we approach grief from a trauma standpoint by accessing the parts of the brain where trauma is stored,” she says. “We look at how trauma impacts the brain, the body and relationships.”

Trauma lives in the same area in the brain as the senses, she says. To stimulate the sensory part of the brain, thus releasing hidden trauma, Rentschler recommends art therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) treatment, an application of psychotherapy originally designed to alleviate distress. Through studies, EMDR therapy has shown that the mind can heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma.

Rentschler recommends a few additional tools to clients grappling with grief. In a crisis moment, when the emotions become overwhelming, she suggests reaching for finger paint or a pencil and says that even scribbling can help ease intense sadness.

She also recommends an acoustical therapy called binaural beats, which delivers different sound frequencies to the brain through each ear. Through this procedure, the two hemispheres of the brain start working together to perceive a third phantom signal, known as the binaural beat. These beats help synchronize both hemispheres of the brain, which results in a calming effect. “It’s a portable, low-cost option that clients can download (on the Internet) and access as needed,” she says.

These simple approaches can help both children and adults, Rentschler explains, but “particularly adults because they have lived longer and have typically experienced more losses. This is impactful because adults emotionally experience the pain from old losses when new ones occur, especially if they haven’t fully processed the previous losses in a healthy way.”

Hope during the Holidays

For those who grieve the loss of a loved one, the holidays can be the most difficult time of all. “Society pulses with excitement as family and friends celebrate beloved traditions with food, fellowship and much joy,” explains Jim Wetzel, a chaplain at Franciscan St. Francis Health. “Those suffering loss, though, find these times filled with dread.”

Along with attending support groups, experts suggest planning and anticipating grief triggers to help the transition from what was to what is now. “Many old traditions can overwhelm the grief-struck,” says Bob Gerlach. “One great idea is to build a time of remembrance into your celebration where you and others can focus on the absence of your loved ones. It is a challenging thought, at first, but it can be a rewarding experience for all.”