A middle-aged professional couple lose their daughter in an airplane crash one week before her planned wedding. A doctor's wife of thirty-eight years--mother of his seven children--dies suddenly of a heart attack. A second grade teacher comes home from work to find her teenage son has hanged himself in the backyard.

In the first few months following the deaths, these survivors, and others like them confide their fear that they may be "going crazy." They worry that their minds will not be able to take any more, that they will find themselves unable to process the anguish and emotional pain of their loss for one more day, and--even more alarming--they can't imagine they will ever feel or act "normal" again.

A loved one's death is not only emotionally devastating, it is a strange, bewildering experience. Grief presents us with unfamiliar territory which must be crossed, and survivors navigate it as best they can--often in ways that may appear unusual to others.

Losing a loved one creates a torrent of emotional responses that are so extreme, the actions they prompt are often equally extreme. In fact, it is reasonable to speculate that the more imaginative a person is, or the more demonstrative, the more inventive may be his or her ways of coping with and expressing painful longing and wrenching sadness.

After his father's death, a forty-seven year old writer called his family's answering machine every day for a week just to hear his father's voice. A mother whose children had burned to death in their home went for walks in the woods and "howled and howled like an animal for days after they died." A widowed judge sat in his bedroom late at night with his wife's robe cradled in his arms and cried, "Oh, I miss you, I miss you so."

In the grieving community such actions are not unusual. They are, instead, common ways of coping which allow a survivor to focus feelings, to release emotional torment, and to yearn openly and without witnesses. As a survivor works toward resolution of his or her loss, these vital expressions serve as stepping stones.

In addition to engaging in dramatic responses, survivors may also react in less obvious ways to the disorientation and confusion of grief. With news of a loved one's death, the world in which the survivor lives is immediately transformed. His environment becomes blurred. As a result, he moves uncertainly, going through the motions of acceptable routine. Focus is difficult as he sorts out the real from the unreal.

A survivor may have difficulty in distinguishing between sleeping and waking. Daily interactions with familiar things and people can be challenging, even baffling. A grieving mother, for example, may observe ordinary activities--shopping in a store, filling the car with gasoline, watching TV, the neighbor mowing his lawn--and not be able to make any sense of them. She may experience feelings of amazement that the lives of others go on, that other people actually consider routine, mundane activities worth doing. Such a survivor may describe herself as "feeling as if I'm floating in space."

Especially in the early days of grief, which are particularly hazy, she may be convinced that she hears or sees her loved one in the house. In fact, there are many survivors who report very realistic "visits" from their deceased family member or friend.

It is also not uncommon for a survivor to sight his lost loved one in public. The grieving person may turn around on the street and follow a stranger who closely resembles a deceased child, sibling, or spouse. Even though his intellect tells him the loved one is no longer going to walk up the sidewalk, or drive a car, or get on a bus, or push a cart down the aisle of the supermarket, he has heart-quickening moments when he thinks he sees him or her.

In such cases, a survivor's belief and disbelief operate simultaneously. The disbelief permits him to endure the unendurable, to protect himself until he can more fully accept his loss.

Almost any survivor, regardless of the challenges he or she is facing, will benefit from attending a support group for grieving people. It is there that a survivor discovers that the wildest thoughts she has entertained, the oddest things she has done or felt, are, most likely, echoed in varying degrees by others who are dealing with a similar loss.

By observing and interacting with others who are suffering from the same kind of personal tragedy, survivors can learn to understand the scope and reality of grief--how far it reaches and what it involves. They also learn they are not alone - and that the "small insanities of grief" are not only temporary, they are an integral and necessary part of the healing process.

Do you have a question or issue you'd like Carol Staudacher to address in future columns? Email your questions to:
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