Finding space for enjoyment or mere distraction is a healthy part of mourning. A new model of grieving makes this clear.
This entire column, not just this entry, contains a content warning. I will be writing about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other serious topics. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.
My son Josh had a deliciously morbid sense of humor. He acknowledged birthdays with a “congratulations on not dying for another year!” He invented fake ad copy: “Silly Joe’s Hitman Service: We put the laughter in manslaughter!”
In case the title of this column seems “too soon,” please rest assured, Josh would’ve approved. He would also be right. Seeking fun, happiness, or mere distraction is a healthy, necessary counterbalance to the bereft sadness of grief.
The experts agree. In place of Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief, mental health professionals now find the “dual process model of coping with bereavement” to be more accurate and useful in promoting resilience in mourning.
Let’s do a short walkthrough. Instead of a stage model–squaring off against denial, anger, depression, and bargaining before reaching the boss level of acceptance—the dual process model proposes that mourners oscillate daily between loss orientation and restoration orientation.
It’s a mouthful, but it makes so much sense. Loss-oriented stress includes those overwhelming waves of crying, the crashing realization your loved one is gone, the “what if” fantasies, the times when everything reminds you of the missing person, the days you can’t face closing their bank account.
Restoration-oriented stress is comprised of crafting a new self-identity, making or deepening other relationships, and addressing the changes made necessary by your loved one’s absence. For me, this involves the jarring adjustment to a life where my mentally ill son doesn’t need me to wake him up for his shifts at McDonald’s or guide him in making his weekly schedule. I will no longer delight in his silly banter as we do chores in the kitchen together. It’s the acceptance that I’m now the father of just two living adult children, youngsters who are more mature than I was at their age, who don’t require intervention in their daily lives.
The oscillation I mentioned earlier is crucial to this model. Across the course of a day, the pendulum can swing multiple times between loss and restoration. As Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor describes in The Grieving Brain, an oscillation may last mere minutes: a crying jag in the office bathroom, then back to a work project.
(This interview with Lucy Hone, PhD, is another excellent intro to the dual process model. It’s a tough listen, as she speaks of the model’s relevance to her own grief over losing her daughter, but so worthwhile).
All of this brings me back to the fun in after the funeral. Restoration also includes intentional avoidance of grief, giving yourself permission to push aside the guilty questions for a while. It involves distraction and new interests.
In mourning the death of my son, I’ve slowly found my way to a natural ebb and flow. Sometimes it feels right to watch a slideshow of family photos, to listen to Josh’s favorite songs, or eat a meal of ramen in his memory. At other times, I need a break from these secular grieving rituals. I crave distraction.
There are a handful of diversions I return to repeatedly. In the hours when my concentration is better than that of a crack-addicted terrier, I plunge into a good book. If my brain is in overstimulated Jack Russell mode, I turn on the PlayStation. I’m a decade late to the party, but the open world of Red Dead Redemption 2 and the narrative thrust of The Last of Us offered good company over my rainy Pacific Northwest winter.
A friend of mine recommended I learn a musical instrument as a means of coping. I didn’t follow his exact suggestion, but it’s been therapeutic to lose myself in a hobby. I take my camera everywhere, and practice the patient discipline of framing an image, of crouching and waiting for that bird to strike a photogenic pose. This is perhaps where I’ve come the closest to sustained happiness since Josh died.
If you can afford it, a literal change of scenery is invaluable. My wife Jessica and I have spent long weekends in Seattle and on the San Juan Islands, and several days exploring Oregon. We’ve found pleasure and rest in new places to create memories. I’m used to vacations as some of the happiest periods of my life, and it’s been strange to feel sad and even sob when traveling. But these extended breaks have been so helpful for reflection and for deeper conversations than a normal workweek allows. Though I question if I’ll ever experience unalloyed joy again, I still welcome sadness-tinged pleasure and the long stretches of distraction that travel permits.
Two destructive shoals require careful navigation, in permitting myself these diversions. First is the internalized social expectation of what a grieving parent looks like. I know it’s ridiculous, but I sometimes wonder what the neighbors think when I’m outdoors. Do they think I’m playing the role adequately? The key here is to acknowledge these thoughts, then reject them for their absurdity. I won’t dress only in black, rent my clothes, and break into uncontrollable wailing on my dog walks.
Second, there’s the opposite pressure to lighten up and move along. Though well-intended, the exhortations not to let my child’s death define me or the “time heals all wounds” clichés feel invalidating. It’s as though I’m being told to hurry up and get over it, that people liked the old me better and wish I’d just get back to it.
It takes true strength to resist these forces. Here again, Dr. Hone’s interview was beneficial for its candor and simplicity. She learned to ask herself repeatedly, “Is this activity helping me?” Like her, I’ve discovered that more often than not, I can intuit what is useful at a particular hour, as I oscillate between grief and restoration.