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Columnist Jackie Brousseau-Pereira: On grief and grieving

  • This image released by Disney shows Robert Downey Jr. in a scene from “Avengers: Endgame.” DISNEY/MARVEL STUDIOS VIA AP

Published: 5/15/2019 8:49:54 AM

Recently, my family and I went to see Marvel’s “Avengers: End Game.” The first half of the movie presents examples of the variety of ways we deal with grief in our society. If you aren’t a superhero fan, the premise of the movie is that half the population of the world has disappeared with the snap of a supervillain’s fingers. The lives of those remaining were disrupted instantly and we watched as humans and superheroes, alike, worked their way through the standard phases of grief in their own ways. I won’t include any spoilers, but I will say that shock, denial, anger, depression, survivor’s guilt and blame were all present.

I’ve been thinking about grief a lot recently. It seems that at least once a week, I hear about the death of a friend’s parent, a neighbor’s beloved pet or as happened this week, a faculty member on the verge of retirement. The students I work with have their own struggles with grief, dealing with the loss or serious illness of family members, or watching people in their lives struggle with opioid addiction or domestic violence. It’s heart-wrenching.

In my life, I’m dealing with slow stages of grief as my mother slides deeper into the grasp of her Alzheimer’s disease. On Mother’s Day, we visited her assisted-living facility — a cheery place with lots of planned activities for residents. When we got there, she was thrilled to see us despite the fact that it was clear she didn’t remember it was Mother’s Day. It’s actually not bad that any time we visit feels special to her. Sadly, her memory of the experience doesn’t stay with her for more than a few minutes after we leave.

I’ve mostly come to terms with this, and I try to enjoy the time we spend together, recognizing that if we can share her happiness for a while, it makes everyone’s day a little brighter. I’m usually able to sit with the fact that this is not the same woman who raised me. Now she’s Mom 2.0, a new version of herself. I’m grateful that what remains is her sense of humor and her caring nature.

At times, this change hits me hard, and I recognize that I’ll never again get to ask my mother for advice. I tell her what’s happening with my kids or my job, but it doesn’t actually mean anything to her. She’s forgotten so much of her own life at this point that she’s not able to tell us much beyond the day’s activities. Sometimes after a visit, I imagine my mother’s memory is like a sandcastle and the tide is coming in and wiping it away bit by bit. Some days this feels OK, and other days I find it profoundly sad.

I recognize this as grief, and I understand it will just come at me sometimes without my looking for it. I remind myself that it’s really OK to feel sadness over such an enormous loss.

However, sadness is an emotion that our U.S. culture seems to have a difficult time accepting. We often expect people — and ourselves — to “get through” their grief and “get on with their lives” in a relatively short period of time. We don’t like when people are sad, and often we try to “fix” them. I see this in my work with students who have convinced themselves that they shouldn’t still be sad or upset after losing a family member. They try to carry on as if things have not changed, and then they’re surprised when they can’t focus on classes.

Psychiatrist and grief expert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described seven stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and acceptance. As people deal with loss, they may cycle through each of these phases, not always in the same order or for the same amount of time. Everyone’s experience of grieving is individual, and I long for the day when we can honor this and allow people to work with their grief however they need to.

I encourage students who are dealing with a loss to be kind to themselves and not put on so much pressure to “be OK” when they are feeling sad. We have to allow each other however much time we need to experience the deep emotions that come with losing a loved one so that we can heal and accept the changes that come with loss. We are never the same after we lose someone we love but it helps to recognize this so we can honor their lives and the influence they made on ours. 

Jackie Brousseau-Pereira, of Easthampton, is the academic dean and director of first-year seminars in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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