Grief is Messy

Barbara Rubel knows her way around grief. While in the hospital preparing to give birth to not one, not two, but three babies, her husband gave her the news that her father had just died by suicide. His life ended the very day Barbara would make him a grandfather. Can you even wrap your head around that?  

Instead of running from the pain, Barbara leaned in, learned, studied,  earned degrees, and has turned her tragedy into a life’s mission of helping others understand, be supportive during, and move through grief with grace.

I met Barbara last summer when I was having a particularly difficult time processing several tragic deaths in our community.  I reached out to my contacts on LinkedIn and asked if anyone could help me overcome my intense sadness and feelings of inadequacy in how to support the grieving families left behind. Being a sideline griever up until that point, I was a sponge soaking in all of the sadness without a clue of how to help.  

Barbara was the perfect person to guide me, as she is not only an accomplished speaker and author, she is a real live Thanatologist. I am sure everyone knows what that is, wink wink,  but just in case, here is a brief description from Wikipedia: 

Thanatology is the scientific study of death and the losses brought about as a result. It investigates the mechanisms and forensic aspects of death, such as bodily changes that accompany death and the postmortem period, as well as wider psychological and social aspects related to death. 

If you are going to trust someone on the subject of death and grief, Barbara is at the top of the heap. I had no idea that this podcast episode would again bring me such comfort less than a year later when I lost my father. It’s been two weeks, and I am very much in a state of swirling emotions which I find hard to put into words. So I went back and listened to this episode and really walked away with some wonderful tips and a sense of relief to know my feelings are pretty normal.  

Supporting Someone Who is Grieving

When Barbara took her triplets home, she was a new mom and a grieving daughter. Despite her despair over the sudden loss of her father,  she had three hungry babies to feed. At 2 am, while waiting for the next feeding,  she began a painting with watercolors . She says it was a beautiful flower, but as she was painting, her tired arm knocked over a glass spilling water all over the painting. This caused the colors to bleed together and the beautiful flower to become blurry.  She realized in that moment an immediate connection between the messy painting and her emotions. 

That’s what grief looks like. There are no stages in grief. It is just a mess. It is a blending of different colors, physical, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, spiritual colors that blend together throughout our entire lifetime.  There is no time table for grief after a sudden loss. It ebbs and flows throughout our entire life.”

Barbara Rubel

According to Barbara, in order to really support those in grief,  we must listen deeply and recognize that they may only be able to express their emotions using metaphors. She advises to not try to fix it or minimize it — just simply BE. Hold space for that person and all of their emotions.

This resonates deeply with me as I am still raw with the trauma of the details of the day my father died.  I feel like a balloon floating past a wall of tacks. One false move and I’m done. All of the pain, the fear, the emptiness will come out with a whoosh, and I’ll fall flat. 

I have done my best these past two weeks to keep my emotions at bay. I have found this quite easy to do with people around, flowers arriving, receiving texts from well-meaning friends, and planning, planning, planning. Not only planning the funeral, but what to do with the body. We had to decide: do we want to see him again or not? Do we want to have a headstone or a plaque? What is the best urn or does that matter? So many decisions to be made with a mind that’s not quite right.

Thankfully my father was kind enough to write most of his obituary as well as leave explicit details for the service before he died. He left this in a notebook beside his chair. What a beautiful last gesture of mercy for a family trying to wrap up eighty years of living in two days. 

Grieving at Work

I am lucky to work for a company that gave me plenty of time off to be with my family and everyone has told me how sorry they were to hear about my dad. I can’t tell you how much that helped. Another lesson learned: Acknowledge someone’s grief even if it feels awkward. 

I asked Barbara what she says to large companies in regards to dealing with grief in the workplace. 

She says, “the bottom line is you want to focus on retention and productivity, what’s going to make sure that that employee stays in the workplace, manages their experience of loss, and continues to work productively.”  She also states that HR and Management do not want to be a therapist, so it’s vitally important to have this in place prior to an event.  

Barbara says employers need to recognize that the employee will not be cognitively “all there” right after losing a loved one. They need to understand that it will take time, and recognize the employees’ grief and support them with special breaks, notes, or other small kindnesses. 

Be Cautious with Self-Medicating to Numb Grief

Barbara and I also discussed people  self-medicating after the death of a loved one. She says this is very common, as the pain is so bad it leads to the need for numbing. Interestingly, along with alcohol and drugs, hoarding is also a way to avoid uncomfortable feelings.  

While I stopped drinking alcohol years ago, I do have the human emotion of wanting to numb the pain. Part of me knows if I was still drinking, it would make things much worse, and I am grateful for my clear mind and ability to be there for my mother. 

I know that this experience will make me a better person. I have learned, especially through my substance use disorder and my journey of recovery, that it is the ugliness in life that produces beauty, empathy, and resilience.  I now know that it doesn’t matter what I say or what food I bring, it’s my presence that matters. I always thought I would be in the way, or that people wouldn’t miss me at the funeral,  or that I’m just too awkward. It was all about me and not about them. Now I know better. I can’t tell you what a comfort it is to have someone just sit with me and listen.

So far, the only thing I seem to talk about in great detail, which I’m sure if off putting, is the actual details of his death. I have never seen anything like it, and it will be with me forever. 

Somehow talking about it out loud is better than ruminating on it alone. So to my friend who has heard every gory detail, while remaining silent but supportive,  I say thank you a million times over. 

What Barbara tells us is to go straight towards the pain and just be present. Personally, I will try and do just that. 

For employers, I encourage to check your bereavement policy and procedure manual. Make sure you give adequate time for your employees. Listen to them, let them know you care. I promise you will never regret it. 

If you are grieving, and you feel you are self-medicating, please reach out to someone for support or email me. I would love to hear from you, just to say hello, to share that you are struggling, if you have I want to know if there is anything you want to hear on a podcast, anything you are struggling with, really just to say hello.

Elizabeth McKissick is the Director of Communications at Youturn Health. Elizabeth has been in recovery for substance use disorder for more than 15 years and is a strong advocate for sharing her story in the hopes of helping others struggling with dependency and misuse.