Today I bring to you Susan Berger, Ed.D., LICSW, who has spent her life working with bereavement and counseling those who face significant loss. She not only trains professionals in her unique approach, but lectures widely in the professional healthcare field, business, government and university settings.  This is a highly important topic as loss affects us all. Her latest book The Five Ways We Grieve: Finding Your Personal Path to Healing after the Loss of a Loved One provides a path toward personal healing and growth.

Q:  Susan, you suffered your own traumatic loss at a young age.  Can you tell us a bit about that and how your life changed? 

My father died of Hodgkins Disease when I was eleven years old.  He had been sick for all but three of those years, so I watched him gradually become weaker and weaker, go from walking to walking with a walker to becoming bedridden.  My mother had to bathe him, and one night when they thought I was sleeping, I heard him say “I want to die.”  Soon after, he did die at the age of thirty-five. 

My family’s life changed forever.  Our hopes and dreams for moving to a better neighborhood and better schools vanished.  My mother was a first-grade teacher, and took on additional jobs at Sunday School and summer camp. My brother, three years younger than I, lost his male role model, and became very withdrawn and isolated from family and friends.  For most of my life, when I was asked to tell people about myself, I would start by saying “My father died when I was eleven.”  That had become my identity.         

When a loved one dies, you lose your identity. I became a girl without a father, and our family became a struggling single-parent family, when the prevailing model of the happy family was portrayed ubiquitously on TV shows like “Father Knows Best.”   I felt “different” and didn’t know where I (and my family) “fit” in the world.  I had also been introduced to the process of dying and death, attending my father’s funeral and burial at the cemetery.  Although I didn’t realize it yet, I would begin to think of everyone as mortal, and death as possible at any time. Other perceptions I developed were that life is a struggle and people suffer from all kinds of maladies– medical, social and political.  Life is short and time has to be used productively.  As an adult, this became the way I saw the world.    

When my mother died of breast cancer at the age of forty-nine, these perceptions were reinforced and strengthened. I was twenty-seven, with a husband and 3-year old daughter.  As a result of her death, I was reminded about my own mortality, and my sense of urgency to experience life as much as possible and make a difference in the world.

Q: In your book, you talk about 5 ways we grieve.  What are those 5 ways? 

My book, The Five Ways We Grieve, is the result of research I conducted over the past ten years.  Understanding how survivors like me grieve was guided by four questions which I termed “The Four Pillars of Identity.”  Since your loved one died:

  1. What is your sense of your own mortality?
  2. How do you view ‘time’?  For example, is it a precious commodity or a flowing space we pass through while living on earth?  Do you tend to focus on the past, the present, or the future?      
  3. Have your values and priorities changed?
  4. What is your relationship to the world?  Where do you think you fit?

As I collected the stories of others who had lost loved ones, I began to notice how survivors responded to these four questions in patterns that represented different paths or ‘ways’ that survivors described their post-loss lives.

I named these five ways:  the nomad, the memorialist, the normalizer, the activist, and the seeker.  I believe that survivors transform themselves through their grieving process into one of these five ways.  The nomad, the first way, is the person who has not yet resolved their grief.  Each of the other four paths offers a way for survivors to find their new identity, one of the most important tasks in the grieving process.

Q: How can those who grieve make meaning from this loss and find hope for the future?

Most people understand grief as mainly an emotional process in which we feel sadness, perhaps even despair, that must be released and purged in order to move on with their lives. Actually, grief is also a cognitive and spiritual process.  When a loved one dies, survivors have to find answers to questions such as:

  • Why did this happen to such a good person?
  • How can God allow this to happen?   
  • How will I go on without him?

Human beings are rational.  We think logically, yet the death of a loved one often defies logic.  Our challenge is to make sense of our loss as a part of the grieving process. 

Q:  If you were sitting across the table from someone who has just lost a loved one, what words of wisdom could you share with them?

I would say that grief is a normal response to loss, and that everyone grieves in their own way.  Some people cry, others keep busy.  It takes time to grieve, and you need to be patient with yourself and others who are feeling this loss. Most people won’t understand if you don’t “bounce back” or “get over it” in a few weeks.  So you need to find support from friends, family or support groups that will understand how you are feeling, what you have lost, and how you are finding your own way of moving on.   

In addition to losing the physical person, you may experience secondary losses that impact your life – psychologically, socially, and financially.  You may be disoriented sometimes, unable to focus or get things done that may have been done by your loved one.  It is likely that you will vacillate from feeling okay and doing what you have to do to being very sad, or worried, or confused about how to carry on.  For the first year, you will probably have a hard time with memories of birthdays, anniversaries, or special times and memories.  You may actually feel sad for years – or forever, when you remember these special times.  It’s okay.  It’s how you grieve your loved one throughout your life. 

Your life will change in ways you could not have anticipated.  Your challenge is to adjust to all the changes in your life, and grow into a new and hopefully wiser person who appreciates and lives life to the fullest.