Why don’t we discuss the universal emotion of grief?

Many years ago, Rabbi Leslie Y. Gutterman and his first wife, the late Julie Claire Gutterman, and their two young daughters convened at the toilet bowl funeral for their deceased goldfish. Before the funeral concluded, one of the girls said, “I guess we shouldn’t have called him ‘Lucky.’”

Gutterman lost Julie after 34 years of marriage, and then his second wife, Janet Gutterman, after 17 years of marriage.

“There’s no substitute for time to give us perspective,” Gutterman told Ocean State Stories. “It’s not always easy to handle the process of grieving day-to-day. After a long while, I’ve found that grief becomes integrated into one’s life.”

Rabbi Leslie Y. Gutterman – Submitted photo

A bone marrow drive was held at Temple Beth-El after Julie was diagnosed with a rampant form of leukemia. While no lifesaving bone-marrow transplant match was ever found for Julie, Gutterman reported that through the drive, six or seven individuals had successful transplants, which itself offered some kind of solace. 

Gutterman’s daughters were 28 and 25 when their mother died in 1999. Then, he grieved for them – for what they would miss by their mother dying when they were such young women. Today, he said, “I’m more aware of how Julie was cheated of, in terms of what more years might have brought her and us.”

Gutterman’s second happy marriage put a “different frame around that first loss. Janet made lots of room for everyone to have their own memories and not forget Julie,” he said. “Janet’s daughter became a sister to my own daughters, and she and I still meet for breakfast every week.” 

Losing an adult sibling to death presents different challenges

T.J. (Tina) Wray, a professor of religious and theological studies at Salve Regina University, believes camaraderie can develop among disparate individuals who are drawn together by a common loss. That was true of Americans who collectively grieved the 9/11 deaths, for example; it’s equally true of the diverse members who belong to Wray’s private Facebook group, Sibling Grief: The Loss of a Sister or Brother. Their common bond: Each of them lost an adult sibling in their own adulthood.

Some 8,000 surviving adult siblings from around the world are members of that private Facebook group, according to Wray.  “I’ve never seen anything like the collective support for surviving adult siblings. Grief support groups organized around a specific loss – a parent, a child, a spouse, etc. – seem to be more helpful to mourners. While the circumstances may differ, there is a common bond that we all share: The death of an adult brother or sister,” said Wray.

Dr. T.J. Wray – Submitted photo

Wray found no resources available to help her cope with the grief she experienced after she lost her older brother.  “My first response was to find a resource to help me get through this, but, in the days before social media, there was no grief literature, no therapists addressing the loss of an adult sibling, and certainly no grief groups,” she recalled. “Even Compassionate Friends turned me away.”

Deeply frustrated in her efforts to find help, Wray wished aloud that someone would write a book about the topic. “One friend said to me, ‘Why not you?’” Wray made the decision to do so, and the book, Surviving the Death of A Sibling: Living Through Grief When an Adult Brother or Sister Dies, strays far from her usual academic publications addressing varied biblical topics.

Published in May 2003, the book was based on her journal entries and stories she gathered from other adults who lost adult siblings. Wray submitted letters to the editor to dozens of local newspapers across the country seeking information from people who had experienced such losses.

“As I began writing the book, I started to feel less and less alone by telling the stories of others who’d experienced the kind of loss I had,” said Wray, who found that writing the book in the earliest stages of her grief was very difficult, yet ultimately meaningful.

Everyone grieves in their own fashion

“I feel that grief is like a fingerprint; it’s that unique,” said Deanna Upchurch, director of clinical and community outreach services for HopeHealth, Rhode Island’s largest hospice. Upchurch noted that she and her sister grieved very differently after their father’s death.

Concurring, Wray said, “Although we were all in the same family, I learned that my parents and my three sisters were all grieving in different ways; each of us had different relationships with my brother, VJay. He was my best friend and the sibling I was closest to and most like. We liked the same music and we talked about philosophy and religion; we had planned to travel the world together.”

“Not everyone can meet [a grieving person’s every need],” said Upchurch. “I worked with a woman who lost a daughter to suicide who told me, ‘When I want to talk about my daughter, I know which friends I can call; on other days, when I don’t want to talk about her, I have another group of friends I can call.’” 

Having counseled hundreds, if not thousands, of grieving congregants during his 45 years as the senior rabbi at Temple Beth-El, a Reform synagogue in Providence, Gutterman offered his wise perspective: People have to be gentle with themselves without imposing “should” expectations on themselves. “We all grieve differently, and there’s no time limit on grief. Be patient with time and trust time,” he said. “Share your grief with someone; holding grief in makes it harder.”  

Needing permission to grieve?

The United States, said Upchurch, is a death- and grief-defying society. 

“Most of us do everything we can to appear younger for as long as possible; everything is anti-aging, rather than aging gracefully,” she said. “If there’s beauty in birth, there’s a beauty in death, in some ways.”

While we, as a nation, don’t embrace that approach, Upchurch believes that while we’re slowly beginning to be more open to discussions about death, many people continue to deny the existence – much less the impact – of the COVID pandemic.

“It’s a huge disservice to those who are grieving at any level to ignore that grief,” she said. 

But people often need permission to grieve.

“We don’t talk about grief [due to] avoidance and fear. We don’t put words to what we don’t want to look at,” said Gutterman, who acknowledged a growing awareness of and discussions around the grief that people experience after an abortion, a miscarriage or stillbirth or when children are placed for adoption.

Until Wray began reading the thousands of letters she received from newspapers’ readers across the country, she had not thought about the connections between grief and dreams. “The topic came up time and again – and I recognized patterns in what I called “Grief Dreams” (visitation, message, trauma, and reassurance dreams), and I began making notes,” said Wray. Wray’s conversations with a friend, Ann Back Price, a Jungian psychoanalyst, about such deep connections between grief and dreams led the two to collaborate on their co-authored book, Grief Dreams: How They Help Us Heal After the Death of a Loved One, which was published in 2005.

Wray’s goal was to start a grassroots movement that would bring attention to and raise awareness about adult sibling grief. Did she succeed?

Wray said, “I’ve spoken at conferences, therapists are learning more about this issue and specializing in treating clients with such grief, Compassionate Friends and many hospice organizations now offer adult siblings grief groups and many books – after mine – have addressed the issue,” said Wray, who was pleased to hear from a young Canadian academic who told her: “Your work inspired me; I now have a Ph.D. in grief dreams.”

Supports at HopeHealth, a Rhode Island hospice program

“Losses have brought me to where I am today; I believe that’s true for anyone who specializes in grief counseling” said Upchurch.

Deanna Upchurch- Courtesy of Becky Sizelove, HopeHealth

A grief counselor for the past 25 years, Upchurch joined HopeHealth 17 years ago. Earlier, she was a counselor in a clinic where she began getting referrals for grief counseling. Given her multiple losses, she related well to grieving individuals, while colleagues found that work too emotionally draining. 

HopeHealth’s grief support program includes free counseling services to a hospice patient’s relatives (or, in some instances, close friends) for 13 months after the patient’s death, in accordance with Medicare requirements. HopeHealth also offers Camp Braveheart, a summer weekend camp experience for grieving children; Weekend of Hope and Healing, an annual weekend retreat for grieving adults; and annual memorial services, all of which are no-cost. And it offers nearly 30 different free grief support groups, including some in Spanish and Portuguese. These services are available to anyone grieving in Rhode Island and Massachusetts communities.  

“Our grief counselors, who have master’s degrees in counseling, and our trained volunteers co-facilitate these grief groups, which are offered in-person and remotely on Zoom,” said Upchurch. “About 75% of our 230 volunteers have had a hospice experience, whether at HopeHealth or elsewhere.” 

Do’s and don’ts for those who wish to help

Well-intentioned, but thoughtless comments – “It was God’s will,” “At least she lived a long life,” “It’s good that he didn’t suffer” – only add to a grieving person’s loss and isolation, according to Upchurch.

“As a grief counselor, I work to find out what helps [the grieving person] when they’re mad, sad or missing their loved one,” she said. “Less is more, especially in the early days of someone’s grief. You can’t fix [the situation], no matter how much you might want to.” 

Upchurch’s specific tips for individuals wishing to comfort a grieving person: 

• If you knew the person who died, share a loving story about them with the grieving person.

• If you don’t know the person who died, share a loving story you heard from your grieving friend about the deceased individual. For example: “I remember when you told me how you loved that he brought you flowers every Friday.”  

• Say something brief, such as: “I’m so sorry you’re going through this loss.”

• Do more listening than talking; never underestimate the power of really listening to someone telling their story, as this article explains. Grief counselors are story listeners; they are often the only people willing to listen again and again to grieving individuals’ stories of their loved ones.  

The Jewish tradition offers its own clear wisdom to supporters of a person in grief, explained Gutterman: Wait until the mourner speaks and then respond, rather than try to soothe and comfort them; there’s no comfort to be had. Even those who have experienced the deaths of loved ones don’t know what another mourner is experiencing or feeling.

Sometimes, the grieving process can be far more challenging if you are grieving the death of a relative from whom you’re alienated or in conflict with, said Wray, who didn’t have such experiences with her brother. Calling it one of the most pervasive topics in her Facebook’s adult sibling group, Wray said, “It’s not unusual to have conflicts, which may come from old childhood wounds but more likely arise due to different choices made in adulthood. Estranged siblings always think they’ll have time to reconcile…and suddenly, they don’t.” 

Upchurch, an adjunct faculty member at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Roger Williams University and Bristol Community College, encourages grieving individuals to try to be patient with people who don’t know what to do and say; look at their intentions, rather than their actual deeds and words. 

“We counsel people in the midst of their grief to educate others about what they need, even when they don’t often know what [their own] needs are,” said Upchurch. Society does not embrace and recognize death and grief …, so this education unfortunately becomes the grieving person’s job.” 

In today’s society, we see many people nearing end of life request there be no wake or funeral. However, Upchurch suggested, “It is equally important to witness a life being brought into the world as it is a life leaving the world.” 

While Jewish tradition recognizes the different stages of mourning and that, over time, a person’s grief changes shape, meaning and intensity, Gutterman noted that we can feel surprised, even ambushed, by emotions arising unexpectedly, months or even years later. “It could be a song, a picture or something someone says that brings up memories of our deceased loved one,” he said. “It’s not that we get over our grief, but we can master it.”

Grief may not ever completely disappear

“There are griefs that don’t disappear; they follow you through life and people need to know that’s OK,” said Wray. “That’s very different from complicated grief, where someone truly gets stuck and can’t move on.”

And, for those who might consider embracing or managing their grief in an “outside the box” approach, consider finding a wind phone. There, one can speak into a disconnected rotary phone – located near a tree, in a garden or a nature trail, for example – to express words of grief and loss, regrets and apologies, or love and joy. Often donated by people who have experienced the grief of loss, these phones, as the website notes, “Let the wind take your words.”   

The first wind phone was created in Japan in 2010 and currently, wind phones registered with the website can be found in many countries, including Australia, England, France, Italy, Switzerland and the United States. Close to home, the interactive map and index show two Rhode Island wind phones – one in Portsmouth and another in Warwick – as well as a few in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

“I think that we all grieve for something and that none of us is immune to grief,” said Gutterman. “We do the best we can, and it’s never a perfect resolution.”