Amazing Grief: When Resilient Magic Springs from the Tragic
Once again, magic arose from the ashes of tragedy. And the magic appeared in separate manifestations of individual and group resilience, one spontaneous, the other planned. Let me quick-sketch the background. I was making my second critical intervention at a social service agency after the unexpected, heart-wrenching death of a much beloved staff member. This individual seemed to play a mother or big sister role for many of her multi-generational colleagues. Not surprisingly, the first time meeting with the group, most were in a state of shock, though several had watery eyes, a few were quietly weeping.
At the second gathering, three days later, there were fewer glazed looks; still the mood, understandably, remained somber. During the initial check-in, a former policeman turned the tables on me. Seemingly parts inquisitive, parts confrontational, he asked how I dealt with "stress." Viewing his question as an opportunity to move outside my professional cover, to engage in some personal sharing, I responded, "I like to walk; and I enjoy creative writing."
He then asked about my writing. When I said "poetry," he immediately asked me to share some. Alas, the performer more than the grief consultant momentarily took the stage. I mentioned my work as a "Shrink Rapper"™, which induced a mix of groans and chuckles. I quickly decided to "rap" the first four lines of a favorite:
When it comes to feelings do you stuff them inside?
Is tough John Wayne your emotional guide?
And it's not just men so proud and tight-lipped
For every Rambo there seems to be a Rambette!
After two lines (and the improbability of what they were seeing and hearing), the metamorphosis was palpable - from the relaxing of individual facial expressions to increasing group energy and body movement; several people had started to sway and clap. By the end of this first stanza their eyes (and my ears) were twinkling (buzzing) with (and from the) laughter. Now I just blasted through any sound barrier and sang the entire "Stress Rap." Being "shocked" was no longer just associated with grief. (Considering that all but one in the group were people of color, most African-American, with hindsight, perhaps this was the birth of "Grief" or "Gospel Rap" or "Gospel Grief Rap." During my "American in Cajun Paris Years," I have great memories of being electrically if not soulfully charged in many N'Awlins Jazz Fest Gospel tents. ;-).
Jolted to the Light
The enthusiastic applause told me how much this group needed some healing humor and "lightening the mood" laughter. At the same time, despite the recent trauma, there was clear and reassuring evidence of a vital group pulse. FYI, their cheers certainly did not reflect my "rapping" talents. In fact, as a "Shrink Rap" performer, when a show of appreciation dies down, my standard rejoinder: I can tell when an audience is applauding out of relief.
Now, recovering my grief consultant mindset, I dispensed with added banter, but noted how our immediate process reflected a truth captured by the pioneering comedic film genius, Charlie Chaplin: A paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy! The sighs and nodding heads affirmed Chaplin's wisdom.
As I once penned: "People are less defensive and more open to a serious message gift-wrapped with humor." (Pun actually not intended.) Having been jolted with some positive energy, folks seemed more willing to acknowledge feelings of disappointment and regret, even some anger, for a beloved colleague who would no longer inhabit and share their physical space. Perhaps we were creating a yin-yang mind-body flow. A Stress Doc rule of thumb in helping people evolve through emotional loss and change: take time for the pain and, blending dark and lightness, help folks move from negative to positive energy.
Recalling and Committing to the Positive and the Person
As part of the grief intervention experience, the group also would benefit from being reminded of their own individual and collective humility and insights, strengths and skills. And, paradoxically, we would do this by focusing on the uncommon qualities of their deceased colleague. Let me outline the process. I asked each participant to reflect on one trait of their former colleague that they especially valued or admired. However, we were not simply doing an inventory. I also asked for the chosen trait to be one that, moving forward, they would attempt to cultivate or nurture within themselves. (I'm calling this recognition-realization process "I & I" - Identification & Internalization. Also, the deceased had loved gardening, so the "cultivation" metaphor was particularly apt.) Hands sprung up, some people and traits intertwined, and the list steadily blossomed:
1. Always had a smile on her face; we tackled this one because for some it stirred feelings that she had been mostly wearing a mask. I suggested that maybe throwing herself into work was one way this woman both felt vitally alive and could escape a more pressured and chaotic outside life. Yet we agreed…the tragic irony was that while she was always ready with a shoulder for others - patients or staff - she was unable to ask for one for herself. Not surprisingly, this discussion also became a platform for underscoring the EAP (Employee Assistance Program) as an available resource - counseling for personal or family issues, financial counseling, etc.
2. Many admired how she advocated for people in the program.
3. She was involved; a team player. Also acknowledged was that the presence of "office gossip" for some dampened a sense of individual-group trust and involvement. People agreed this was an issue requiring further exploration. However, one member liked my challenge: to evolve from a "little brother" seeking attention to a "big brother" assisting others.
4. She paid attention to details; her assessments for patients improved their therapeutic regimen. In fact, we came up with a new operational mantra; I dubbed it the Triple "A": ATTENTION-ASSESSMENT-ADVOCACY. I suspect there will soon be a sign or a banner hanging somewhere in the premises.
5. She was a good friend, who went over and beyond the call many times.
6. She engaged in volunteer projects; she was a "truly good person" with a "caring and generous heart."
7. Finally, her dependability was noted; her words were backed by actions.
We then discussed ways of sustaining remembrance beyond a memorial service - for example, planting a garden in her honor; or creating a scrapbook or bulletin board with stories and pictures, especially ones with staff members. A second scrapbook might even be offered to her family. The supervisor was also encouraged to empower a memorial task group for more ideas.
Closing Commentary and Addendum
The hour was running down; people had to return to their patients. There was time for one final observation: I shared the belief that if each person dedicated him- or herself to nurturing the selected trait, even if exercised just once/day, two vital chains of events would be set in motion: first, they would be giving themselves the beautiful gift of remembrance and honor as personal growth; and second, from a larger perspective, their colleague's essence would remain intact. The collective, "parts to partnership" synergy would provide "life" restoring elan vitale (or "vital force"). While this commitment would never replace her physical presence; her spirit would unmistakably walk the halls and echo off the workplace walls. People seemed to exit with a good deal more energy, hope, and possibility - a more resilient spring to their step, as it were - than they had coming in. Amen and women to that!
P.S. After the group intervention, the previously mentioned former policeman approached me. He's been talking to a colleague, seemingly bottling up some stress. "And he won't open up! What should I do?" My reply: "How about asking this person if you could check in periodically, maybe once a week, to see how s/he's doing?" This "old school" guy's reply: "Oh, I shouldn't try to make him talk." I smiled and nodded. The gentleman was displaying some resilience: considering a novel, more flexible strategy for dealing with personal frustration and interpersonal boundaries, for relating with and assisting another. A good way to help one and all...Practice Safe Stress!