Environmental Factor, March 2008, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Family Health Seminar on Loss and Grieving
By Eddy Ball
Clinical associate Edna Ballard has had ample opportunity to see the various ways that individuals face loss and express their grief. In the course of her work at the Joseph and Kathleen Bryan Alzheimer's Research Center, she became convinced that no one has the right or the ability to judge the appropriateness or quality of anyone else's response.
On February13, Ballard shared some of what she has learned in a talk in the NIEHS Executive Conference Room titled "The Many Faces of Loss, Grief and Bereavement: Finding Your Way Back to Normal." NIEHS Biologist Alicia Moore, chair of the Diversity Council Disability Advocacy Committee (DAC), hosted the event, which is part of the Family Health Transitions Seminar Series sponsored by DAC and the NIEHS Office of Management.
Ballard opened her talk by emphasizing the many different kinds of loss and the impact on an individual and his or her family, caregivers, friends, supervisors and colleagues. The topic has received even more attention, she noted, with the graying of the Baby Boomer generation and the increase in the numbers of seniors, as well as the number of people who find themselves assuming the role of caregiver.
"Grieving is not only related to loss because of a death," she told the audience. "The list is very long. It could be loss of a relationship, even the loss of dreams, loss of the illusion of safety, the loss of a younger self, the loss of independence. Grief is extremely powerful; it can catch you totally unprepared and knock you off balance."
Grief is a natural reaction to loss, Ballard continued, and "It can't be hurried." Part of coping with this inner pain and turmoil is "the sharing of grief outside oneself" or bereavement. Affected by such factors and culture, gender and the circumstances surrounding the loss, bereavement and mourning rituals are healthy and necessary responses to loss. Individuals who try to assume the roles of what Ballard called "Macho Man," "Competitor" or "Protector" can rob themselves of this much needed outlet for their grief by trying to suppress the emotion and avoid mourning.
Ballard had tips for the persons who face loss and for those who are affected by the losses of others. In the face of loss, she said, people should take care of themselves and defer major decisions, such as moving or selling a house, and instead set short-term, quickly achievable goals and look to the future by making long-term plans for life after a loss. Friends and colleagues can help those who have a loss by being patient and fully present, offering specific kinds of help and, most importantly, listening and allowing the person to fully express feelings.
Ballard argued that different individuals may need to mourn in different ways and may need different amounts of time to return to what she called "the new normal." Talking about stages of grief and standards of behavior in mourning, she said, "We need to be ok with a person who takes a really short time to get over grief or with a person who takes a much longer time."
"There is no right or wrong way to grieve," Ballard asserted. Her advice to the audience was straightforward: "Do what works for you" to deal with grief.
Ballard's talk introduced the topics of loss and grieving in the Family Health Transitions Seminar Series. On February 20, Barbara Keyworth of the NIEHS Employee Assistance Program spoke on "Loneliness from Loss." A third seminar, "Coping with Childhood Grief," is scheduled for March 12, 1:30 - 3:00 p.m., also in the Executive Conference Room.