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On Aging with Dr. Roger Branch Sr.: Living with loss
Branch WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

    Since seniors regularly encounter death, they naturally experience loss and grief. This is one of a series of articles on that subject. Coincidentally, three similar presentations have appeared in recent days, though not focusing on older people.

    First is a moving, powerful video by the incomparable Sarah Akins, who directs the Children's Ministries of Statesboro First United Methodist Church. The church is producing a series called, "Awaken." Sarah's, No. 7 in the series, is about the loss of her first child. This is a "must-see." Call the church to learn how to access it. Do it!

    Kathy Bradley's column in last Sunday's Herald was about grief — how to share it and bring comfort to others who grieve.

    The cover story for the April 24 edition of Time magazine, entitled, "Let's Talk About Grief," fills six pages. It is about the impact of the sudden, unexpected death of David Goldberg upon his wife Sheryl Sandberg, the super-rich and successful COO of Facebook. Elite status is no shield against grief. Her experiences were essentially the same as mine and many others. Like other activists, she took action, writing a daily journal and then a book, "Option B" (Knoph). The article is enlightening and helpful, worth careful study.

    I want to read the book, but first some words on seniors and grief. Professorially, I must define some terms. Bereavement refers to a state or condition of having lost something. The key is loss. It is possible to be bereft or bereaved of an arm, leg or other body part and grief will follow. Deep grief follows the loss of a family member, even a stillborn baby, friends and heroes. Just as no one fully recovers from the loss of a leg, even with a helpful prosthesis, there is no complete recovery from the death of a loved one. One functions but never forgets.

    What is lost is not someone else; it is part of the self. Who and what we shall be are not fixed at birth. DNA defines limits and possibilities, but the essence is shaped by the people with whom we live thereafter. Robert K. Merton created the concept of "Significant Other," which has nothing to do with the current usage meaning whoever someone is dating this week. He meant those whose impact upon our lives shape who we are or become. After Annette had been at the center of my life for nearly 60 years, much of me was her. When I lost her, much of me was gone. The measure of any loss by death will be how significant the other is to the bereaved.

    Grief is what a bereaved person feels: wrenching emotional distress, disturbed mental states not limited to depression, genuine physical pain along with loss of appetite. It is not unusual for a survivor to die soon after the death of a loved one, especially if the survivor already had significant health problems. There is forgetfulness when things need to be remembered and remembering things that just bring back the pain and sorrow.

    Mourning refers to the social or public face of bereavement. Grief which finds expression in the presence of others is part of mourning. In the past, black clothing and arm bands were worn in response to the death of a loved one. Public interaction was limited, perhaps avoided completely. Of course, such things were impossible for poorer people. Mourning allows the larger community to share the loss and unify behind the needs of survivors.

    Why is there so much variation in how deeply survivors grieve? Why are some devastated while others seem to take it in stride? Are the ones who display a lot of open grief weak? Are they faking it? Are they trying to draw attention to themselves? Anything is possible, but usually none of the above is true. Are those who show little or no emotion unloving, unattached, hard-hearted? Possibly, but usually not. How significant the other was to the survivor determines the depth of grief but not how it is expressed.

    My beloved grandmother, Sally Wilkes Branch, had lost her parents, all but one of her many siblings, her husband, two stillborn babies, two toddlers and one son-in-law by the time of her own death. Daddy said that the only display of grief he ever saw from her was when she wiped one tear from the corner of her eye when her beloved husband, "Drew", died. She kept her pain inside — as did several of her children — but not her affection. Not her love.

    People feel and express grief differently. Like my father, I feel the loss of my beloved deeply and cry a lot. Does that prove weakness? Well, I performed the funeral services for both my father and my mother without shedding a tear. Before the services and through all the years since, I have cried uncountable times, but not then. And, yes, some people do not show grief because they do not feel any loss. The attachment to the deceased is weak or absent. But don't judge grief by counting tears.

    There are things to be said to grieving seniors and other things to be said to those with whom they interact. But these must wait for later writings.



Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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