Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reframing grief and other emotions

A friend’s father died the day after Thanksgiving. Conventional wisdom holds that having a loved one die on or near a holiday permanently taints that holiday with grief. In other words, the holidays are not the preferred time for a loved one to die, not that anyone except a murderer – not even those who decide to terminate life support, controls when a loved one dies.

Perhaps conventional wisdom is right only because people think it is correct. What would happen, if instead of thinking the holidays a poor time for a loved one to die we thought it a good time, forever coloring the holiday with good memories of the deceased and shared times?

Reframing one’s perception of an event is a basic technique of cognitive therapy, a set of psychological tools for exerting positive control over one’s thoughts and emotions. As a pastoral counselor, I found the insights and tools of Cognitive Therapy especially helpful for highly rational individuals, which includes many of the most successful people.

One important premise of cognitive therapy, held in common with most other approaches to counseling, is that people can learn to control at least some emotions. People do not have to accept the idea that they have no control over their emotions, that emotions are simply a psychologically given.

If an individual can learn to control her or his emotions, then not only can events associated with grief become catalysts for positive memories rather than absence and loss, but lust, greed, avarice, jealousy, inappropriate anger, and other negative emotions need not invariably trigger unhealthy or destructive responses.

Jesus employs reframing in an intriguing manner. The gospels set up a situation with the lead-in, “You have heard it said …” Then Jesus says, “But I say to you …” His goal in reframing the Mosaic law is for his words to be catalysts that move people from the letter of the law, narrowly interpreted, to focusing on the spirit of the law, broadly interpreted. For example, Jesus broadens the definition of adultery from a physical act to include the emotion of lust. The feminist movement helpfully has underscored his message. Looking at a person with lust reduces that person from a multi-textured human being to a physical object important to the beholder primarily as a source of potential sexual gratification.

Healthy grief acknowledges the loss and void that a loved one’s death creates in the lives of the bereaved. In unhealthy grief, the irreparable loss and emptiness produced by death eclipse both a sense of gratitude for shared lives in this brief, highly vulnerable existence over which we exert little control and the possibility for life to move in new, unexpected directions. This movement may be undesired. This movement may also never be as good or fulfilling as the relationship that ended. But the movement may nevertheless be a gift, a wondrous and genuine gift of life abundant, a gift that unhealthy grief can block.

Holidays are often special times, fuller of joy and love than other seasons of the year. The elderly and the ill frequently exhibit great tenacity in clinging to life through holidays (a term I am using inclusively to connote birthdays, anniversaries, holy days, and other important commemorations). Suicidal persons similarly will often postpone their death until after a holiday, hoping that the holiday will change their life’s direction and tenor.

Reframing is one way to exercise control over grief, linking holiday joy and love with positive memories of, and experiences shared with, the deceased. Helpful reframing techniques may include intentionally redirecting one’s thoughts, engaging in behaviors that reinforce positive associations, and telling stories about the deceased to others that emphasize good feelings.

Additionally, many Christians and others believe that all life is connected. Death does not end the connection. Rather, death simply alters the nature of the relationship. We pray for the living and the dead because we believe in this interconnection. Furthermore, God's love for us is so great that nothing, not even death, can separate a person from that love. Thus even in grief’s most suffocating grip, we are thankful for the unbreakable tie of God's love that binds us to one another.

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