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Navigating the difficult path of grief

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 23 2013 7:00 a.m. MDT

Elina Rasmussen and her infant sister, Isabel, just before their father was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. "We didn't know life was going to change," their mother said.

Chrsitina Rasmussen

Christina Rasmussen, 41, and Elizabeth Berrien, 32, live in different worlds, their paths unlikely to cross. A few years ago, though, each suffered a pair of life-altering losses that looked remarkably similar.

Berrien, now of Charlotte, N.C., went into labor with her first child on the due date after an uncomplicated pregnancy. He died when his umbilical cord cut off oxygen in the last frantic moments of his delivery. She and her husband, Brian Woods Jr., were devastated but determined to help each other through it. When she got pregnant again, they were scared but excited.

That baby girl, Ella, was six months old when her father, a Special Forces soldier, was mortally wounded in Afghanistan.

On the other side of the country, Rasmussen's first baby, Elina, died shortly after birth, her tiny lungs never fully developed. Rasmussen, who lives in San Francisco, had other children. She was mom to an infant and a toddler when her always-healthy husband, Bjarne Rasmussen, just 31, was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. He died four years later.

Their losses are not alike. Each grieved in her own way, supported by a different cast of people who cared. Each found and took her own baby steps forward, her life changed forever.

Grief and loss are like that, experts say, the fallout as unique as the individuals who died. There's no wrong way to grieve, no perfect degree of sorrow. It's a complicated porridge of personalities and relationships. Some people cry easily while others are naturally stoic. A warm relationship can comfort during loss or increase devastation. An aloof relationship stirs different but sometimes equally distressing emotions. The age of the survivor and the person who died; whether death was anticipated, violent or natural; and the individual's support system all carve steps in a journey through grief.

Both women work professionally with those who grieve and have written about their losses in hopes of helping others. Rasmussen wrote "Second Firsts: Live, Laugh and Love Again." Berrien's book is "Creative Grieving: A Hip Chick's Path from Loss to Hope."

No working map

The long-touted "stages of grief" don't apply to losing a loved one, experts say. In 1969, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross offered a theory that was intended to help those with terminal diseases understand the flood of emotions they might feel. Someone given a terminal diagnosis would pass through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. Those stages came to be viewed as a guide for everyone working their way through loss.

There were two problems with the way the stages were later used: Not every loss triggers grief, and individuals make personalized journeys, so following a one-route-through-grief map is akin to looking for grocery stores in Chicago and Fiji using the same guide.

"Grief doesn't work that way," said Jeff Fleming, bereavement coordinator at Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City. "Everyone's grief is different, though there may be commonalities."

The stages present grief as a linear progression, he said. It isn't.

"You may be angry, then not angry, and a year later you may be angry again," Fleming said. "It fluctuates. Maybe you will never be angry."

When two people grieve differently, neither is doing it wrong, he said.

Some people have "relatively modest emotional reactions." That doesn't mean they are not upset, said Anthony D. Mancini, assistant professor of psychology at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y. "They kind of weather the storm, do OK and come out the other side and are fine. That's a key point. There's no recipe for grieving."

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