National Edition

Navigating the difficult path of grief

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

Therapy is a wonderful tool to help with grief if someone needs it, Mancini said, though most people won't require professional help.

"People are equipped to deal with loss and, for the most part, they do," Mancini said. "Our research shows 50-60 percent of people do just fine. They make changes to their lives, reorganize and manage to move on. It's a subset who really, really struggle and, in that case, therapy is enormously effective. Like any treatment, it should be delivered to those who need it."

Speak or be silent?

"Grief is extraordinarily delicate, both from the perspective of saying something and from the perspective of not saying something," Mancini acknowledged.

It's possible to say the wrong thing or cause hurt by silence. "I think you have to take your cues from the person. Generally, people don't mind talking about loss. Avoiding the topic is probably not helpful. Diminishing the experience of grief or the magnitude of the loss is also not helpful."

His suggestions are basic: Avoid bromides like "your son is in a better place." Don't be reluctant to talk about the person who died. "There's a delicate balance to be struck."

Grief is a normal human experience, and Mancini said people can help each other through it, taking cues from the bereaved. "People need to be with their loss and they also need to be away from it. Alternating between confronting it and being able to distract oneself — that kind of oscillation is quite helpful."

Judging someone's loss by what you can see is not valid. "People display different degrees of grief," he said.

Young mourners

How children handle loss depends partly on their mental health and developmental stage. But a child's understanding isn't always age-based, said Fleming. "Some kids have a far greater understanding of death well before a child of an older age might."

Fleming never says, "I understand what you're feeling. I lost my dad, too." Relationships are unique. In fact, when Fleming was growing up, his father was lost in an abusive alcoholic spiral. He never knew the father his older sister mourned and did not share her grief.

Children show both joy and sorrow through play, so experts sometimes help young mourners express themselves with books, dolls and art. People often misjudge what a child feels. At a funeral, a little boy may run up to the coffin, look with a sad face and then scamper off to play. That's not a sign he doesn't care.

Fleming was in grade school when Taffy, the family dachshund, died. The accusation by his sister that he didn't care still hurts him. "I didn't have a concept of death. When my turtle died, I dug it up to see if it had come back alive or gone to heaven. You have to try to enter a child's world to understand where they are."

With kids, he said, "Answer the questions they have. Sometimes we answer things they aren't asking or we shut them off."

Finding her way

Rasmussen, a life coach, had studied psychology and grief. When Bjarne died, "I still was not able to use the tools in my world. I could not find what I needed to help me," she said.

That changed after she read about the brain's ability to keep learning and alter itself. The concept of "neuroplasticity" became the foundation for how she moved through her bereavements.

"When we are grieving, we go through the infinite loop of loss," said Rasmussen. "Wake up every day, experience the loss and grief, go through the painful stories again and again." She describes an endless road she cruised until she decided to take a different route. She set out to change her brain.

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