Dr. Gail Gross, Ph.D., doctor of education, is a nationally recognized family, child development, and human behavior expert, author, and educator. She has contributed to CNN, the “Today Show,” CNBC’s “The Doctors,” The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, among other media. She also is the host of the nationally syndicated PBS program, “Let’s Talk.”
Dr. Gross’ newest book, “The Only Way Out is Through: A Ten-Step Journey from Grief to Wholeness,” is for everyone who experiences the often searing grief that accompanies the death of a loved one. Since Alzheimer’s is a terminal disease, as is the human condition, most HealthCentral readers are eventually put in a position where they must mourn the loss of their parent or spouse. Dr. Gross communicated with HealthCentral via email to provide our readers with guidance on how to go about getting through that grief. The interview has been lightly edited for length and flow.
HealthCentral: In reading “The Only Way Out,” I was especially taken with your advice about saying goodbye to your old life and letting go of what was before you can move on. This is a complicated process, and your book takes this on in depth, but could you give us a few brief tips that people can hold on to?
Dr. Gail Gross: When an injury, such as death occurs in your life, it signals the end of one phase of your life and a transition into something new. The initial response is to run back to the familiar, even though the set that held your personality has cracked open. Now you are thrust into the valley of despair, an unknown yet fertile place of psychic deconstruction. It is here where your shadow lives, that unknown part of yourself that contains the material for your regeneration. Once here, the discomfort of the unfamiliar can cause you to turn back to that which you know.
However, if you have the courage to stay in the valley and hold your attention in this descent, then you will say good bye to that which you were, before the trauma of loss, and go forward into the unknown half of yourself, that is unlived … the shadow.
HC: Losing our parents turns our lives upside-down. I remember my sister telling me, after our mother died, that I was now the “family matriarch.” That seemed like a huge role to take on at the time. Briefly, how do people go about making peace with such an enormous change, and in doing so, how does that affect the grief process?
Dr. Gross: To personify the upside down feeling we experience at the loss of a parent, I like to tell the story of the rainmaker. This story exemplifies the relationship between the inner and outer psyche at the time of loss. When a Chinese village is besieged by drought, they call for a rainmaker to save them. The first thing he asks for is a new straw hut, food, water, and solitude for five days. At the end of four days, the rain appears. The village people are so happy with the rainmaker and ask him what his secret was, and why he asked for the straw hut, food, water, and solitude for five days. The rainmaker said: “Oh, that did not really have anything to do with my rainmaking, I simply felt discord within myself that had to be settled before I could do my work.”
This story illustrates the reconstruction of psyche in the valley of despair, demonstrating the relationship necessary for healing, between your inner and outer world. For when chaos breaks down your psychological defenses, your unconscious tries to organize you, and your environment, to bring you back into consciousness. This process requires inner work, solitude, mediation, dream analysis, and self-reflection.
HC: You recommend that people create rituals to aid their healing process. Could you elaborate?
Dr. Gross: In almost all cultures, there is some ritual, whether conscious or unconscious, that signals the end of a transition … such as death. These passage rituals give us a formal structure in which we have permission to experience what it is to be alone in some form of contemplation. It is in your quiet moments of prayer, dreams, and contemplation that you can find the space to meet your loved one and say goodbye. Central to grieving is allowing yourself the time to grieve.
Meditation is one of the most powerful rituals that you can do for yourself, followed by dream analysis and journal writing. Whether it is a psychological journey or spiritual journey, the model is the same — the path to consciousness.
HC: Your chapter on inner work is wonderful in that it provides many suggestions that people could use for any type of grief, even one such as divorce, a frightening medical diagnosis, or a job loss. Could you please list a couple of the steps you recommend here with a sentence or two of explanation?
Dr. Gross: Inner work is an inversion process and therefore requires time alone. During this time, there are things that you can do by yourself to connect and access your own unconscious.
Journaling, including writing a history of your life and taking into consideration the patterns of behavior that you have used in past transitions. Seeing these patterns in a journal can help you recognize them, acknowledge them, and redeem them; so that you can move forward, past projected material and into consciousness.
Keep a dream journal. By keeping a dream journal you can analyze and interpret the meaning of your dreams. Pick a journal that you like; use a pen that you feel comfortable with; and if necessary, keep a night light handy so that you can jot down your dreams when they occur. I always suggest keeping your dreams private because dreams are the most sacred archetypal material that come up unedited from your unconscious.
Stress reduction, including physical exercise, yoga, Qi Gong, progressive relaxation, creative visualization, breathing, mindfulness, using my technique of the empathic process, keeping a family history, and so forth.