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Inspiring Success on the Road to Recovery

Friday, June 7, 2013

Grief Can Transform Us

By Dan Stone, MSW, LCSW, LISAC, CT

In a recent New Yorker magazine (March 11, 2013) written by Alec Wilkinson, the noted jazz pianist, Jason Moran, described his experience with the death of his mother. I found this part of the article interesting and relevant to many of us who have lost loved ones.
“Moran grew his beard in 2005, when his mother died of cancer. He says it is a veil he wears in mourning. When she died, he lost interest in his appearance. ‘I didn’t know what to do anymore, “he said. ‘I felt like, the music doesn’t care what the musician looks like, and now I had pain.” He spent the last night she was conscious at her bedside. ‘I was very ambivalent about watching the process,’ he went on. ‘Spending that last night with her evoked almost a kind of terror. I don’t recommend it. It’s too much to watch. With someone you love, you keep that part at the end with you almost as much as you keep how you grew up and remember them. I have to make my mind remember her as healthy, or I can’t move.”

The article continues with Moran discussing how his mother would take notes when she attended his piano lessons, encouraging him to work on his tone and fingering. He later wrote a composition titled “Cradle Song” to memorialize her.

I appreciate Moran’s remarks about remembering the time before the death. Early in the mourning process, it’s easy to focus on the tragedy of the final months, weeks, days and moments. Many of us have recurring images that are painful and in some situations, traumatic. When my mother was dying she lived one week after having a stroke. My sister and I were at her bedside daily.  During the last moments of her life, I was able to speak to her in a tender manner, encouraging her to let go and be at peace. She was not conscious; however, I was comforted at being there to support her.

Over a period of time, I was able to see her for the total person that she was. I have often remembered some of the special times were had together. Sometimes, I remember some unpleasant events, but I am able to recall her in a way that encompasses her humanity and totality.
When my father died I did not have the blessing of being at his side. I have often regretted that but that was a long time ago. My life and my understanding of grief have changed significantly since then. I can identify with Moran’s composition that is dedicated to his mother. With the guidance of a wise friend I found a way to honor my Dad. I was encouraged to think of a positive quality of his and replicate it in my own life.
After some thought, I remembered on many occasions when he would leave our home, my mother would ask him where he was going. He usually replied saying he was paying a condolence call to one of his friends, neighbors and fellow congregants to provide support. I decided to support those in my world who were suffering with loss. Eventually after becoming a therapist, I was drawn to grief counseling and therapy. Since 1997,  I have developed a focus on bereavement that includes complicated and traumatic grief. I often think of my father and I believe that if he could possibly know, he would approve.
Today, in my work with the bereaved, I respect the diversity of grieving styles be they religious, cultural or personally developed. I believe that the telling of the story of our losses and our relationship with the deceased is important and I find it interesting how our meaning of the grieving experience changes over time.

With many of my clients, I have observed the process of what has been called post traumatic growth which can be apparent in the way people discover a new purpose and often a more spiritual approach to their existence.

Several years ago, I read about a study that was done with eight mothers of children who died as a result of birth defects. These children died from about six months of life to about 37 years old. They were in a bereavement group.  About two years from the commencement of the group they were administered questionnaires that would assess where they were in the grieving process. Seven of the eight women reported that they had no regrets. They felt that they wouldn’t want to give up the experience of having the child in their lives. They reported that they were no longer “sweating the small stuff”. In fact, the experience had infused their lives with new meaning. These women had grown spiritually and were interested in being of service to others.

I find this analogous to the experience of recovery. Many of us who have been addicted to substances have suffered various consequences and losses. In working a program of recovery, we find that life takes on new meaning and that we become people who are able to be of service to others. Like the seven mothers, we experience a change in our world view as we change our perception of the meaning of life.


Dan Stone, MSW, LCSW, LISAC, CT is a social worker and counselor who specializes in addictions and grief. Dan has been a counselor at Cottonwood Tucson since 1995. He has worked with adults and adolescent females providing substance abuse assessments, relapse prevention workshops, individual and group grief sessions for patients and family members. He has also been a primary counselor on the adult unit. Dan has had a private practice in Tucson since 1999.