We all experience grief and loss.
It is a natural part of the human condition; however, we all feel and process grief in different ways as it arises throughout our lives. You might wonder why I chose to write a blog post about grief. I recently lost someone very important to me.
The late psychologist Don Weller first got to know me in Bloomington, Indiana, in the summer of 2008. I had just started my junior year of college and was beginning The College Internship Program. It’s one of six campuses across the country that provide independent living skills instruction, social skills therapy, academic enrichment services, clinical psychotherapy, and other services to young adults ages 18 to 26 with diagnosed autism and learning disabilities. Don was the clinical psychologist with the program, having received a Ph.D. in psychology from Indiana University Bloomington in 2003. He was also the person who made the pivotal decision to recommend me for a service dog.
In the time I knew Don, he was partnered with two service dogs. Don was in a biking accident in young adulthood which resulted in a spinal cord injury. However, out of that, came the start of something new and just as life-changing, but in a positive sense: the beautiful partnership Don would develop with his three service dogs Expo, Luna, and Lorenzo.
I cried quite a bit after I first received the phone call that Don had passed away. But after a few days, I thought about what his wife, Mary, told me: “He wouldn’t want us to be sad, not forever. He would want us to go on with our lives.” I knew she was right, and then I looked at Lucy, the dog he had recommended come into my life 10 years earlier.
“Come on, Lu,” I said. “Let’s go for a walk, huh?”
As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, everyone processes grief in different ways. Some individuals may have difficulty expressing grief due to difficulty with verbal communication or expressing emotions. Emotional regulation can also be difficult for some individuals with disabilities. Additionally, some individuals may not come right out and talk to someone about how they are feeling, simply because they may not want to or may not know how. You can always let the individual know you are available if they want to talk, but do not force them. If you cannot talk to them, try to come up with someone else who could be available, such as a trusted friend or relative. In cases where you notice depression, isolation, loss of interest in activities the individual previously enjoyed, increased or decreased sleep or other behaviors, please consult a licensed physician who may refer your child to a mental health provider if needed.
Some people get quiet, and some people get busy. It’s all okay.
For individuals who have difficulty with verbal communication, another method of expressing their feelings may be necessary such as through sign language, pictorial icons, or the use of an assistive communication device.
Some people with disabilities (and without) may also do better actually employing activities when experiencing grief than by talking to someone. Here are a few examples of activities that can be used to cope with grief:
- Do an activity you used to enjoy doing with the person.
- Think of funny things they used to do or say.
- Make a scrapbook of photos and memories of the person to look at later.
- Start a new tradition: Take someone younger than you to one of your favorite places you would go with the person. Talk about how you used to go there together and why you liked it so much.
- Make a favorite recipe that the person always liked.
Proper social support can promote the healing process.
It may take time before the individual is able to move on, but with the proper social support, eventually, he or she will likely come to accept the loss and go back to life as before. The important thing is that the proper avenues are there to express their grief should he or she need them.
I try to remember that Don always looked out for me and for other people. Now that he has passed on, I try to keep focused on the things he always used to tell me about balancing enjoyment of the dog with the importance of leadership and effective discipline.
It is when I see how much Lucy really wants to please me, to simply be with me, throughout the day that I know I have done what he would have wanted and what he tried to model for me the entire time I knew him. Sure, the occasional piece of dog food as a reward helps to sweeten the deal to encourage and motivate the dog, but I know she truly works simply to see me happy. The way she lights up and wags her tail every time I say, “Good dog, pup! Such a good job!” tells me I am doing something right.
I bet Don is watching the whole thing, smiling to himself, saying, “See, kid? I told you that you could do it.”