When people are grieving, they often feel isolated from the rest of the world. Others don't necessarily talk to the griever about the death, so the griever is left wondering, "Who knows, who does not know, and what are they saying about me or my loved one?" For a time, withdrawing and maintaining silence about what happened seems the safest route. Sooner or later, however, it is inevitable and healthy to bring death and grief out into the open. Melissa Rivers' story is a good illustration.
It was the summer after her first year at college. On a summer day in August, just as she was getting ready to return to the University of Pennsylvania, 18-year-old Melissa Rivers received the shocking news that her father had ended his own life. "The press knew before we did; and then I had the job of telling my mother," recalls Melissa.
Those early days were a blur. Sitting in her room with the windows closed and the shades drawn, the press camped outside their house, Melissa felt completely and totally numb. Shock and disbelief, which are common early reactions to the news of the death of someone close, added to the surreal nature of this new reality.
Due to her mother and father's fame, the death became a public spectacle. By the time she returned to college, the news had spread. Melissa felt labeled, defective and most of all ashamed. "Everybody knew. Before I could even share with anyone, they all knew. I felt as if I had a giant S stamped on me. I felt people's eyes watching me and heard their whispers, whether real or not."
Melissa felt alienated and different from the rest of her community for several reasons. First, not many of her peers had experienced the death of a parent or if they had, they did not talk about it. Second, he died by suicide, which was even more misunderstood in 1987 than it is today. Melissa shares that it helped tremendously to see a grief counselor who helped by allowing her to "talk and talk and talk when no one else would listen."
A pivotal moment in Melissa's healing came one rainy night a year later when she and her boyfriend were sitting on a bench on campus. He turned to Melissa and said, "You know, just because you are angry and mad at your father doesn't mean you don't love him." This realization, that she could love and respect her father with all her heart and still feel angry about his death, felt to Melissa like the world had been lifted off her shoulders. "That moment gave me the ability to recognize that I was angry; that I hated what he did; but I didn't hate him. I will always be daddy's girl."
Reaching out to others with similar experiences helped Melissa maintain hope, perspective, and most importantly, courage. "Even during the darkest moments, knowing that others had survived the process made me force myself out of bed and keep moving forward. We've come so far now learning about depression and suicide. While there is still great stigma attached to suicide, you don't have to be ashamed."
Melissa recounts times when she gets really upset with her father for not being here to help her through things. He never got to see her graduate, get her first job or meet her son. Those were powerful moments in Melissa's life, and her father missed them. "Joys become bittersweet because he's not here to share them," Melissa described. Yet now she is able to talk about her father with a sparkle in her eye and tenderness in her voice.
Melissa's experience compels her to now speak candidly to the public. She offers this frank advice and reassurance to grievers:
- "This is going to suck, but you are going to be okay."
- Don't let people tell you how you should grieve.
- Join a grief support group -- it will help you know you're not weird, you're not different, and you're certainly not alone.
- Get through all the firsts. Then you can look back and say, "I've already done that. I can do it again."
- Survive each day -- one day you will see you will get through a whole day, week, or month without breaking down. "I know you don't believe it right now, but you really are going to be better."
The openness about her experience has led Melissa to become an ambassador for grief support. To see a video of Melissa sharing advice for those who have experienced the death of someone close, click here.
Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.