Biden received advice for processing his grief after his wife’s death. He passed along that advice over the years to comfort others. It was advice that he, unfortunately, needed to think about again when his son, Beau, was diagnosed with the brain tumour that caused his aphasia.
This exercise could help in any situation where a person is processing life-altering grief. It’s in Joe Biden’s book, Promise Me, Dad, which is the latest installment of our online book club. We will be focusing solely on the parts of the book that cover aphasia and caregiving.
Charting Your Grief
After Biden’s wife, Neilia, died, the former governor of New Jersey called him to offer solace. He was speaking from a place of knowledge, having lost his own wife. He told Biden what he began doing six months after his wife’s death, and how it helped him adjust to his new reality.
On page 54, Biden recounts,
He told me to get a calendar, and every night, before I went to bed, put down a number on that day’s date. One is as bad as the day you heard the news, he said, and ten is the best day of your life. He told me not to expect any tens, and he said don’t spend any time looking at that calendar, but mark it every day. After about six months, put it on graph paper and chart it. What he promised me turned out to be true: the down days were still just as bad, but they got farther and farther apart over time.
Charting gives the person objective proof of their emotional journey rather than relying on the subjective nature of memory. Anyone can look back at the months, seeing how they felt over time. That chart will hopefully change as the person processes their grief.
Stopping the Chart
How would the person know when it was time to stop charting their grief? Biden has a line, often repeated, for judging your own acceptance. “The time will come when the memory [of the person] will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eyes.”
It’s not that the grief is behind the person, but they are able to remember the good moments and not just the fact that they are missing someone who is gone.
This charting exercise works any time a person has a life-altering event where they need to come to a place of acceptance. They may still have down days, days where it is hard to accept the new normal, but those days will be farther apart once time passes.
A person doesn’t need to wait to begin months after the fact. The chart can be started while the person is still in the crisis as a record of their emotions at the time. Immediately after a stroke, head injury, or primary progressive aphasia diagnosis, the chart may understandably be filled the ones. But as a person adjusts, they may find the chart slowly creeping upward. It may still have down days, but this important visual cue will help a person see how far they’ve come.
Image: Cducruet via Flickr via a Creative Commons license