Managing Grief and Control Issues During Difficult Times

Dear Vicki: My widowed mother passed away earlier this year. My older brother, Paul, was named the executor of her will and estate, which surprised me; I assumed we would be co-executors. But Paul is an attorney, so I guess that makes sense. He is very responsible and orderly and has approached this task like it’s the most important thing in the world. But even though I’m a book nerd librarian who coaches girls soccer, I think I have something to offer the process. Basically, the problem is that Paul has a woman who wants to buy Mom’s house straight out, but I think the price is too low and we should wait until the pandemic is over. I have tried discussing this with Paul, but he refuses to budge and just shuts me out. How can I approach Paul and this situation without inflaming it? I feel extremely frustrated and angry, like he has slammed the door in my face. These are such difficult times, and this is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Can you help? Signed: Saddened Sister

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Dear Saddened Sister: First, I send deep condolences to you and your brother on the loss of your mother. As you say, these are already difficult times, but the passing of your mother certainly makes things much more difficult for your whole family.

To help you address the issue with your brother in the midst of your loss, let’s start by looking at the Five Element personalities and dynamics involved. As a self-described book nerd and librarian coaching girls soccer, you sound like a mix of the Water and Wood elemental personalities. A passion for books and reading usually sits in the Water personality. But it takes a lot of focus, planning, and outward-expressing energy to coach soccer. These are attributes of the Wood personality. Your brother, on the other hand, sounds like a stereotypical primary Metal personality. As we have said here many times, it takes a great deal of detail and precision to practice law, and the Metal elemental personality excels at that.

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High School Seniors: Grieving the Loss of “Normal”

Dear Vicki: I know this is a difficult time for everyone, but I am wondering how best to help my daughter Kim. She is a high school senior this year and with the pandemic, she clearly isn’t going to have the same experiences that her older sister did when she graduated from high school three years ago. No senior trip. No senior prom. No live graduation ceremony. Not even the girlfriend sleep-overs. There will be virtual events, but we all know that just isn’t going to be the same. The blessing is that we are all healthy and no one close to us has died from Covid-19. But still, missing so many of the events she has waited for is very hard for Kim. How can I help her process the loss and anger she is feeling? And is there any way to make it better for her? Signed: Mom

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Dear Mom: My heart goes out to you and your daughter. Kim is one of an estimated 3.7 million high school seniors in our country who will not have many of the same senior year experiences that previous students have had. And while they may rationally understand the need for social distancing and sheltering at home, it is still difficult to accept that doing these things likely will “ruin” their senior year, at least as far as many of the activities they have looked forward to are concerned. Understanding the elemental personalities contained in the Five Elements model will help us determine how best to help Kim and her fellow seniors cope with the loss of a “normal” senior year.

Because you read this blog, I assume you’re familiar with the Five Elements model and the elemental personalities. But for those who are not familiar with the model or the elemental personalities, I gave a brief overview of both in a post last month which you can read here: https://5faces.wordpress.com/2020/03/19/coronavirus-isolation-and-the-five-elements/

Kim and her fellow high school seniors are facing the reality that the end of their high school careers will not be celebrated with many of the traditional events that have, for decades, marked this symbolic transition to adulthood. And like most of us, they can probably get to a place where they rationally understand that not coming together in large social events will probably save lives – possibly even their own lives or the lives of people they love – but missing the events they have looked forward to for years is still very hard. In truth, I think most of them are grieving a loss of expectations.

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She Needs Help for Her Grieving Mother

Dear Vicki: For 48 years, my parents had a happy marriage. They seemed the perfect couple to me: she loved being a stay at home mother and he loved being the proverbial breadwinner for the family (he ran his own consulting firm). They raised three happy children, loved their grandchildren, but always took time for themselves, too. Sadly, my father passed away a year ago and not unexpectedly, my mother has taken it really hard. Since then, she hasn’t been able to find joy in life and seems to have pulled away completely. In many ways it feels like we lost both of them when Dad died. I’m wondering if there is any way to bring my mom back; we all miss her terribly. Thanks for any advice you can offer. Signed: Orphaned in Oregon

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Dear Orphaned: When a couple has enjoyed a long and happy marriage, it isn’t uncommon for the surviving spouse to have a difficult time adjusting to life alone. It can be especially hard for people with primary Earth personalities because long-term connections give meaning to their lives. And I think that’s basically what’s going on for your mother; as a stay at home mother of three there is no doubt in my mind that she is a primary Earth personality. And while the loss of a 48-year relationship will be hard for any of us, it can be especially devastating for an Earth person.

However, the flip side of the situation is that sometimes it can be easiest to bring Earth people back from the despair of loss if there are other deep and meaningful relationships still in their lives. These relationships can help them create a new version of how things were before their loss. Fortunately for your mother, it sounds like this is the case for her. She has loving children and grandchildren who clearly want her back in their lives on a regular basis, and that will help you a great deal.

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Embracing Grief

Dear Vicki: As a grief counsellor, I am interested in how each of the elemental personalities processes and deals with grief. Also, are there specific pitfalls for each of the elemental personalities as they grieve? Something that typically blocks their ability to process grief in a healthy way. I guess my bottom line is how best can someone support each of these elemental personalities through the grieving process? Signed: Caring Counsellor

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Dear Caring Counsellor: This is a fascinating question and one that I am happy to address. But before I do, we will need to cover a bit of background to make sure we are all on the same page. Please bear with me here as I review a few key points regarding the Five Elements model and the elemental personalities associated with that model, then we will dive into the issue of grief.

The Five Elements Model

Like any useable model, the Five Elements model from Chinese medicine takes a grandiose idea and reduces it to a simple design. At its core, the Five Elements model is used to describe phases and interactions found in the natural world. The phases are represented by Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal and can be used to describe anything in the world, including people. Actually, they are especially useful when describing people. Here is a simple visual depiction of this model:

The Five Elements Model

We each have the energy of all five elements in our wiring, but based on that wiring, we’ll have a natural affinity for one of the elements. It’s like we’re born into a secret club and our club membership affects everything in our life: the colors we like, the foods we crave, the roles we take on in life, and how we relate to each other. Yes, it’s that significant. Knowing what our elemental personality is — what club we belong to — instantly helps us better understand ourselves, and others. It can also help us understand how best to help each other during difficult times.

The Elemental Personalities: Here are quick thumbnail descriptions of each elemental personality:

Water element corresponds to winter, when most of the activity is below the surface. People with Water as their primary elemental personality are like that. Almost nonchalant outside, inside Water people are a flurry of thoughts, ideas, and creativity. Unlimited potential, hope, and trust sit in the Water element, which gives us a sense of how Water balanced people approach the world when they are balanced. Under stress, the Water personality can become hopeless, empty, narcissistic, or intolerant.

Wood element corresponds to spring, a time of manifestation, growth, and expansion. “Bigger, better, more” typifies the way people with Wood as their primary elemental personality interact with the world. Wood is where accomplishment sits, and when balanced, Wood people excel at getting things done. Under stress, the Wood personality can become indecisive, frustrated, impatient, or angry.

Fire element corresponds to summer, the most energetically active season of the cycle. Fun, celebration, visibility, and enthusiasm all typify people with Fire as their primary elemental personality. Fire is where fun, excitement and celebration sit, and when balanced, Fire people are fun, charismatic, and spontaneous. Under stress, the Fire personality can become scattered, overwhelmed, anxious, or panicky.

Earth element represents times of balance, neutrality, and transition. It’s associated with both Indian Summer, the pivot point between spring/summer and autumn/winter, and the transition times of the solstices and equinoxes. People with Earth as their primary elemental personality value connections and when balanced, they are caring, compassionate, and love anything having to do with people and home. Under stress, the Earth personality can become needy, clingy, worried, or meddling.

Metal element corresponds to autumn, the time for letting go of what’s no longer necessary and moving forward with whatever is. People with Metal as their primary elemental personality are able to synthesize the wisdom from any experience and create form and protocol that they believe must be followed. Under stress, the Metal personality can become sad, critical, inflexible, or controlling.

It’s important to remember that we all have all five of the elemental personalities in our energetic wiring. This means we can call on the traits of any elemental personality when the need arises. If we want ideas and inspiration, we can seek out our Water energy. If we need to plan and accomplish something, we can seek out our Wood energy. The desire to celebrate an event puts us in our Fire energy. Time at home with loved ones certainly activates our Earth energy. And endings of any kind will use Metal energy to process and synthesize the experience. And if the ending created a loss that is hard to process, our response is what we call grief.

Grief

And this brings us to our discussion of grief which, for the sake of this post, we will define as a deep and poignant distress caused by loss. Here is how we might expect each of the elemental personalities to act while processing a loss, and how best to help them. As a professional counsellor, you have the skills necessary to manage this process for your clients. For those non-professionals reading this post, please be aware that loss and grief are serious issues and professional help may well be warranted.

Water in Grief: Water personalities thrive on ideas, creativity, philosophic beliefs, and being part of something larger than themselves. Because they don’t have a lot of structure, possessions – and even people – aren’t that important to them. When loss hits a primary Water personality, they will usually go deep inside themselves to process the loss. To the outside world, this may look like depression. And if it lasts too long, it canlead to depression, but Water people process changes to their world at a very internal level, so depth is their friend. The best way to support a Water person dealing with a loss is to let them do their own thing for a time. Because Metal feeds Water on the Nurturing Cycle of the Five Elements model, the Metal energy ofletting go flows naturally to Water people and they usually process what needs processing regarding the loss, then move on. If a Water personality seems stuck or depressed, it’s important to help them rediscover a purpose to life that matters to them, and a way to participate in it.

Wood in Grief: Wood personalities thrive on accomplishment and success. They are wired to manifest, be that a plan, a building, a corporation, or a new world. The act of making things happen really matters to Wood people. Loss can hit a Wood person hard if what is lost in any way represents success to them or was a person who mattered. In the Five Elements model, Metal is the control for Wood, so the energy of loss and grief can really pull Wood people back for a time. A Wood person in grief will be more suspectable to the use of alcohol than the other personalities. The best to way to support a Wood person dealing with loss is to help them focus on ways to re-energize their lives and plans (Woods always have plans). As the pain of the loss subsides, Wood people will naturally start thinking of the future; that is the focus of their vision. Help them engage with something in the future that matters to them and begin working toward manifesting whatever it is.

Fire in Grief: Fire personalities are usually passionate people who thrive on movement, activity, and fun. They are wired for fun and celebration, the more the merrier. Quick to laugh, they are usually the life of the party wherever they are. Loss can really snuff out the flames of Fire, but because they have little structure, they don’t form the deep attachments to people of things that some of the other elemental personalities do, so they can recover quickly. However, they can also try to stay busy as a way to avoid the feelings and eventually burn themselves out. The worst thing that can happen for a Fire personality is to spend too much time alone, so creating opportunities for them to socialize, whether that means coaxing them to a party or inviting people over, will help them move through the grief. In the model, Fire is what controls Metal, so the very act of rekindling their Fire will help manage the grief.

Earth in Grief: Earth personalities care deeply about lasting connections, family, house, and home. They love animals, gardening, helping others and are generally very inclusive. The loss of anything or anyone close to them will usually affect Earth people more deeply than any of the other elemental personalities. In many ways, they are defined by the people and places in their lives and it can take them a very long time to regain a sense of balance. When loss happens, having the people they love around them will be an important part of moving through the grief. The comfort of family and friends will take them a down the road of healing, but it usually isn’t a short journey. When they are ready, time out in nature or the opportunity to help someone else will usually bring them back to themselves.

Metal in Grief: Metal personalities are wired to manage endings by synthesizing the lessons then letting go. They also excel at compartmentalizing different aspects of their lives. When a Metal person suffers a loss, it may look on the surface like it barely fazed them. And in some cases, that might be correct. Balanced Metal people do detach well. They accept endings as part of the cycle and move on. But if they are stressed – and loss does create stress – the Metal person can act like all is well but inside might be having difficulty letting go. Because grief sits in the Metal element, helping the Metal personality move through it is in some ways easier and some ways more difficult. Metal people focus on the past; that is what makes them so brilliant at synthesis. But moving through grief calls for leaving the past behind and moving forward. What often helps Metal people move forward is support from Earth people. Earth feeds Metal in the Five Elements model so an infusion of Earth energy in the form of caring friends, shared food, and even just silent togetherness can help the Metal let go and move on.

Well, this has been a longer than normal post, but I hope it gives you a sense of how each of the elemental personalities embraces and moves through grief. Blessings to you on the work you do!

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Mother’s Death Leaves Her Brother Adrift

Dear Vicki: Our dear, sweet, loving mother passed away last year and it has been a tough road for our family. She was the glue that held us all together, but for my brother Arnold she was also a lifeline to reality. Arnold is in his early twenties, still lives at home, and never went to college. He is a quiet, sensitive guy who worked in a convenience store and loves photography and drawing comics. He could easily get lost in his art or watching superhero movies, often forgetting to eat or even get to work on time unless Mom reminded him. Since she’s been gone, Dad stays at his law office late and Arnold has lost his job. I have my own family now so can’t really move back home to help out. I think dad will be okay, but I’m really worried about Arnold. How can I help him? Signed: Sad Sister

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Dear Sad Sister: My condolences on your loss. It’s never easy to lose a loved one, but it’s especially hard to lose a mom. Most mothers have a lot of Earth energy in their personalities – family and home sit in the Earth element – and they often are exactly what holds everyone together. Earth people love focusing on home and family, and making sure everyone’s needs are met. No doubt you all miss her love and affection, but Arnold is also missing more than that. He is missing the structure and boundaries that she would have provided for him because of the way they related on the Five Elements model.

It’s very likely that your brother is a Water personality.  Everything you said about him, and some things you didn’t, describe Waters perfectly. They are quiet and sensitive people, usually passionate about art or some other solitary endeavor, and not very interested in the type of learning that requires a structured environment like college or even a tech school. They do love to learn, but in their own way, on their own time. As you can tell, structure isn’t something Waters have an abundance of, or necessarily appreciate. In nature, if the two most structured elements attempt to structure water, it rarely goes well. Water will rust metal and rot wood. In nature, only sweet gentle earth can successfully provide structure for water in the form of riverbeds and shorelines. And it’s the same way with people and relationships.

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