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A Conversation with Luis Orta

Advice for dealing with a loss.

Losing a mate can be one of the most stressful events in a person’s life, and the grieving period that follows can be taxing for even the strongest among us.

Luis Orta, a clinical psychologist based in Miami, has worked extensively with people who have suffered loss, be it of a loved one, a job, or a home due to a natural disaster. Here are some of his observations.

Q: What happens when a head of household dies?

A: When a main figure dies, there’s a period of what I call “disbanding.” People are in limbo, but then comes the reorganization. How [the reorganization] happens depends a lot on the importance and influence of the person in the family. If the person was the official head of household in name alone but somebody else ran the show—in other words, he was just a figurehead—then everyday things may remain pretty much the same.

But if that person played an important role, there’s an initial period of confusion and readjustment. How long it takes varies and depends also on the nature of the family dynamics. If everybody was dependent on this person, it’s very difficult. There has to be somebody who will step up, who is more of a go-getter. Usually that happens automatically because some roles are assigned by the family from the get-go, and that person has already stepped up in other situations.

If the surviving spouse shared in the responsibilities equally, it’s an easier transition. There is still a grieving process as far as the emotions, but the functional process of what gets done, who does it, and when it gets done will be smoother.

Q: Do children grieve according to their ages?

A: In theory, the grief process is the same. However, it also depends on the individual, the relationship the person had with the deceased, how close they were, and how intense the relationship was. In most cases, the less interaction [the person had with the deceased], the easier.

But age may affect maturation level. In my opinion, the younger the child is the easier it is. If I've known you for five weeks, it's easier to recuperate from my loss than if I have known you for five years. It's different losing a parent at age 2 than at age 12. Each developmental stage has its own peculiarities. Some believe the teenage years are the most difficult, but I think each stage can have its own conflict and adjustment issues.

Q: Do Latinos deal with the loss of a partner differently because of culture, family ties, religion, or other traits?

A: Everybody’s affected by the loss of a loved one. Being a Latino, Anglo, or Martian doesn’t make it easier or harder. That said, the grief process might be easier depending on the ways it’s approached. The average Anglo—and I’m generalizing here—tends to be more pragmatic and will deal with this in a factual way. Latinos tend to rely more on their extended family, and they tend to be more codependent. It’s not good or bad; it’s just different.

And this close relationship with extended family could provide a good support system, but that can be a double-edged sword. There’s more dependency and more rumination. In the immediate aftermath it works to their advantage, but afterwards it may not, if there’s too much dependency.

Q: What advice do you give those who are grieving?

A:  It’s all about time. Time is the determinant of when you begin to heal. Also, stay busy. Do things that are productive. Cry when you have to.

Q: What advice do you give to friends and relatives of those who are grieving?

A:  Be there. Listen and genuinely offer help. Be proactive. Don’t wait for them to ask. But the most important thing is to be willing to listen.

Q:  Is there such a thing as making a mistake in the grieving process?

A:  I don’t think it’s about making a mistake or not. You are dealing with emotions, but you also can’t go about setting a goal: “By the 20th, I’ll forget about this person and go on with my life.” It doesn’t work that way. Grieving is very individual. It depends on the relationship, the intensity, and maturity of the relationship. I see people who have been together for 40 years, and they say they don’t want to live any other way than with this other person. It’s okay to have the feeling that you don’t want to go on—temporarily. If you never move from there, then that’s a problem.

Q: How do you know when you’re ready to establish another relationship?

A: You just feel it. You know. It’s a process. You become interested first in activities, then in other people. You start noticing the outside. You recapture the things you enjoy. You recognize some things. You say, “Wow! Look at that!” It can be a slow process, and I don’t recommend anybody rush into it.

Q: Are there feelings of guilt when you move on?

A: There can be, and that’s natural. The intensity of that guilt depends on the nature of the old relationship and even how the person died. There’s a difference between a spouse committing suicide and one dying after an illness.

Q: Do people wonder if their [deceased] spouse sees them? Or when they do move on, do they express doubts about being independent?

A: People do ask me [whether their loved one is watching them]. I tell them that if I knew the answer, I wouldn’t be sitting here. But my approach is reality-based. It doesn’t serve any purpose to answer these existential questions. If you’re more comfortable thinking the person can see you, then I tell people to believe that. I do say, “If so-and-so really loved you, he would want you to be happy.”

Children might have a harder time with a new relationship. They may project their own feelings and fear that their mother or father is being replaced, or that they’re going to lose their surviving parent. I suggest the parent tell the child, “I love you. I loved your mom/dad”—whatever the case may be. “Because I’m going out doesn’t mean I don’t love you or didn’t love your mom/dad.”

But don’t force the other person into the child’s life right away. Introduce it slowly so it goes more smoothly. Don’t make it invasive, and avoid any public display of affection in front of the child, at least in the beginning.