Death is extremely difficult because it involves the very real and painful loss of a loved one. When we lose a spouse, sibling or parent, our grief can be very intense. Although loss is understood as a natural part of life, we can still be overcome by shock and confusion that leads to prolonged periods of sadness or depression. The sadness typically diminishes in intensity as time goes by, but grieving is an important process in order to overcome these feelings and to continue to embrace the time you had with your loved one.
Responses to death vary greatly and are often different for each individual. People use personal coping mechanisms for grief. Research shows that most people can recover from loss on their own through the passing of time if they have the support of others and healthy habits. It can take months or a year to come to terms with a loss–there is no “normal” time period for somebody to grieve.
Another layer is added to the grief if your relationship with the deceased was a difficult one. It may take some time and insight before you’re able to look back on the relationship and adjust to the loss.
While most people are naturally resilient—and can endure loss and continue with their lives—some people may struggle with grief longer and feel unable to carry on their daily activities. Individuals with severe grief may be experiencing what is termed as complicated grief, and they could benefit from the help of a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional.
The Why Questions
When coping with the loss of a loved one, two big groups of questions arise. The first and sometimes most persistent are the “why” questions, such as:
- What was I thinking, letter her go without me?
- Why did I get so angry at him before he left the house?
- Why did he die so young?
- Why has this happened to me/us?
- Why did they have to suffer like that?
- Why did they do it? (suicide, smoke, drugs)
- Why must I hurt so badly?
- Why did they leave us so soon?
- Why didn’t I do something to prevent it?
- Why did God allow this to happen?
Unfortunately, there are no satisfactory answers for these questions. It’s natural for people of every age to ask them as they try to pull their lives back together.
The How Questions
The second group of questions people may ask when they’re grieving are the “how” questions. Some people say that only after they stopped asking the “why” questions and started asking the “how” questions were they able to start healing and moving forward. The following are some examples of the “how” questions.
- How would they want me to live my life?
- How can I honor their memory?
- How can I use the experience of my loss to help others who are grieving?
- How can I let others into my life in a new way?
- How can I live my life in a healthy and giving way?
- How can I find positive ways to cope?
- How can I allow myself to be vulnerable again?
These questions do have answers that will differ from person to person and help them move forward in the journey of grief. The answers will continue to develop long after the loss of a loved one.
Stages of Grief
1) If death occurs suddenly, the result can be a very complicated grieving process. The suddenness often triggers feelings of anger, abandonment and guilt.
2) Upon hearing of death, there are two stages that are particularly critical—shock and denial. Shock involves having an emotional and physical response upon learning of a sudden death. The grieving person may experience feelings of unreality, shortness of breath and a racing heartbeat.
3) Denial may follow quickly, and the individual may begin doing ordinary, everyday chores, such as balancing a checkbook or washing the dishes to reestablish the normalcy of life. Denial is often broken when the grieving person comes face-to-face with the many decisions that follow the death of a loved one.
Eight Needs to Fulfill for Effective Resolution of the Grieving Process
David K. Switzer, professor of pastoral theology at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, has established eight needs that must be fulfilled in order for the effective resolution of the grieving process to occur:
- Accept the finality and reality of the physical death.
- Become aware of and express the feelings you have regarding the loss or toward the deceased person, including the way the deceased died.
- Break emotional ties with the deceased, such as not acting as though they are still physically present.
- Break patterns of speech or other habitual behaviors that assume the deceased person is still physically present.
- Affirm that you are worthwhile apart from interaction and connection with the deceased person.
- Reaffirm and allow the characteristics and behaviors that contribute to your growing and ongoing life to come back.
- Cultivate old and new relationships.
Rediscover the meaning of your own life.
Steps to Help Overcome the Death of a Loved One
1) Basic needs
Take care of your own basic needs, including food, shelter and safety, above all else. If these needs are unmet, emotional issues will be even more difficult to deal with. It’s important to eat well, exercise and get plenty of rest to help you get through each day and move forward.
2) Ways of Coping.
Each person processes crisis emotions in their own way. If you’re a person who does this by keeping busy, find something simple to do. If you prefer to process emotions alone, seek a quiet, peaceful place.
3) Social interaction.
Instead of withdrawing, look for support in your friendships.
4) Help children.
If there are children among the bereaved, figure out ways to help them to cope. Make them feel secure by assuring them that everything will be okay. If their parents are in distress, find a familiar and calm person to care for them temporarily. Answer children’s questions and help them to process any normal feelings of guilt, anger or abandonment they may be experiencing.
5) Allow time.
Understand that the pain takes time to subside. Truly and healthily allow yourself to grieve. Keep in mind the normal stages of grieving that everybody undergoes.
6) Talk about the death of your loved one.
It’s important to discuss the death of the deceased with friends and colleagues in order to understand what happened and to remember your loved one. Denying the death is an easy way to isolate yourself and will frustrate your support system in the process.
7) Accept your feelings.
People experience numerous emotions after the death of somebody close to them. Sadness, anger, frustration and exhaustion are all normal.
8) Help others to cope.
Helping others has the added benefit of making you feel better. Sharing stories of the deceased can help everyone.
9) Remember and celebrate the deceased.
You have many possibilities when it comes to remembering your loved one, including donating to their favorite charity, framing photos of memorable times, naming a baby after them and planting a garden in their memory. The choice is up to you, and it can allow you to honor the special relationship the way you feel is appropriate.
If you are stuck or overwhelmed by emotions, it may be helpful to talk with a licensed psychologist or other mental health professional who can help you to cope with your feelings and find ways to get back on track.
If you are experiencing the loss of a loved one, the counselors at Thriveworks can help. Contact us at 617-395-5806 or find us online at http://www.ThriveBoston.com.