There may be no life experience that is more profoundly painful than the loss of a loved one. Unfortunately, it is an incident that we all must face at numerous stages in our lives. Even though these are losses that we must all go through, we often find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with the depth of the suffering that we may experience.
While we will focus mainly on loss in terms of the death of a loved one, it is important to note that the grief and loss response can be triggered by the loss of anything we hold dear. This could be loss of a valued job, moving away from a neighborhood that we were connected to, or the break-up of a relationship or friendship.
How we grieve
Our experience and process of grief will differ depending on many factors: our culture, our family, our history of other losses, other stresses present at the time of our loss, and our own personal traits.
Our culture plays a huge role in our grief process, as it sets the parameters of what is the expected and “normal” reaction to our loss. Various religions often have very strict guidelines as to what is to occur following a death. Ceremonies are prescribed in detail, and there is a degree of certainty in knowing what to expect–and what is expected from us–during the funeral and interment process. Employers often give a predetermined amount of time off to allow for grieving and we are subsequently expected to return to work and resume a “normal” life. The people with whom we come into contact are expected to pay their condolences and to offer support. There is a rough sequence of events that we may expect to ensue, together with fellow mourners. Typically, this predictability is a helpful thing, as we may be left reeling after our loss, whether sudden or inevitable. When everything may seem upside down in our life, at least certain events follow an anticipated flow.
Our family is also likely to respond in ways that we can expect. Some families come together in shows of support by spending time together. Some families allow for individual family members to have space and privacy to allow them the time to grieve. Family members are likely to play a crucial role in the sharing of memories and honoring the departed in a manner that is vital to the process of grieving a loss.
Our history of prior loss can also influence our progression through grief. If we have lost a loved one in the past, we have some expectation of what this process is likely to hold for us. However, the new loss can also trigger unresolved issues from past losses, thereby compounding the pain we feel. If this is our first experience with loss, we may feel more confused and uncertain.
The amount and type of other stresses present at the time of our loss also plays a role in how we cope with the experience of grief. If there is relatively little on our plate at the time of the loss, it may be less complicated for us as we move through our grief process. However, if there are other major issues occurring at the same time, it may be exponentially more difficult to effectively process our grief.
Lastly, our own personal traits may influence how we grieve. Some people find great solace in being around others; others prefer solitude to allow time for introspection and processing their feelings. While specific recommendations will be made as you read further, I do suggest that you find ways to grieve that will honor your own preferences.
How we understand grief
Perhaps the most widely recognized manner of understanding grief is through the groundbreaking work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. You are likely to have heard, if not memorized, the 5 stages of grief that she identified: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. While this framework is excellent in that it validates many key experiences that the bereaved go through, there are some limitations of this model that are important to discuss.
First, the label of “stages” can be misleading. It suggests that we will progress through each of the five in a linear fashion, even though this was not Kübler-Ross’s intention. In reality, we may fluctuate between stages, at times regressing back to previous stages. A more accurate label would be “the 5 components of grief.” We are never fully through the stages of grief, as it is an ongoing and ever-evolving process.
Second, it is important to note that Kübler-Ross’s work emerged from her experiences working with people who had terminal illnesses. Her model was based on people coming to terms with their own deaths, not that of a loved one. This model was used by the bereaved because it had obvious cross-over. However, if this is the primary method of trying to understand our grief process, this is an important limitation to keep in mind.
Even with these limitations in mind, this model serves as a very good starting point for us to understand the grief process.
How to grieve
The grieving process is basically an instinctual and natural response. Most of our role in progressing through our grief is to learn not to interrupt this on-going process. Developing an ability to express our grief is key. The manner in which we express our grief is up to us as individuals, but I will present some ideas that can be helpful.
Social support – whether this be something formal like attending a grief and loss support group (many funeral homes offer these or a listing of local groups) or perhaps something informal, such as meeting with family or friends to discuss how we are feeling about the loss, sharing our experiences with others can be deeply healing. Typically, people who allow us to have our experience without trying to “fix” it are most helpful. While well-intentioned, those who say things like “you just need to move on,” “we all have difficulties in life,” or “God only gives us what we can handle” are usually not as comforting and helpful as the person may have intended. Communicating to these people that if they could just hear you out and validate your experience by saying something like “it sounds like this has been very painful for you,” or “it is clear that you loved the person that you lost very much”, this would be much more helpful. If that person is not able to honor this request, then perhaps they are not the right one with whom to share your grief. Surrounding yourself with people who offer helpful and comforting interactions during this difficult time can be very important.
Soften your body – our instinctual reaction to physical or emotional pain is to clench our muscles. We are also likely to hold our breath or engage in short and shallow rapid breathing. While this is a common reaction, it is not very productive in helping us move through the pain. Instead, learning to relax our bodies, particularly the muscles in our core (or belly), allows for the welcoming space to work through the pain that accompanies a loss. Inhaling deeply and then slowly exhaling also helps to avoid the shallow breathing associated with the clenching response.
Journaling – having a place to record your thoughts, feelings, and reactions can be very helpful as you go through the grief process. You are likely to experience a range of emotions, thoughts, and reactions to the events that will transpire. Journaling helps in two ways: 1) It allows you the space to coherently collect your thoughts. As you put down onto paper the things that are flowing through your mind, the structure of language and telling your story will help to calm the sometimes chaotic nature of your inner turmoil. 2) It serves as a way to track your progress. Reading back through previous journal entries will most likely highlight your progress and you will see how you have progressed through the grief process. Reviewing your thoughts, feelings, and reactions at various points in time will help you see the shifting and evolving nature of your experience and can instill hope that even the most turbulent emotions will fade and change with time.
Ceremony – most traditionally we think of the funeral as the most common form of ceremony for grieving. This is usually a major part of how we honor and recognize the grieving process but, depending on your personal feelings, this may be inadequate to honor the loss. It also only applies to one specific type of loss: death. It does not address other losses like job loss, death of a loved one by suicide, miscarriages, infertility, loss of property (such as in the case of a house fire), or moving away from family, friends, and community. These are things that fall under the category of disenfranchised grief, or grief that is not widely recognized by others and/or society. Typically this adds another layer of difficulty to the person experiencing this type of grief. It is increasingly important in these cases that the person find ways to validate their loss either with trusted loved ones or at least internally.
Clear up unfinished business – Another issue that can complicate grief is when there are unresolved issues in the relationship with the person you have lost. This is most common in cases where sudden death or unanticipated loss occurs. Clearing up unfinished business is a way to attempt to bring whatever level of closure is possible. Discussing the unresolved issue with the person you lost by writing a letter and then burning it or putting it out to sea in a bottle may be effective if the person has died. Sometimes doing something in their honor that would have resolved the issue may be effective. Your options vary greatly, but ultimately the aim is to feel that you have done something to bring some sense of resolution to the issue.
One of the ultimate goals of accepting your loss is finding a way to maintain your connection to the person you have lost. My first clinical supervisor described this eloquently when he said “when someone dies they do not go away completely, instead they go to a special place in your heart where they live on.” That has always stuck with me because it seems to hit the nail right on the head. We need to find ways to come to terms with this. It may be painful to let go of our ties to the person in the physical realm, but hopefully this pain does not eclipse the ways in which the person lives on within our hearts and minds.
This can look very different depending on the relationship you had with the person you lost as well as your own personal style. Some people prefer to create a designated area to fill with photos of and mementos from the person. Others may go to a place that was special for the two of them. Some will continue to write letters or even talk to the person. Whatever the specifics look like for you, these acts can be an important part of moving forward now that your loved one is no longer with you.
Ultimately, even though it is painful, grief is a healthy process that leads towards healing. Allowing the space for this process to occur, getting adequate social support, and taking care of yourself (through proper sleep, hygiene, healthy routines and good nutrition) are all keys in allowing for this process to move forward with minimal disruptions. Experiencing a loss is difficult, but the possibility for a happy and healthy future, including accepting the change in how you relate to the departed, is possible with patience and kindness towards yourself.
Edited by Shirley Sachs
Dedicated to Marie “Gigi” Elward and her family and friends who are coping with her loss.