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Grief: What All Mourners Need to Know

  1. Introduction
  2. Why is Grief so Overpowering?
  3. Grief Affects Every Part of You
  4. What to Expect as You Mourn
  5. The Critical Task of Mourning
  6. Strategies for Healthy Mourning
  7. Cautions to Keep in Mind for Healthy Mourning
  8. The Role of Others in Mourning
  9. Complicated Grief – When to Get Help
  10. What is Grief?

 
1.  Introduction

It seems reasonable to guess that you may be reading this during a deeply painful time in your life, or in an effort to better understand such an experience in your past.  Whichever your circumstance may be, please know that your pain is deeply respected and acknowledged here.  This may be different than your experience out in the world generally, as we live in a society that doesn’t support the mourning process very well.  The most important person in your life can die, but you’re still expected back at work after three days, and most people don’t even ask how you are after about a month.  If you've lost an animal companion, there is even less acknowledgment.  Life churns on in apparent ignorance of the fact that your world has been shattered, which somehow makes it feel even worse.  Well-intended others can say some remarkably hurtful things without even realizing it: 

   “Don’t cry, it’ll be okay.”

   “I know how you feel.”

   “You’ve just got to get it together and move on.”

   “You shouldn’t go to the cemetery so much.”

   ”Aren’t you over it yet?”

    If a spouse has died, “When will you start dating again?”

    If a child has died, “At least you can have another.”

    If an animal companion has died, "How can you be so upset over an animal?  Just get another one."

To be in mourning is painful at a level that many people find frankly frightening.  Many fear that if they really feel their grief, they’ll be lost in an emotional black hole from which they may never escape.  Therefore, they work very hard at suppressing their pain as much as possible and maintaining an illusion of normalcy for the world while feeling totally lost inside.  This is a common response to grief, but it has the ironic effect of prolonging the pain for most who attempt it.

The information offered here is meant to give you greater understanding of what grief is, why it is so very hard to live through, and some basic strategies that are healthy, effective ways to find your way back to living with purpose again.

2.  Why is Grief so Overpowering?

Grief is a normal, healthy response to a life-altering loss.  Please read that again, and really think about what it means. 

Your loss occurs on many levels.  The most obvious is that there’s nothing but a gaping, painful void there in a space that was recently occupied by someone you dearly love.  That’s just the beginning.  You’ve also lost the enjoyment and activities you’re used to sharing with your loved one.  You’ve lost the ways that they fit into your life routine, and the rhythm of your days will now be forever changed.  You’ve lost someone to feel connected to, someone to care for, and someone to worry about.  You’ve lost a major focal point of your own emotional energy, especially if you were involved in caretaking and treatment of your loved one's long-term medical issues.  You’ve lost the life that you had when your loved one was here.  Perhaps you’ve even lost some sense of self, if you used a person to define who you are and that person is now gone.  For example, if a major part of your identity is “spouse” and your spouse dies, where does that leave you?  So much in your life is different now, in ways large and small.  Your world has changed.  Why wouldn’t you mourn deeply in response to such a loss?

3.  Grief Affects Every Part of You

Grief plays havoc with your body, which is why you may notice problems with your sleep, appetite, level of energy, physical strength, and general stamina.  Mental processes are often impaired in grief, which can cause you to experience forgetfulness, trouble concentrating, and/or repetitive thoughts.  Emotional chaos can be expected as you try to absorb the impact of the loss, figure out how to re-organize your life, and go on. 

Early grief looks a great deal like clinical depression in terms of the symptoms you may have.  If you have experienced a loss, however, these are not symptoms of illness – they are the normal, expected response of those in mourning.  Much as a severe physical injury makes it impossible to attend to anything else until the pain is managed, grief is the severe emotional injury which also demands your full resources until the pain is managed.  It is important to remember as you walk this painful path, that all of this difficulty is unfortunately normal.  You will only make your journey more difficult and prolonged if you judge yourself along the way.

4.  What to Expect as You Mourn

Normal, healthy, adaptive grief usually looks awful, because although it’s normal, it’s still an emotional train-wreck for the person in mourning.  It’s important, even as you suffer, to know that there’s probably nothing wrong with you personally – you’re just reacting the way healthy people do to incredible loss.

You may find yourself crying frequently.  You should allow this to happen as much as possible, as long as it doesn’t pose a serious problem like endangering you while driving or disrupting an important business meeting.  You’ll probably feel unbearable longing for your loved one, and your thoughts will probably be fairly obsessive and repetitive for a time after the loss.

You may find yourself playing a number of mental games as you seek control over the uncontrollable.  “Mental Math” is the game in which you keep a running count of the time since the loss, as in, “Three weeks ago at this time, s/he was still here and everything was fine.”  The “If Only” game is particularly common in the case of a shocking or wrongful death: “If only” any one of a hundred little things had been different, your loved one would still be okay, and be with you now.  And of course, the “Whys.”  Why did it happen the way it did?  Why did it happen at all?  Why didn’t it happen to someone else?  Why do harmful people go on blithely about their destructive ways while someone wonderful like your loved one is lost for no apparent reason?  These games are your mind’s attempt to make sense of the nonsensical.  The effort is doomed to failure of course, and is not at all helpful, but it is very typically what people in mourning do.  

You’ll probably struggle over any anniversary or other reminder that connects to your loss, such as:

  • The time of day, day of the week, or date of the month of your loss.

  • The birthday of your loved one.

  • Your own birthday.

  • Anniversaries of special dates in your relationship with your loved one.

  • Holidays.

  • Any factor that reminds you of the loss.  “It was a day exactly like this when it happened.”

It is common for previous losses to be reactivated in the face of new grief.  As a result, you may find yourself obsessing over and reliving an old loss even as you grapple with the new one.

Guilt may present itself at various points through the process.  You may have had mixed feelings about your loved one; these feelings may have seemed quite understandable and acceptable to you while your loved one was alive, but may now feel like a horrible betrayal in light of their death.  You may feel relieved in some ways when someone dies – it may be the end of what was historically a challenging relationship, or perhaps it was simply a merciful end to what would have been prolonged, pointless, physical suffering for someone who was seriously ill or injured.  Sometime in the future, as you begin to feel a bit better and perhaps smile for the first time in weeks or months, you may be seized with sudden guilt about daring to experience any enjoyment when someone so loved has died.

It is important to remember that despite how devastating it feels, you are in a healthy process which is part of a transition that is essential for you to make.  As you begin the transition to your new life without your loved one, your ability to function will gradually improve, and your pain levels will slowly become more manageable.

5.  The Critical Task of Mourning

Perhaps you’ve heard of the five stages of grief so effectively identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  You can find very detailed information about these stages in her brilliant book, On Death and Dying.  For the purposes of this article, the stages can be summed up by what you’re likely to be thinking as you experience them:

    * Denial: “This can’t be happening.”

    * Anger: “This shouldn’t be happening.  It’s wrong, and someone is to blame.”

    * Bargaining: “Maybe it’s happening, but I can find a way to avoid the pain.”

    * Depression: “Oh no, it really is happening.  My life will never be the same.”

    * Acceptance: “Okay, it has happened.  What kind of life can I create now?”

You’ll probably experience all of these stages, and most or all of them more than once.  The process is typically one of progress alternating with setbacks; you hope that over time, you gain a little ground with most of the cycles.  There is no telling how long it will take any individual to finally get a firm grip on acceptance.

So, as a mourner, you have a job to do.  It is to work your way through the phases of loss to acceptance.  If you don’t do this, you will not be able to go on living with quality after your loss, and this will be terribly damaging to you and anyone who loves you.  Trying to avoid this job of adjustment only keeps you in acute pain longer – this can last the rest of your life if you don’t face into your grief and get it over with.

Many people resist acceptance, fearing it to be a betrayal or abandonment of the one they have lost.  Finding your way to acceptance is not about forgetting your loved one or feeling that it’s okay that they died.  Acceptance is about fully engaging in the life that you now have, rather than staying anchored in your loss and yearning.  It may help to realize this:  If you turn your life into a monument of pain in honor of the one you have lost, what kind of legacy does that create for them?  You might ask what your loved one would want for you now that they are gone.  No doubt they would like to be missed, but they’d probably prefer that you learn how to live again, and that you tell others in the future how great your time together was -- that’s a legacy anyone would be gratified to have.  Even if you don’t feel your own desire to move on, can you consider trying to do it in honor of those you have lost?  

6.  Strategies for Healthy Mourning

Allow your feelings to happen at whatever pace and intensity is natural for you, within the limits of being able to proceed with your life on some basic level.  Sometimes the feelings will be unbearably intense, which will be hard because it’s so painful.  Sometimes you might feel oddly numb, which can be hard because you feel guilty for not suffering more in the face of such an important loss.  Grief creates an ever-changing and unpredictable emotional experience, and your best way through it is to find the courage to go along wherever the feelings need to take you in a given moment.

Allow occasional “rest periods” from these feelings.  It is much like doing hard physical labor, in which you sometimes have to take a break to rest your muscles so that you are then able to get back to the hard work at hand.  Think of mourning as hard emotional labor; occasional breaks allow your psyche to recharge so that you can step back into the process and get on with the needed emotional work.  Aside from such rest periods, and the times that you are forced to set it aside (such as for being at work), it’s best to stay engaged in your mourning as actively as you can.  This is not needless self-punishment; this is getting necessary, difficult work done in the shortest reasonable timeframe so that you can get back to your life and remaining loved ones sooner rather than later.

Remember that mourning is healthy and necessary, as is any other healing process in your system.  If you allow your grief to unfold naturally as described above, you will not be forever lost in your pain, as many people fear.  The path directly through grief is the only route to eventually feeling better and reclaiming your life.  Remember that this will all happen on a natural time-table – you can’t rush through it, take short-cuts, or keep yourself busy until it’s over.  It would be nice if it was possible to circumvent the pain somehow, but it just doesn’t work, and those who try tend to suffer more as a result of their efforts.

Seek out the company of others who “get” what you’re going through, and whose company makes you feel comforted.  Make a point of talking through your grief with those supportive others -- this is a known factor in getting through it more effectively.

Take extra–good care of yourself in your grief, just as you would nurse any other severe illness or injury.  Quality nutrition, adequate opportunity for rest, and an attitude of patience with the recovery process will go a long way toward helping you regain your balance more quickly. 

Have lower expectations of yourself for awhile – you can’t expect full performance from yourself when your system is so compromised.  Just as you would scale back your expectations of self if you had a serious physical illness or injury to contend with, you will have to allow for recovery from this emotional injury.  Your ability to function will improve as you heal.
 
Do whatever feels most helpful, healing and “right” to you, regardless of what others may think.  Each journey of grief is highly individual, and nobody can judge what is necessary for you to navigate yours.  What is tremendously comforting for one person may be wrenching and damaging for another.  For that matter, the strategy that helps you today may hurt you tomorrow, and then be helpful to you again at a later time.  There is no “right” method of mourning, only what is right for you in each moment.  The only rule of mourning is that there are no rules.

Some ideas to consider as you travel this difficult journey:

• Cry as much as you need or want to.  This is important not only for emotional release, but also for flushing harmful stress hormones from your system.  Because of the presence of these hormones, the composition of your tears is actually different during traumatic times – tears are your body’s way of cleansing itself of these substances, so don’t hold back.


• Review old photos and mementos of your loved one.  Or don’t.  This is a perfect example of how people differ in their needs.  The same artifacts that bring tremendous comfort to one person may wreak devastation on the heart of another – pay attention to what works best for you.


• It might help to keep a written journal of your mourning.  You might record your thoughts and feelings, your experiences, or things that you notice are different now that your loved one is gone.  You might find it comforting to write the life story of your loved one, recounting and memorializing all of those important milestones and memories.


• Music might help in two different ways:  Some music may perfectly capture your feelings in the moment and give them more expression, while other music may help you to move your feelings to a more balanced place when that is what you seek.


• Seek out any choice or activity that feels right to you in the moment, no matter what it is.  If it helps you feel stronger, more comforted, more at peace, or more able in any way to go on (and it doesn’t do any harm), then it’s the right thing to do.


• If something makes you feel worse and you have a choice, don’t do it.


Approach holidays and other special days directly and with open communication among all family and friends sharing the loss.  It is common for those in mourning to fear triggering pain in each other by saying anything about the one who has been lost.  You’re probably all thinking about the loss almost constantly anyway, so mentioning it will open the way for needed sharing rather than creating new pain.  Two general thoughts for handling special days are these:

• Remember to do what feels most right, most comforting, and most healing for you and your family, no matter how widely this may differ from common wisdom or the advice of well-meaning others.  It can be very comforting to create a special ritual for remembrance of lost loved ones; this need not dominate the event, but can provide a moment of acknowledgement that will help with your family’s healing.


• Don’t hesitate to change your routines temporarily if you need to.  For example, some devoutly religious people feel the need to stay away from their houses of worship for a time after the death.  This may have to do with questioning one’s faith, or it may simply reflect a low tolerance for having to rehash the loss dozens of times with well-intended, concerned friends who will approach to express support.  There are times when that kind of repetitive dealing with the story can be okay, and times that it can be needlessly painful; only you can decide when it is the right time to try rejoining more fully with your community.

7.  Cautions to Keep in Mind for Healthy Mourning

Don’t suppress your feelings.  Your feelings, as painful as they are to bear, need to happen in order for you to heal and eventually get back to living with purpose.  You cannot make grief go away by ignoring it, nor can you keep yourself busy enough to not notice the grief process going on without you.  The harder you try to keep from having the experience, the longer it will last, and the more painful it will ultimately be.  The only way out of grief is straight through it.

Don’t self-medicate your feelings with drugs, alcohol, food, or any diversion that alters your body chemistry in harmful ways.  This only interferes with healthy mourning, thus prolonging it, and can create other negative consequences along the way.  Short-term use of a sleep aid, however, might be helpful, as insomnia is a common side effect of grief.  Sleep deprivation contributes nothing of value to the mourning process, and can actually make a difficult time needlessly more challenging.  Consult your physician for assistance with this particular decision.

Don’t try to rush your mourning, or yourself.  This difficult process has no short-cuts and no deadline.  It will take whatever amount of time it needs to take.  Any attempt you make to alter this is likely to make it last longer, but will not shorten it. 

Don’t judge yourself for having a grief reaction.  Something terrible has happened.  Of course you’re having trouble dealing with it.

Avoid people whose company makes you feel worse in any way.  Some people are directly hurtful to mourners because they’re so insensitive to the experience, while others have good intentions but manage to hurt you anyway.  Just stay away from such people, or change the subject of conversation.  It is your right to protect yourself from unnecessary hurt.

8.  The Role of Others in Mourning

The role of others in your mourning process is both very important and very limited.  The only thing others can really do is listen and respect your experience – seek out those who can offer you this.   Be sure and let them know that what they are doing matters, because otherwise they’ll often feel helpless and ineffective.

As you remember that healthy, productive grief looks awful, beware of well-meaning others who try to “make” you feel better.  If someone is expressing support in a manner that feels intrusive to you, protect your experience for yourself by deflecting or avoiding such people as necessary.

Beware of others who try to tell you how to mourn, or how you “should” be doing by now.  It is your process and no one else’s.  On the other hand, if someone you trust expresses concern that you don’t seem to be moving forward at all, this is an important sign that you are not going through a healthy process and may need help.

9.  Complicated Grief – When to Get Help

Support from a knowledgeable counselor can be a welcome help during any phase of the grief process, no matter how healthy a process it may be.  Grief is usually quite painful; no therapy can “fix” this, because nothing is broken – this is just the nature of grief.  Education about what to expect, along with compassionate support, can make a difficult time a little less difficult, and that can be well worthwhile. 

There are times when help is more necessary, however, and one of the ways you can determine this is related to time.  The process of mourning has no deadlines or timeframes, but should show some positive change across time. 

In the very earliest days post-loss, devastation and inability to function are the norm.  While this is an awful experience to have and to witness, it is normal in acute mourning, and not cause for alarm.  Sometime during the first two to four weeks post-loss, the healthy mourner will show signs of increasing ability to take care of basic necessities, and perhaps, an ever-so-slightly greater ability to bear the pain of the loss.  This means that the person in healthy mourning is still in agony, but just slightly less so, and able to function, but just a bit more so.  There remains terrible disruption at all levels, but not quite as bad as before.  The person whose mourning has become complicated will show no forward progress in these initial weeks (or even beyond), and will be mourning in exactly the same manner several weeks later as at the time of the loss itself.  This is a time to consider seeking professional assistance.

Beyond the first few weeks, the healthy mourner will be able to notice some degree of progress (however small) from one month to the next.  If this incremental progress comes to a halt, this is the next indicator that professional assistance would be appropriate.  Help under these circumstances should be secured without delay, as the potential for lost time and needless suffering is so great.  People have been known to remain stuck in grief, frozen in emotional time for many years, simply because the necessary information and coping strategies were unknown.  Don’t let this happen to you or anyone you care about. 

10.  What is Grief?

Let’s return now to the general question of defining grief.  This article up to now has dealt with grief from the clinical standpoint: how it affects you, what “normal” grief looks like, how to make the best of it, and so on.  There’s a much deeper answer to the question of what grief is, however, and this article could not be complete without it.

Grief is the price of admission that you pay for being in a loving relationship; it’s just that the price gets paid at the end, when someone has to leave.  Every love relationship will eventually end in grief for someone -- it is inevitable.  For most of us, the pain we bear in mourning is a very small price to pay for years of love, comfort and companionship.  The only way to avoid the pain of grief would be to never have had the relationship at all, and to have missed the many ways that our lives were enriched as a result.     

When your loss feels too painful to bear, you might ask yourself, “Would I erase this relationship from my history if I could, so that I wouldn’t hurt now?”  When you arrive at the inevitable answer, it helps (a little, anyway) to try to redirect yourself toward gratitude for what you were so lucky to have.  Be careful not to make your loved one’s death more important than his or her life.  It helps to try to remember the gift of the relationship you had.  The fact that you had that relationship – and that your loved one lived -- are ultimately the most important things.  You were incredibly lucky while it lasted.  Remembering that won’t erase the grief, but if you remember to place that gratitude alongside your grief, it may ease the way a bit. 

To all those in mourning who are reading this article, I wish you good luck and safe passage on your journey through grief, and hope you have found something here that will help you in some small way.  As best you can, I hope you’ll take loving, good care of yourself. 


Revised version copyright © 2010, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW, LLC.  All rights reserved.
Original copyright © 2007, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW, LLC.  All rights reserved.

 

Some other articles you may find useful:

Self-Help for Intense Anxiety

How to Talk to a Loved One Who Needs Help

Sleep Well -- Self-Help for Insomnia

When is It Time to Consider Psychotherapy?

Depression Series, Part One: Depression -- Myths and Facts

Depression Series, Part Two: Who Gets Depressed, and Why? 

Depression Series, Part Three: What to Do about Depression 

Depression Series, Part Four: When Someone You Love is Depressed  

 

 

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