“Working through the deep pain of grief is one of life’s most real and difficult challenges; that’s the hard news. But there is also good news: Our resources of courage, and of resilience, and of potential for healing are no less real – and they are trustworthy.” – Kevin Henry, Forbes Hospice Bereavement Care Coordinator
The process of recovering from such a loss is often called grief work, and with good reason. It is a difficult job requiring time, energy and concentrated effort. As J. William Worden points out in his seminal text, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, certain milestones need to be accomplished during the mourning process:
Accepting the reality of the loss. Denial of the loss is normal and can be greater in cases of sudden death; but at some point, the grieving person must accept that the loved one is gone and will not return.
Experiencing the pain of grief. This is a task most people would like to avoid. Unfortunately, there is no way out of the pain except through it. Those who manage to sidestep this stage will find that the pain comes back to them later or in another indirect way, such as physical illness.
Adjusting to an environment without a loved one. This involves changing roles, acquiring new skills, and making new relationships. One may resent all the changes to be made, but life cannot move on without it.
Emotionally relocating the deceased and moving on with life. Many people fear losing or dishonoring the memory of a loved one if they move on to new relationships or activities. Ultimately, refusing to move on means abandoning love and hope.
Because grief can be so painful and overwhelming, it is frightening. Many people worry if they are grieving the “right” way and wonder if their feelings are normal. People who suffer a loss may experience several different reactions; some normal and natural grief responses include:
- tightness in the throat or heaviness in the chest
- an empty feeling in the stomach with a loss or increase of appetite
- guilt or anger in waves and at different times
- restlessness and looking for activity, then finding it difficult to concentrate
- a feeling as though the loss is not real, that it did not actually happen
- sensing the loved one’s presence, such as expecting the person to walk into the room, hearing his or her voice, or seeing the person’s face
- aimless wandering around the house and forgetting to finish tasks
- difficulty sleeping and dreaming frequently of the loved one
- guilt or anger about past events from the relationship with the deceased
- unexpected mood changes, crying at unexpected times
- feeling uncomfortable both in groups of people and when alone
You can help yourself through the grief process by:
Honoring your individuality. Everyone grieves in his or her own way.
Giving yourself time. It may take months or years to heal from your loss. Even when the funeral is over and your friends and neighbors are feeling better, you may still have a lot of work to do.
Talking as much as you need. Find a friend, counselor, minister, rabbi or support group with whom to share your thoughts and feelings. Try starting a blog.
Crying, by yourself or with other people. Tears are healing. Although it sometimes feels as though they will go on forever, they do stop in time.
Allowing others to help you. Don’t hesitate to ask for or accept help with your needs. Remember that mourning is a highly emotional time and it is normal to feel “crazy.”
Taking care of your body. Studies show that grieving people have depressed immune systems. Poor appetite, lack of sound sleep, and a highly emotional state make grieving people more prone to illness or accidents.
And finally, do not hesitate to seek professional help if you are feeling “stuck” proceeding through your grief process. There are many wonderful organizations, such as Hospice, committed to helping individuals and families through this process. Locally, Forbes Hospice has provided hospice, palliative, and grief care since 1979; their care was a tremendous resource and comfort to me and my family in our time of need.
Reprinted with permission from the Forbes Hospice “Understanding Grief” website
My Personal Journey With Grief
The helplessness of seeing a loved one in pain, of watching a loved one suffer; the unity of a family that surrounds a loved one in her last moments; the sucker punch and shock of a sudden and unexpected death. The tears shed and shared – to this day – when realizing that your loved one will not be at the next birthday party or Christmas celebration. The realness, the genuineness, with which we hold on to each other, with which we embrace, heart to heart, soul to soul, in these times of grief. The painful process of dealing with confusing, conflicting emotions, and sudden, dramatic changes to everyday life…these were my journeys with grief.
In hindsight, thinking back now to the days surrounding Deb’s last week, and to the months and years since her passing on this journey with grief – I can finally see that death has offered me incredible insight into living, to oneness, and to growth that is recognized, now, as a gift.
As strange as that may read, yes, indeed, there have been gifts.
A story was shared with me soon after my wife’s death, about a friend who had lost her daughter in an excruciatingly painful way. At the depths of her despair, she broke down at a red light, screaming, crying, cursing, hysterically asking the wide-eyed stranger who had pulled up next to her “What the hell are you looking at?!?! Did you just lose your daughter???”
From these depths, she traveled the painful, often-lonely road of despair, but she also did the hard work of grief, and pulled herself up by her bootstraps, one day at a time. Later, she admitted she was thankful for the person she’d become – because of the trials she endured – and recognized that she had grown and become a better person for it.
I could not to believe those words at the nadir of my pain; but they offered hope, so I clung to them.
And they proved true, and there have been gifts, many gifts, hidden and unlocked only after deep reflection and contemplation, and finally, acceptance.
I traveled the days and weeks and months after my wife’s death fully aware, no longer on auto-pilot, if only because of my overwhelming new situation. My priorities shifted, were reviewed and refocused, honestly, my entire life re-evaluated. Soon I saw the opportunities presented to me, and yes, even found hope.
But these gifts may have been overlooked, or at least not recognized, were it not for those who traveled with me.
Family and Friends – There is no way to overestimate the value of family and friends when faced with an issue as lifestyle altering and faith shaking as a long-term illness and death. Family and friends will literally support you when you cannot support yourself. They will be there in your darkest hour and pick you up when you can no longer do it yourself. They are gifts from the departed…
To those closest to the deceased, there is no separation between us in these difficult times; we journey together, and special bonds are made. If we can keep this piece of our oneness in our hearts, with us always – then our loved one’s spirit will truly live on.
I give a true, heartfelt, and simple “Thank You” to everyone who was there for Debbie; to those who were there for me; to those who were there and continue to be there for Jake and Trevor. It would take pages to do so individually, but know that your acts of kindness, courage and love will reside forever in our hearts…love to all of you.
Music – Music is also a powerful healing tool for me. I’ve found that music has a direct connection to my emotions. Songs make me think, touch my heart, bring back memories, powerful memories, good and bad – and that helps the healing process. It also brings me comfort to know that others share these feelings, and that they thought enough of these legitimate emotions to turn them into poetry and art.
Nature – Nature, the natural world – my true home – is always so comforting to me. Nature is where I distill my thoughts, clean out the clutter, slow down, and calm down enough to actually listen to the wisdom of my soul. From my outside prayer grotto, to camping in the woods with the boys, to visiting spectacular locations, to the beautiful birds that entertain me outside the window as I write this – my heart and soul soar when surrounded by the life energy that is just so vibrant and abundant in nature.
Exercise – Take care of your body while you grieve, too, it has wondrous restorative properties – use them! Lift the weights and run the laps and get the blood pumping and the endorphins coursing, even if you don’t feel like it. A more powerful drug cannot be prescribed. Even at my lowest times, a daily workout was one of the salves I used to keep the normal blues of grief from becoming depression.
Support – There are also many caring support agencies – the Highmark Caring Place, the Forbes Hospice organization and their bereavement support group, and all the brave strangers who gather there to share their stores and open their broken hearts, and heal and grow, right in front of each other, giving all of us encouragement and hope. Under the tutelage of such caring mentors, we have all learned and grown. Thank you for your courage.
Books – I took great solace in reading the wisdom of others who have been through their own grief, and those who work lovingly with the aggrieved. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Viktor E. Frankl, Kahlil Gibran, and all the other wise and compassionate souls whose quotes and wisdom grace these pages; share in what they have to teach us. Perhaps my book, “Evening’s Light, A Journey With Grief”, will help, too.
And finally, to everyone to whom these words have made their way – may you slow down occasionally, and just sit with yourself, with your loved one, in the Evening’s Light, and know you are not alone…
Listen to an interview about “Evening’s Light” and a candid and uplifting dicussion of grief and the grief journey and the gifts of grief. Aired 9/6/2014, hosted by Dominick Domasky and A Kind Voice Radio, archived at the link below: