The days, weeks and months that follow the death of a loved one can sometimes be surprisingly difficult. Coping with the losses and challenges associated with the death of a loved one can feel akin to being routed miles off the Interstate and into unfamiliar territory without a map.
We believe that just as a good map could be quite useful on an unexpected road detour, having a “map” as you enter the territory of grief and loss can be very beneficial as well. While everyone’s grief experience will be uniquely personal, knowing what the “territory of loss and grief” looks like can be very reassuring. Much unnecessary suffering can be prevented through accurate information and realistic expectations.
Resources for Grief
Click on the articles below designed to provide you and your family with helpful information about various aspects of the grieving process.
A Bill of Rights for Grieving People
You have the right to grieve in your own way and at your own pace. Although grieving people may find many commonalities with one another, no two people grieve in exactly the same way or at the same speed. No one can tell you how you “should” grieve or at what pace.
You have the right to whatever grief emotions you are feeling. Sadness, anxiety, anger, confusion, relief and guilt can all be part of the grief experience.
You have the right to cry without apologies. We seem to be hard-wired for tears as a way of releasing and expressing pent-up emotions.
You have the right to talk about your grief as well as the right not to talk about your grief. Talking can be very healing, but you do have the right to choose what and with whom you want to share.
You have the right to treasure your memories, stories and relationship with your loved one.
You have the right to be honest when asked about how you are doing.
You have the right to take care of yourself and do what is right for you. You can rest, slow down and choose which invitations you want to accept and which you choose to decline.
You have the right to do things differently. You can change the furniture around, eat at different times, revise or let go of “traditions” for the time being – or forever.
You have the right to laugh and enjoy life. Joy can be present in the midst of sorrow just as sorrow can be present in times of joy and celebration. Allowing your attention to be directed into the moment and away from sorrow does not mean you have forgotten your loved one.
You have the right to express, nurture or explore your spirituality. Grief can be a catalyst for spiritual growth. Sometimes loss can leave us questioning our beliefs and assumptions. This process, though at times uncomfortable, may lead you to a deeper and more meaningful spirituality.
“There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief … and unspeakable love.”
— Washington Irving
Grief 101: A BASIC PRIMER
Bereavement means that we are deprived, robbed or stripped of someone or something of high personal value. In other words, it’s the objective state of having suffered a loss.
Grief refers to our internal and external reactions to loss.
Mourning is the way in which we express our grief.
Grief is a natural response to loss and a normal consequence of our ability to love, connect and live fully. We do not grieve that which isn’t important to us. It is the link between loss and moving forward.
Grief is experienced at multiple levels. It affects us physically as well as emotionally and spiritually and impacts our thinking and behavior.
There is no one right way to grieve. Response to loss is highly individual, based on personality, life experience, personal beliefs and expectations, as well as other factors unique to the individual and their relationship with whom or what is lost. Everyone grieves in his or her own way.
Grief can be exhausting. The energy that grief requires takes its toll in fatigue, irritability and forgetfulness. Attention to the basics of self-care — health, nutrition, rest and exercise — facilitates the healing process.
Fluctuation in feelings, energy and coping is to be expected. The ups and downs are often unpredictable and are a normal part of the grief experience.
There is no timetable for grief. It takes as long as it takes. While the intense pain that often accompanies acute grief may be expected to abate over time, there will always be times when the loss is remembered, missed and grieved.
Children do grieve, although they express it differently than adults. Their reaction to loss and understanding will differ according to age and development. Age appropriate information about death and grief coupled with sensitive support can help.
Knowing that there are wide variations in what is “normal” can help. Inaccurate or faulty information about the grieving process leads to unrealistic expectations, which can unnecessarily add to pain and suffering.
Grief impacts not only the individuals directly involved, but also their social connections and support system. Relationships are changed after loss, and it is normal to reassess, change or even end some relationships.
Grieving people sometimes need to look outside their usual support system to find the understanding and information they need. Grief or other support groups, books, internet resources and professional counseling can be of benefit.
The Experience of Grief: More Than Feelings
The personal impact of loss can be wide-ranging. Grief is expressed not only through feelings, but also through physical sensations, thoughts or cognitions, changes in behavior. While everyone grieves in their own way, there are some common experiences that many bereaved people normally experience. Although these experiences may be grief related, it is very important the griever have a complete physical exam to rule out other causes of such symptoms.
What you may experience physically:
- Physical pain
- Physical exhaustion
- Tightness in the throat and/or muscles
- Heaviness or pressure in the chest n Lack of energy
- Hollowness in the stomach
- Heart palpitations
- Weight loss or gain
- Periods of nervousness or even panic
- Hyper-sensitivity to noise
- Digestive disturbances
- Loss of sexual desire or hyper-sexuality
- Susceptibility to physical illnesses
What you may experience emotionally:
- Mood swings
What you may experience behaviorally:
- Sleep disturbances
- Appetite changes
- Vivid dreams of loved ones
- Avoiding reminders of loved one
- Desire to run away or become very busy to avoid the pain of loss
What you may experience cognitively:
- Losing things
- Difficulty concentrating
- Auditory/visual hallucinations
- Difficulty processing information n Fearing losing control
- Recurring memories
What you may experience spiritually:
- Search for meaning
- Crisis of faith
- Confirmation of faith
- Anger at God
- Concerns about afterlife
“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. the only cure for grief is to grieve.”
— Earl Grollman
How We Grieve: Understanding Differences
How do we know how deeply someone is grieving? Because not everyone grieves in the same way, it is sometimes difficult to understand a grieving heart, especially when the more obvious emotional signs of grief seem to be absent. If we assume that grief always presents itself in certain ways, we may incorrectly assume that the absence of particular behaviors indicates an absence of grief or a lack of feeling.
How a particular person grieves is determined by a host of factors specific to that individual. Prior experiences with loss, age, gender, coping abilities, spiritual belief system and cultural conditioning are but a few of the many factors that influence how any one person will react to the loss of a loved one. Those individual factors are as unique as our fingerprints, so it should come as no surprise that grieving individuals may appear very dissimilar in how they respond to loss.
Experience and research with bereaved individuals suggests that there are two general styles of grieving. For individuals who are INTUITIVE grievers, grief is an openly emotional experience. These people may struggle with emotions that always seem too close to the surface; they are open to talking about their loss and physically appear to be saddened and de-energized. INSTRUMENTAL grievers are people who process their loss through activity, and thinking through their loss experience. They often feel as emotionally wounded as their intuitive counterparts, but their pain is much less obvious to the casual observer.
These styles exist along a continuum. Most of us lean toward one pole or the other of the continuum with very few individuals relying completely on one or the other style. In any given family you are likely to see both styles of grieving—one sibling may require physical comforting and lots of interpersonal support, while another sibling may cope by taking charge of tasks related to the loss and appear reticent to acknowledge their feelings.
Neither style is ‘better” than the other. When we can recognize and respect the differences, we are better able to support one another through the territory of loss.
When Will the Grief Get Easier?
In the early days of the grief process, many grievers begin to think there will never be relief from the intense, unremitting symptoms of grief. Sleep may be disrupted, draining away your energy, motivation and desire. Concentrating on the simplest of tasks may sometimes seem beyond ability. Longing, loneliness and sadness feel like constant companions. As the days go by, other people in your life may express concern over the continued intensity of your grief and may gently suggest it is time to “move on.” You may begin to wonder if your grief is normal.
It is important to recognize that what is “normal” varies widely among individuals. But generally, while intense emotional, physical and cognitive reactions are very normal in the early stages of grief, as time goes on, the griever usually finds such reactions decreasing in both intensity and frequency. Grief often intensifies two to three months after the loss and again before the first anniversary. Special days and events can trigger grief for years to come. Also common are sudden, unexpected surges of grief around such things as hearing a special song or spotting a favorite restaurant. The griever gains experience in dealing with upsurges in acute grief in healthy ways that allow the activities of daily life to continue without too much disruption.
Looking for small signs of healing can be helpful. Perhaps you find yourself laughing more or you begin looking forward to future events and plans for the future. For most grieving people, healing occurs. Holding on to that hope and looking for small signs of healing can bring comfort during the heavy days of early grief.
“Patience will serve you well as you experience your grief and mourning … our society is constantly trying to speed up our grief.”
— Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., Healing Your Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas
Setting Appropriate Expectations
Each person’s journey through grief is unique, personal and painful. In an effort to “speed up” the grief process, many grievers will put unnecessary pressure and expectations on themselves. Others may add additional pressure, mistakenly assuming that the bereaved “should” be further along in their grief. Appropriate expectations, such as the following, can normalize the grief journey and help in the healing process.
- Your grief will take longer than most people think.
- Your grief will take more energy than you would have ever imagined.
- Your grief will involve many changes and be continually developing.
- Your grief will depend upon how you perceive the loss.
- You will grieve for many things both symbolic and tangible, not just the death alone.
- You will grieve for what you have lost already and for what you have lost for the future.
- Your grief will entail mourning not only for the actual person you lost but also for all of the hopes dreams and unfulfilled expectations you held for and with that person, and for the needs that will go unmet because of the death.
- The loss will resurrect old issues, feelings and unresolved conflicts from the past.
- You will have some identity confusion as a result of this major loss and the fact that you are experiencing reactions that may be quite different than what you expected.
- You may have a lack of self-concern.
- You may experience grief spasms, acute upsurges of grief that occur suddenly with no warning.
- You may feel as if you are going crazy.
- You may be obsessed with the death and preoccupied with the deceased.
- You may find yourself acting socially in ways that are different than before. You may find that there are certain dates, events and stimuli that bring upsurges in grief.
- Others will have unrealistic expectations about your mourning and may respond inappropriately to you.
- Certain experiences later in life may temporarily resurrect intense grief.