Helping Yourself Heal When Someone Dies

 

"The experience of grief is powerful. So, too, is your ability to help yourself heal. In doing the work of grieving, you are moving toward a renewed sense of meaning and purpose in your life."

Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt
Center for Loss and Life Transition


Solving AnxietyAllow Yourself to Mourn

Someone you love has died. You no longer have the joy of being with and talking with that person. You now have the essential need to mourn your loss. According to Dr. Wolfelt, noted author, educator, and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, "Mourning is an open expression of your thoughts and feelings regarding the death and the person who has died. It is an essential part of healing."


Realize Your Grief is Unique

No one will grieve in the same way as you do. No one can understand exactly how you feel. Your mourning experience will be influenced by many things, including the relationship you had with the person who died, how the person died, and your cultural and religious background.

Because of your special circumstances, you will grieve in your own special way. Do not try to compare yourself to other people or try to adapt yourself to someone else's notion of how long your grief should last.


Express Your Grief Openly

Healing begins when you share your grief. Ignoring your pain will not make it go away. Often, you will feel better when you talk to someone. Dr. Wolfelt says, "Allow yourself to speak from your heart, not just your head. Doing so doesn't mean you are losing control, or going 'crazy.' It is a normal part of your grief journey."

Spend time with friends and relatives who care about you and your feelings. Find people who will listen to you without judging. Avoid people who are critical of how you are handling yourself and your mourning process. Stay away from those who try to steal your grief from you. You may hear people say things like "Keep your chin up," "Carry on," or "Be happy." These people do not realize how hurtful these trite comments are. They may be uncomfortable with the fact that you are suffering. They want you to be back to normal as quickly as possible. According to Dr. Wolfelt, "While these comments may be well-intended, you do not have to accept them. You have a right to express your grief; no one has the right to take it away."


Expect to Feel a Variety of Emotions

You may feel anger, fear, guilt, relief, and confusion simultaneously. Your loss affects every part of you, so you are likely to feel a multitude of emotions. Allowing yourself to experience and learn from these emotions is an important part of your grief work.

These emotions are normal and healthy. You should not be surprised or concerned if you experience sudden, strong feelings of grief. "Grief attacks" can come at unexpected times and in inconvenient situations. You may see or hear something that reminds you of the person who died, or a painful thought may seem to come from out of nowhere. These experiences may be frightening and overwhelming. However, they are a natural response to the loss of someone you love. Try to find someone who can understand your painful feelings and will let you talk freely about them.


Allow for Numbness.

In the early part of your grief experience you may feel dazed or numb. This feeling of numbness right after the death of the person you love has a valuable purpose. It helps your emotions catch up with the difficult news your mind has told you. It insulates you from the hard reality of what has happened until you are better able to tolerate it.


Accept Your Physical and Emotional Limits.

Your mourning process will probably leave you feeling exhausted. You may find it difficult to think clearly and make decisions. Your energy is likely to be lower and you will feel like you are slowing down. Respect what your body is telling you. Be kind to yourself. Get good rest. Eat healthy meals. Lighten your schedule and reduce your responsibilities if possible. Taking care of yourself is not the same as feeling sorry for yourself. It means you know how to survive.


Develop a Support System.

When you are in pain it is difficult to reach out to others for help. But the best thing you can do for yourself is to form an emotional support system of caring friends and relatives who will be able to give you the understanding you need. Spend time with people who encourage you to be yourself and share your feelings.


Make Use of Ritual.

A ritual such as a memorial service or funeral will do more than acknowledge the death of the person you love. It will also help you be aware of the support and sympathy of caring people. The knowledge that other people join you in your grief and also mourn the loss of your loved one can be very helpful. According to Dr. Wolfelt, "If you eliminate this ritual, you often set yourself up to repress your feelings and you cheat everyone who cares for a chance to pay tribute to someone who was, and always will be, loved." You may also find it comforting to visit the burial site regularly, whenever you feel the need to have some peaceful time alone with your thoughts.


Express Your Spirituality.

If faith in a higher power is part of your life, express it in ways that feel comfortable to you. Spend time with friends who respect and support your beliefs. Dr. Wolfelt suggests, "If you are angry at God because of the death of someone you loved, realize this feeling as a normal part of your grief work. Find someone to talk with who won't be critical of whatever thoughts and feelings you need to explore."

It is possible that you will hear someone say, "If you have faith, there is no reason to grieve." You do not need to believe this. While your personal faith can be a great comfort to you, it does not prevent you from needing to talk and explore your feelings. If you try to suppress your grief, problems will build up inside you. Faith and grief can exist simultaneously. A deep conviction that you will see the person you love again does not insulate you from missing the person now.


Search for Meaning.

If you find yourself asking, "Why did he (or she) have to die?" "Why this way?" or "Why now?" be assured that you are experiencing another normal part of the healing process. Some of your questions have answers. Most do not. Fortunately, healing occurs by asking questions, not necessarily by answering them. Spend time with a supportive friend or relative who is willing to help you in your search for meaning. By posing and contemplating questions you may come up with theories or explanations that are helpful to you.


Enjoy Your Memories.

Treasure your memories. They are a legacy to the person who died. Write them down in a diary, a little at a time. Do not be concerned about writing with perfect grammar or style. And do not worry about getting all your thoughts in the proper order. Just write things down as you think of them. Feel free to combine recent memories with things that happened many years ago. Share your memories with your family and friends. Be willing to let your memories make you laugh or cry. Look through old photo albums for favorite pictures of the person. If you like, keep favorite belongings of your loved one out where you can see them.


Embrace Your Grief and Heal.

As Dr. Wolfelt says, "The capacity to love requires the necessity to grieve when someone you love dies." It is impossible to heal unless you are willing to express your grief. Suppressing it will make it more overwhelming. Move toward your grief. It is evidence of your love.

Understand that this process will not happen quickly. Be patient with yourself. The death of someone you love changes your life permanently. You will be happy again. You will even have happy times in the midst of your deepest mourning. But you will never be exactly the same as you were before the death.


Suggested Reading

  • Bozarth-Campbell, Alla, Life is Goodbye, Life is Hello. Minneapolis: Comp Care Publishers, 1986.
    Dr. Alla Bozarth-Campbell, and Episcopal priest and therapist, writes this profound and beautiful book from the knowledge of her own personal losses. She shows us the ways in which we can become agents of our own healing process instead of "victims" of our grief.
  • Campbell & Silverman, Widower: When Men are Left Alone. New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1987.
    A journalist and a psychologist explore and analyze the grief process as men experience it, with first hand accounts.
  • Deits, Bob, Life after Loss. Tucson: Fisher Books, 1988.
    A positive approach to dealing with the death of a loved one, divorce, relocation, job loss or change. Includes exercises.
  • Donnelly, Katherine, Recovering From the Loss of a Parent. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 1987.
    This journalist and authority in the field of bereavement presents interviews with adult sons and daughters who have suffered the loss of either or both parents.
  • Gravelle, Karen & Charles Haskins, Teenagers Face to Face with Bereavement. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Julian Messner, 1989.
    This book presents interviews with eighteen bereaved teenagers. It provides practical, caring advice for coping with death.
  • Grollman, Earl A., Living When a Loved One Has Died. Boston: Beacon Press, 1977.
    A gentle and compassionate aid to confront death and lead us to a hopeful future.
  • James & Cherry, Grief Recovery Handbook. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
    A step-by-step program for moving beyond loss. Developed by the founders of the Grief Recovery Institute in Los Angeles.
  • Lewis, C.S., A Grief Observed. New York: Bantam Books, 1963.
    C.S. Lewis, the brilliant and distinguished scholar, author and essayist, writes of doubts, rage, sorrow, and rediscovered faith which followed the death of his beloved wife, Joy Davidman.
  • Miller, William, When Going to Pieces Holds You Together. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976.
    This author describes the various dimensions of the grief experience. He points out that "going to pieces" in not only natural but may be the very thing that "holds you together" as you do the work of grief.
  • Rubin, Theodore, Angry Book. New York: Macmillan, 1969.
    Short chapters examining all types of anger with the premise that recognizing honest anger is good for you.
  • Staudacher, Carol, Beyond Grief. Oakland: New Harberger Publications, 1987.
    A guide for reconciling to the death of a loved one. It includes sections on the death of a spouse, the death of a parent, the death of a child, and the experiences of death during childhood.
  • Tatelbaum, Judy, The Courage to Grieve. New York: Hayser and Row, 1984.
    A compassionate book which strives to enable the reader to understand grief and the importance of mourning as a "stepping stone to renewed growth, and even transformation."
  • Westberg, Granger, E., Good Grief. Philadelphia: Hortress Press, 1962.
    his concise, easy to read book describes the grief experience and stresses the importance of expressing grief.

 

References

"Bereavement, A Magazine of Hope and Healing." Bereavement Publishing, 350 Grand Drive, Carmel IN 46032.

"Thanatos," P.O. Box 6009 Tallahassee, FA 32314.



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