Coping with Grief


The death of someone close to us throws us into a sea of chaotic feelings. Sometimes the waves of emotions seem powerful enough to threaten our very survival; sometimes they feel relentless and never-ending; sometimes they quiet down only to arise months or even years later when we least expect them. Grief is not something we ever really "get over." Our loss remains a fact for a lifetime. Nothing about grief's journey is simple; there is no tide progression of stages and its course is long and circular. While there is no clear road map, there are some features common to almost everyone's experience. Some of the dimensions presented below may be dealt with in a natural healing process, requiring time, attention, and hard work and lots of loving care.


Even if death is expected, you may feel numb or anesthetized. Your actions may be mechanical and you may get things done (for example, handle all the funeral details) but you are not "all there". People around you may be saying, "Isn't he strong?" or, "She's handling this so well." The impact or reality of the death has not fully reached you. This period of shock is a way your psyche has of protecting you, allowing reality in slowly. If the loss is sudden, unexpected or violent, the period of numbness may be longer.


The period of shock has worn off and, without this cushion, reality can be acutely painful. As the impact gradually dawns on you, conflict may arise about whether to show grief or not to show it. How much and for how long? You might try to keep up a good front or remain strong, even through you may feel like crying or screaming. If people are praising you for being so brave and not "falling apart", do you dare show them how you really feel? This is a time when emotional release is important and should be encouraged. Concealing painful feelings may prolong the grief process and increase physical and emotional distress. At this point, other mourners can help ;support your expression of grief.


Somethings, even before the funeral, the third stage of loneliness, isolation, and depression begins. The funeral is the focus for realizing that your loved one is really gone. Family and friends can be helpful and consoling, but after the funeral the prevailing attitude is "it's all over". The supportive people in your life may disappear. After the funeral, you may suffer a second major loss: everyday contact with your loved one. For a man this might mean no home-cooked meals, coming home to an empty house, no welcome home greeting. Even if your loved one has been sick for a long time, you no longer have hospital visits to make. Your entire routine of daily living has been shattered. You are alone, suddenly overcome by an utter sense of depression and despair. It is important at this point to have people in your life who can validate the magnitude of you loss.


Questions that may come up for you: What am I going to do? What's going to happen to me? How can I get along without her? Will I lose my friends? You may develop the same type of physical symptoms your loved one had. Example: If she had a heart attack, you now may chest pains. Anxiety and stress may bring with it such physical symptoms as shortness of breath, insomnia, headaches, backaches or an upset stomach. During the entire grief process, you need to take especially good care of your body; you are vulnerable and may need a lot more rest. You may want to see your physician for a physical examination.


You may have trouble concentrating on anything but the loss. You may feel something is wrong with you if you wonder: I can't get thoughts out of my mind, won't they ever stop? Sometimes I think I see them. Sometimes I feel their touch. Sometimes I hear their voice. I've got to do something. I can't sleep. I can't eat. All I do is thing about them. Will it ever stop hurting? Will I ever stop dreaming about them? As a bereaved person, you need to know this does not mean you are going crazy. This is a normal part of the grieving process.


When faced with real or imagined guilt, you may begin asking questions like: What did I do wrong? What if I stayed awake, hadn't gone to work, kissed them, showed I loved them? These questions may indicate guilt, which needs to be brought to the surface and hopefully shared with a non-judgmental listener (or in a diary). Partial or complete interruption of the grief process at this time can cause severe depression and/or suicide.


In conjunction with a emerging from the feelings of guilt, you may experience hostility. Maybe you are hostile to people whom you perceived contributed to your problem. Example: To the physician: Why didn't he do something? Why didn't he get there in time? Did he do everything he could? You may be experiencing anger at friends who draw away from you or seem to belittle your loss with well-meaning but clumsy remarks. You may be furious with God or fate for taking away your loved one.


This is a time when you may suffer in silence. You might feel fatigued, worn out and unable to get started in any activity. Your thought processes are involved with the loss, emptiness and loneliness, but you may no longer want to talk about it. You recognize that others expect you to stop grieving. Tears, anger, frustrations, or depression are poorly tolerated by others several weeks after the funeral. Except for the initial loss, this stage is the hardest. YOU, THE BEREAVED PERSON, FEEL ALL ALONE. You may have feelings of "not wanting to go on" and then shock or guilt for having such thoughts. This is a period when you are recreating meaning in life, and it takes time. Anger is very normal human emotion and it is important to uncork your bottle and find appropriate ways to release those feelings of "What I'm going through is so unfair." Why did it have to happen to them; he/she was a good person? Talking about it and physical activity both help keep anger from burning inside.


(Normal components of grief)


Your adjustment to a new status in life gradually occurs while working through this grief period. There can be a noticeable change as early as four weeks to three months, but often it is longer. By the end of this phase there is considerable brightening of mood, more activity, and the beginning of reestablishment with people.


The acute phase is normally completed in three months, but it does vary. Readjustment continues for at least two or three years. Because traditional symbols of grief, such as the black veil or clothing or arm band, are out of style, many times it is easy for others to forget you are grieving. When you are beginning to restructure your life without your loved one, you may want to take a vacation, a trip, or try a new activity or even take up an old activity you liked. Occasionally, you may feel twinges of guilt as you begin to enjoy yourself or laugh; as though you are somehow betraying the memory of your lost loved one. It is helpful to be aware of guilt feelings that get in the way of readjustment. It is also helpful to recognize that wedding anniversaries, birthdays, or the anniversary of the date of death which may cause a temporary flood of feelings coming back. This is the short versionfor a grief process. All this is normal and does not mean that you will be or remain in acute pain, forever.


Adapted from Good Grief, by Granger Westberg.

Grief is a natural, human experience we all go through. Each grief journey is unique.
Reaching out to others for support and being kind to our own self can help us to survive the pain.

Crollman, Earl A., Living When a Loved One Has Died. Boston: Beacon Press, 1977 *

Kries, Bernadine, and Pattie, Alioe. Up From Grief. New York: Seabury Press, 1978

Tatelbaum, Judy, The Courage to Grieve. New York: Lippincott & Crowel, Pub. 1980

Westberg, Granger E. Good Grief. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977 *

All of the above books are supportive and helpful. The ones marked with

(*) are particularly short and easy to read.


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