Love and death are the two great hinges on which all human sympathies turn.
B. R. Hayden
Nothing rattles the range of human emotions so much as the death of someone you love. Beliefs about the afterlife aside, the finality of death is a blow that knocks the wind out of most and ushers in a period of struggle that can lead to a number of outcomes: destructive bitterness, apathetic paralysis, or deep personal growth. The hope, of course, is that people will grow through their grief, but those without a strong support system and a clear understanding of the long, difficult journey ahead may find themselves absolutely immobilized by the loss and unable to move ahead.
A good first step: throw away all expectations. Then, recognize that you must forge your own path through grief, and only you will know when that healing is complete, whether it’s months, years, or decades later.
Death is a natural part of life, but that certainly doesn’t make loss any easier. Use this resource guide to help you take the second step towards healing from grief, or to encourage/support someone you know who is facing this cumbersome process.
The Basics of Grief
Good grief, stop giving me grief, he can’t handle his grief – we hear it used in a number of ways, but according to Merriam-Webster, grief defined is:
- deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement b : a cause of such suffering
- an unfortunate outcome : disaster —used chiefly in the phrase come to grief b : mishap, misadventure c : trouble, annoyance <enough grief for one day> d : annoying or playful criticism <getting grief from his friends>
There are two main types of grief, say the folks at the Family Caregiver Alliance: Anticipatory grief occurs when a loved one dies of a terminal or prolonged illness, like cancer or Alzheimer’s. Family and friends in this case often feel guilty for hoping that death will come quickly if an illness/disease has caused great suffering, discomfort or diminished quality of life. While the loss is just as painful despite the fact that it was expected, loved ones in this scenario have the opportunity to identify and accommodate the final wishes of the dying person, say goodbyes, clear the air on any previous misunderstandings, and prepare emotionally for the separation.
Those impacted by sudden loss do not have that luxury; a car accident, heart attack, or some other natural/unnatural cause of death that is quick and strikes without warning means that the family and friends are left to grieve without having closure, People who lose a loved one suddenly are often plagued by guilt of a different kind: “I didn’t get to say goodbye!” or “The last thing I said to her was something harmful/mean!” or “I never told him how much I loved him.” Unresolved issues like these can haunt the living and impede their ability to move up and out of their grief if they don’t seek appropriate help.
Suicide is an especially difficult type of sudden loss because it leaves family and friends wishing they could have seen the signs and prevented such a heartbreaking end. After a suicide, loved ones are tormented by so many questions that sadly will remain unanswered.
Families of the shooting victims in the recent Tucson tragedy are dealing with sudden loss caused by the senseless, violent act of another human being, someone who didn’t even know his victims personally. In the same way as those who were lost on 9/11, this type of traumatic loss – outside the normal range of human experience – certainly provokes anger, rage, and a deep need for the satisfaction of justice. For resources that deal specifically with traumatic loss, check out:
Dig deeper into the basics of grief and loss:
AARP.org/Griefandloss – AARP has compiled a wonderful array of articles on dealing with debt after a death, starting conversations about the end of life, and even a piece on odd funeral requests.
Hospice.Net - Hospice.net offers a comprehensive directory of information on their site, broken down into sections with resources specific to caregivers, children, patients, those seeking hospice services, and those in bereavement.
Adec.org/CopingwithLoss – One of the oldest interdisciplinary organizations in its field, the Association of Death Education & Counseling, also known as The Thanatology Association, has a wide range of support services for the griever who visits their site, including a thanatologist directory (thanatologists are specialists in death & dying, bereavement & loss).
HospiceFoundation.org – On the “Grief” page of The Hospice Foundation of America’s website, visitors will find a basic definition of grief, a link to dozens of articles on the subject, and advice on how to search for local support groups, including a few links to national organizations that offer local services, like the National Alliance for Grieving Children and The Compassionate Friends (www.compassionatefriends.org).
HelpGuide.org – This is an excellent – and quite extensive – site with great articles, links to other useful resources, an emotional skills toolkit, a section on the difference between grief and depression, and much more.
The Complications of Grief
Death puts people on edge. In some families, it draws out the differences and disagreements that bubbled beneath the surface when that loved one was still living. For those who lose a spouse later in life, after children have left the nest, it exacts a deafening silence. Many feel the pressure to respond in a certain way, abiding by an unwritten rule that acceptance should come quickly and easily, that a positive perspective should somehow emerge overnight. Perhaps some consign that pressure on themselves, putting on a happy face because they feel it’s the right thing to do.
All of these reactions are normal, acceptable, human. There is no right or wrong way to respond to grief – no one should ever stop a child who is screaming or punching the wall, even if it upsets the adults – but there are things that those who are supporting a bereaved individual should and should not do, especially in terms of what to say.
What to Do, What NOT to Say
Aurora Winter (http://www.aurorawinter.com/), founder of the Grief Coach Academy and author of “From Heartbreak to Happiness”, recently responded to the Tucson tragedy with a piece on the top 10 best and worst things to say to someone grieving.
GriefWatch also offers a list of phrases to steer clear of when speaking to someone struggling with loss: http://www.griefwatch.com/info/what_to_say.htm.
Here’s a well-done, practical piece on helping someone through grief, including things you can actively do to support a friend or loved one in need (besides just offering words of comfort): http://helpguide.org/mental/helping_grieving.htm.
The Stages of Grief
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – we have the legendary Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to thank for outlining these stages of grief in her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying, which was published in 1969. The Kübler-Ross model continues to be widely used as a means for measuring one’s progress through the grief journey, a good foundation for those who are newly grieving and those who are encountering loss again.
You might spend more time in the bargaining phase; your spouse may spend more time in the denial phase. There is nothing wrong with that; never rush anyone – or yourself – through the stages of grief. Not everyone goes through these stages in linear fashion either, and that’s fine too. They are a guideline, a means for framing the grief experience. Read more about them at: http://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/.
The Symptoms of Grief
There are viable, identifiable physical, emotional, and spiritual symptoms of grief. Read more about them at these sites:
The stress of grief can certainly take a toll on your body, so it is important to be aware of these symptoms and talk to a professional if you feel that your health is at risk.
One of the most difficult and complex aspects of grief, particularly in a traumatic situation like a car accident, is survivor’s guilt. While there may not be recognizable physical manifestations of its effects, guilt, if not properly dealt with, can severely affect one’s overall health.
Read up on the subject with these resources:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41028116/ns/health-mental_health/ – This fascinating piece explores the extremely complex grief and guilt experienced by the family members whose loved ones provoked the suffering of others: the difficult burden shouldered by the parents and family of the Arizona shooter and the Columbine shooters are highlighted in this article.
http://www.healingheart.net/articles/grief_stages/stages_guilt.html – A basic overview of the stages of guilt from an organization called Healing Hearts.
http://www.4therapy.com/consumer/conditions/article/9382/115/Survivor+Guilt – In addition to this and other helpful articles, the site 4therapy.com connects visitors to a number of great resources like support groups and treatment centers.
http://www.alz.org/national/documents/topicsheet_griefmournguilt.pdf – This article covers grief, mourning and guilt after losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s/dementia.
The Treatment of Grief
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, really. Sure, there are approaches that aren’t the best, like retreating into alcoholism or depression, or lashing out in anger at the ones you love, as if they are somehow to blame. But a bout of depression may come, and that is an entirely normal reaction. It’s all about how you handle it, how you move through it, how you eventually overcome it…and the key word there is YOU.
No one can tell you how to grieve. People will definitely try, and some may even give you worthwhile advice on the matter. At the end of the day though, it’s about what works best for you, and because we’re all unique individuals, what works will look different for everyone.
Peruse this list of suggestions for healing activities:
- Join a support group – Check out http://griefnet.org/ for online support groups, and the aforementioned Hospice Foundation of America’s site http://www.hospicefoundation.org/ for links to organizations that offer support groups in the community. You can call a local hospice agency (find one here) for referrals to support groups & services too.
- Consider art therapy – Tap into your creative side. Keep a journal of your grief experience. Listen to music that soothes or inspires you. Take a painting class, and take your anger – or your sorrow – out on the canvas. Stop by http://www.art4healing.org/ and http://www.arttherapyblog.com/schools/ to find programs near you.
- Do good for others – If helping others will help you to heal, explore the volunteer opportunities near and far on www.volunteermatch.org or www.idealist.org.
- Join a local sports league – Staying active through sports is a great way to heal from the pain of grief and maintain good health too. Visit www.findsportsnow.com or www.active.com to search for a league/team that plays your favorite sport.
- Explore alternative treatments – check out AlternativesforHealing.com for an extensive directory of holistic treatments like yoga, meditation, reiki, acupuncture and feng shui – and find providers in your area who offer these healing services. Find a certified massage therapist at MassageTherapy.com; allow the healing power of touch to work out the stress of grief in your body.
- Meet with a counselor – Browse a comprehensive directory of professional therapists by city/zip. You can also search by specialty/area of focus at PsychologyToday.com. To browse a directory of thanatologists (a professional with specialized education/certification in dying, death and bereavement), visit ADEC.org.
Above all, give yourself time; never rush through the process. Keep in mind that healing, whether 10 months or 10 years later, doesn’t mean the end of missing that loved one. Many people are afraid to let go of their grief because they feel guilty for moving on. Don’t make that mistake. You will always think of that person, always miss them. Death is a natural part of life, and perhaps the most difficult challenge that humans face, but you can’t hide behind your sadness forever.
Please share any resources we may have missed – organizations, services, or activities – that helped you in your struggle through grief; we’d love to hear your suggestions!