by Dr. Sue Ludwig
Losing someone or something you love is one of the most difficult things we can face. When a loved one dies, you may experience all kinds of difficult and surprising emotions, such as shock, anger, and guilt. Sometimes it may feel like the sadness will never let up. You may feel like you are never going to cope, or like you are going crazy! While these feelings can be frightening and overwhelming, they are usually normal reactions to loss. The good news is you will heal in time. The bad news is you will have to hurt and experience the feelings to heal.
Grief is an emotion we feel when we lose someone. We don’t get over it, we get through it. And, it differs for every person. There is no right or wrong way to “get through it”. There is no “correct” amount of time that it takes to grieve. We can feel hurt, sadness, confusion, exhaustion, numbness, disbelief, guilt, regret, anger, anxiety about the future, worry about coping, or even relief. Our body will feel the pain too. We may not be able to eat, sleep or concentrate. The grieving process is personal and individual. Each person will face it differently. Grief will never really “go away”. There will always be the memory of the person you have lost. There will be times the pain will diminish and times you will feel the grief return. Grief is like waves on a river. The waves become higher when certain events occur such as birthdays, special holidays, anniversaries, etc.
What will help you cope?
Allan Wolfelt (2014), an expert in grief, identified six needs of the mourning. The first one is that we need to acknowledge the reality of the death. Often the death is very painful and we may try to push away that reality to help cope. An important part of mourning is the memories, both good and bad. Talking about the death will make it more real.
The second need is embracing the pain of the loss. Wolfelt (2014) writes, “Unfortunately, our culture tends to encourage the denial of pain. If you openly express your feelings of grief, misinformed friends may advise you to carry on or keep your chin up. If, on the other hand, you remain strong and in control, you may be congratulated for doing well with your grief. Actually, doing well with your grief means becoming well acquainted with your pain.” (p.1) We may want to avoid those feelings. However, we need to confront the pain to heal.
The third need is remembering the person who died. Memories, mementos, pictures, etc., all help you remember the person. Others may think they are being helpful when they tell you to put away pictures, or even move to change your environment so that you do not have to face the memories of the person every day. But Wolfelt notes you need to remember the past to be able to move forward.
The fourth need is to develop a new self-identity. When someone who was part of your self-identity dies, the way you see yourself changes. You are no longer a spouse, a parent, a sibling or a child, depending on who died. You may have to take on new roles and responsibilities. You may not be a part of a couple now and start to feel like a “fifth wheel”. You need to develop your “new normal” and redefine yourself. Self-compassion is needed as your take this journey.
Wolfelt describes the fifth need as the need to search for meaning. When someone close dies, you naturally start to question a lot of things. “Why” did this happen? “Is there a God”? “Life is not fair”. You now must live without this person and start to think it’s not possible. You feel like part of you died and it’s hard to find meaning in the emptiness. You may start to question your faith. This is all part of the grief process.
The sixth need is to receive ongoing support from others. You cannot undertake the grief process alone and need quality interactions with others. People do not always understand this. To avoid the uncomfortable feelings, they may encourage you to “move on” or “keep busy”. They may also give you non-verbal cues that it is not okay to talk about the person or the death. They might feel they are protecting you by not bringing up the sadness. You may start to feel guilty bringing it up. What they need to know from you is that you need to be heard and they don’t need to “fix” you. That is your responsibility with their help.
There is hope. One of the best things you can do for yourself other than talking about your grief is to have some selfcompassion. Compassion is about having understanding and acceptance for others. When we are grieving we often experience so many conflicting and negative feelings and we become more self-critical. It is common to blame ourselves, second guess ourselves and even get angry at ourselves for “not getting better faster”, etc. Self-compassion is about being human and frail, and accepting of all that it entails. If you catch yourself evaluating how well you are grieving, remember that grief is messy. It isn’t supposed to be quick or easy. And there is no right way to do it. Your grief is as unique as the relationship you have with the person that died. When you find you are self-critical, practice being your own best friend. Treat yourself as you would a friend.
Reference: Wolfelt, Alan D. (2014). The Journey Through Grief: The Six Needs of Mourning. Center for Loss and Life Transition. centerforloss. com/2016/12/journey-grief-six-needs-mourning