1) Do Not Fight Grief.
Many people who are mourning resist acknowledging their grief. This makes perfect sense. Why would we want to think about something that is going to make us feel miserable? One common way of trying to block out grief is by keeping ourselves very busy. If we are constantly running from place to place we hardly have time to think about the things we have lost. Another thing that we tend to do if we are trying to deny grief is that we avoid any situation that might trigger it. This really limits our ability to live our lives to the fullest. Despite our best efforts to deny it, grief will pop up anyway but it will often take a less direct route. Once it goes underground, grief might appear in the form of physical symptoms. If you do not feel sad but are having headaches, chest pain, stomach aches (or any other physical symptom) it might be your grief, making an appearance, asking to be acknowledged.
2) Grieve In Your Own Way
Dr. Kubler-Ross popularized her five stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) in her work with dying patients. Over time, these stages began to be applied to the grieving survivors as well. I feel indebted to Dr. Kubler-Ross. When I first read her in college, I felt relieved. Finally, someone who acknowledges the need to speak about death openly! The Death and Dying class that I took was life changing and was by far my best college class, however, I left there thinking that all people who are dying (and all grievers) go through the five stages of grieving. In the intervening years, I have learned that this is not true. Perhaps, the most salient example, occurred when my mother discovered that she had metastatic colon cancer. While at times I thought that she seemed to be in denial, bargaining, angry, and depressed, what struck me the most is that she made a commitment to survive. She never accepted her death. On the contrary, she was determined to fight for her survival, and this is what she did every day until the moment she died. The lesson for us here is that although we can read what people have to offer about death and dying or grief and grieving, we have to listen to ourselves and do it our own way, whatever way that happens to be. Listening hard to ourselves will tell us where we need to go and what we need to do.
3) Write It Out
One of the best ways to process grief is by writing about it in a blog or a journal. They both have their benefits. A blog allows us to help others through our experience and helps us to feel less alone as people respond to us, while a journal (that should not be read by others) gives us a safe space to express and explore all of our feelings and thoughts without having to censor. Once we have written it out, we end up in a different position with regards to our grief. It is no longer so mysterious. It is no longer so powerful. Some people really do not like to write. Other ways of expressing ourselves are through drawing, painting, sculpting, praying, and making music. The medium is not all that important what is crucial is that we find a way to give voice to our grief. As William Shakespeare said in Macbeth, “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak, whispers the o’er fraught heart, and bids it break.”
4) Share Your Grief with A Safe Person
Once we are able to articulate our grief it is often helpful to find a “safe” person to speak with about it. I emphasize “safe” because one of the worst things that can happen is that you pick the wrong person and they keep shutting you down. I have had this happen several times. As soon as I started talking about my grief over my mother’s death, some of my friend’s said, “You have to be positive” or “She is in a better place.” I find this to be infuriating. Sometimes grief support groups can be helpful because this is a group of people who have all experienced the same thing, the loss of a loved one. Finally, some people decide to consult a therapist. Ideally, a competent therapist should be non-judgmental, caring, and should be able to help facilitate the exploration of grief. Henri Nouwen once said, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of confusion or despair, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not healing, not curing . . .that is a friend indeed.” This is what we are seeking, when we are grieving, a place to go where we can simply be ourselves, whoever we happen to be at that moment.
5) Take Good Care of Yourself
Grief is hard work. It takes a toll on our minds and our bodies. During this time it is important to take especially good care of ourselves. Be sure to get enough sleep (8-10 hours a night), eat a nutritious diet, drink a lot of filtered water, and get at least thirty minutes of exercise a day (with your physician’s permission).
6) Read Books or Articles About Grief
Some people find it to be comforting to read books about either other people’s experience of grief or about grief and recovery. I am developing a Resources page that I will be posting shortly. Here, I will list all of the books, movies, and songs that I have found to be helpful over the years. Do you know of any books on Death, Dying, or Grief that you have found to be helpful?
7) Memorialize the Deceased in Some Way
Many people report that they have found paying tribute to or memorializing their deceased loved one in some way to be healing. We can do this in all kinds of different ways. The athlete may run or bike while raising funds for a worthy cause in his or her loved one’s name. The writer might create a poem or a book as a tribute to the deceased. Some people prefer to make a collage out of pictures of their loved one. The philanthropist often contributes money to a worthy cause as a way to honor someone who is no longer alive. There are many ways to remember the dead. After my mother died, I felt compelled to research my family history to understand where I came from and to frame where I am going. I also wish that I had a garden. In it I would plant different flowers and bushes that my dead relatives loved. Whenever I would look out the window or tend to the flowers I would be reminded of my loved ones who are no longer physically with me. Do you memorialize the dead? If so, how? Does it feel helpful?
Back to Life, Back to Reality
Eventually, slowly, over time, part of “working through” grief has to do with getting back to our lives. Bit by bit we have to try to re-emerge from our grief cave. First, we should try to attend things that feel the most supportive to us. If there was something we really loved, perhaps a yoga or meditation class, we should try returning there first. If it goes well, then we can make this a part of our weekly routine again. If it just doesn’t feel right we can hold off and try again sometime in the future, or maybe it just is not a good fit anymore. A lot of people tell me that they feel most supported in a religious setting, a church service or something similar. There they gain both the support of the community and peace from the familiarity of both scripture and religious principles. Many other people, however, feel irritated and angry with God after the death of a loved one. Church is the last place that they want to be. At this point in the grieving process there are no “shoulds.” There is nothing that we “should do,” what we need to do is whatever will nourish our soul and our spirit. It does not matter what other people think is best for us, what is important is that we do what we want to do, that we do what is most healing for us.
9) Create a New Reality
After the death of my mother I kept having the image of myself putting on my hiking backpack and taking off with only what I could carry. The image felt liberating. It felt freeing to walk into the woods, leaving all of the suffering I had been experiencing behind. Of course, I did not do it but the idea that I could gave me comfort. What was this about? After someone close to us has died, nothing is the same. I think that sometimes we feel compelled to do radical things, indeed, we may need to do them, to close the chapter of our life with our now deceased loved one, and to usher in a new beginning. The deaths of important people in our lives place us in new roles and allow us the potential to develop a different kind of meaning in our lives. We have all heard of people who move, make renovations to the house, or get remarried shortly after the death of a spouse. Sometimes it has to do with filling a gap, an emptiness that was left by the deceased, but often it is a symbolic representation of a new life, a life without the mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, who was so very important to us. After the death of a loved one, did you discover that you were creating a new reality for yourself?
10) Maintain Bonds With Your Deceased Loved Ones Freud and many generations of clinicians after him taught that to keep an attachment to our dead loved ones was pathological. When I first heard this theory, this way of thinking puzzled me. Is it really possible to sever the connection with someone you love? Is it always pathological to keep an attachment? At times my connection to my dead father felt helpful. Thus, I set out to study more closely whether people remain bonded to loved ones after death, what forms these bonds take, and whether people find them to be helpful or hurtful.
In their groundbreaking book, Continuing Bonds, Klass, Silverman, and Nickman reported that both children and adults keep a connection with their deceased loved ones. They (1996) assert that it is “normative for mourner’s to maintain a relationship with the deceased” (p.18). The authors suggest that a process of adaptation takes place in the relationship after death whereby new connections with the deceased are constructed. Instead of emphasizing letting go of the deceased, they stress renegotiating the loss over time. They have come to view mourning as an ongoing “accommodation” in which the bereaved person will connect with the deceased person in different ways throughout his or her life.
Contrary to Freud’s belief that keeping a connection was “pathological,” in his book entitled Fatherloss, (2001) Neil Chethik observed that men who had maintained an internal relationship with their father’s after their father’s death were often most at peace with the loss. Chethik (2001) says, “Through this ongoing connection, these sons seemed to gradually work through any pain, anger, or regret. After that, they were free to focus on the appreciation they felt towards their father, to celebrate his life and their own” (246).
Thus, I reassure people that it is not necessarily unhealthy to maintain a bond with our dead loved ones. It is quite common for people to have conversations with people who have died or to keep some of their belongings. It is impossible to completely sever the tie to someone who lives on in our minds and hearts. Do you keep connections with your deceased relatives? If so, how?