Life Beyond Loss: picking up the pieces and facing the emotions of grief.
By Dr. Kenneth J. Doka
*I found this pamphlet guide very helpful after the loss of my parent and I wanted to share this with everyone who has lost someone close to them. I credit this blog to Dr. Doka and give him full credit for this wonderful work to get you through the tough times.
Over the past several years, many volumes have been published on the subject of grief and grief therapy. The time immediately following the death of a loved on and extending over a period of several weeks or even months has proven to be one of the most difficult to cope with in one’s lifetime.
The author’s intention with “Life Beyond Loss” was to develop a condensed therapeutic guide identifying the problem areas of grief recovery and to offer constructive suggestions using personal experiences others have encountered. It is hoped that the thoughts presented will offer the reader a source of comfort and a better understanding of “Life Beyond Loss”.
Life Beyond Loss:
Life Beyond Loss-The very title seems to contradiction in terms. Even now as the shock of the loss recedes and the pain wells, it is so difficult to contemplate, to think about life without that person. Yet, we do live and with the life comes that long, difficult, painful process of fining and developing life beyond loss. But we know too that is has to be done.
Perhaps this booklet will help. There is no way that the words here can erase the loss experienced. The author once spoke at a group for newly bereaved persons. After the group session finished, members handed in their comments. One poignant evaluator expressed that so well. Under ‘weakness’ the person wrote, “It didn’t bring me back my husband.” Whatever’s said here can not restore that loss or end that pain.
But it can help us understand that loss. And sometimes that helps because it makes us feel we are not so alone-that the feelings and reactions we’ve experienced, each in our own individual and unique ways are not so strange and isolating. And that understanding can assist in working through that long and painful process of grief. And perhaps this booklet can offer hope. Hope that here really may be, can be life beyond loss.
What is Grief?
Whenever we face loss, we experience grief. The responses that we have as we grieve are very unique and individual. Each of us responds differently to loss. And we may even experiences different reactions as we face different kinds of losses. Our reactions to grief can include physical symptoms, feelings, thoughts and behaviors.
Sometimes we may feel grief physically. We may experience all types of physical symptoms. These can include such things as headaches, nausea, insomnia, tenseness, exhaustion, menstrual irregularities, loss of appetite, pains and sensitivity to noise. Sometimes the physical symptoms may have a direct reaction to loss. For example, it is not unusual for mothers who have suffered the loss of their newborn infants to experience pains in their arms, womb or breasts. Other times there may be no evident connection.
Should one experience physical symptoms following a significant loss, it is important to have those symptoms checked by a physician who understands grief. In many cases those symptoms may be a reaction to loss that will diminish as the person begins to resolve grief. For example, one woman experienced tremors and shakes following the sudden death of her husband. Neurological and medical tests found nothing.
As she worked with a grief counselor, she recognized that she had experienced these shakes in the past in times of great anger. When she began to realize how angry she was at the death of her husband, her tremors ceased. But while many physical symptoms may be manifestations of grief, it is wise to carefully monitor them. Grief is a stressful experience and stress can adversely affect health. Having your symptoms checked by an understanding physician who is aware of your grief, can both provide peace of mind and promote good physical health.
Many times too we experience grief emotionally. We may experience all kinds as we face loss. Anger, for example, is a common and natural reaction to loss. Someone we love and care about has been taken from us. That loss may then create a deep sense of powerlessness and rage. We may be angry at God or the universe for this unfair act. We may be angry at the person who died for leaving us so miserable. And we may express that anger and rage, taking it out on others around us.
This can be the problem of anger. For awhile anger is a normal and understandable reaction to loss. It can also create additional problems. Anger can isolate us from others at the very time we need their support. We need then to recognize that anger and to deal with it in constructive ways.
Another common reaction to loss is guilt. We can experience guilt in so many ways. Sometimes we feel guilty because we believe we may have caused or contributed to the death. We are haunted by the “if onlys.” “If only I had made him stop smoking,” “If only I forbade him to go to the party.” Sometimes we feel guilty because we believe we are morally responsible-that God is punishing us for something we had done.
When I worked as a Chaplain in a pediatric cancer ward, amy parents experienced this kind of guilt. They were haunted by the image that God was punishing them through their child for some long ago secret sin. Sometimes we may experience ‘role’ guilt. We regret that we weren’t a better husband, wife, parent, child or friend. We can also experience survivor guilt, a feeling that we should have died instead of the decreased. And we may feel guilty over our grief-feeling bad that we are not doing better or concerned and guilty that we are doing too well.
We may have other feelings as well. Loss can heighten our sense of vulnerability, creating anxiety. One mother whose teenagers died of an aneurysm during sleep told me that in the weeks following her son’s death, she would repeatedly wake up, unable to fall back to sleep until she had checked each of her sleeping children. Sadness and depression, too are common reactions.
Sometimes we may even experience a sense of relief or emancipation. If someone has suffered long and we’ve experienced the long stresses of repeated hospitalizations, we may feel relieved that the ordeal is over and feel a sense that a burden is lifted. Sometimes too a death can free us from other concerns or fears. Perhaps an inheritance has eased financial worries or a death has relieved the fears of a long, protracted illness. These feelings of relief too are natural though they may trouble us and cause guilt.
Grief is often full of these feelings. And like many stressful times in our lives, we may struggle with many contradictory and confused emotions simultaneously. Think of the times when a child or someone you love is very late. Frequently we experience a hive of feelings-anger, guilt, anxiety, sadness-all at the same time, Greif, too, is a time when we may have to cope with kinds of intense feelings and emotions.
We also may have to cope with our own thoughts and cognitive reactions as we respond to loss. For example, we may become preoccupied, confused, disoriented or unable to concentrate. It is no unusual that our work, whether it be at home, at school or in the office can suffer.We may have a hard time believing the loss, constantly rehearsing the events and circumstances in our mind.
We may search for the meaning of life and death of the deceased. We try hard to understand why this person lived as he or she did and died as he or she did. It may become very important for us to understand the contribution and purpose of the deceased’s life. We may idealize the person who died emphasizing on the positive attributes, ignoring all the negative. While this, too is natural and understandable, it can inhibit the resolution of grief and create strains with that standard of perfection.
Sometimes too we may have a sense of the deceased’s presence or even an experience in which we believe we have seen, smelled heard or touched the deceased. One mother whose daughter died recounted that she smelled the perfume that she had buried with her young daughter as she entered her late daughter’s room. Many bereaved have reported such experiences. Once assured that they are not unusual or evidence of mental illness, most find them comforting.
All of these are normal, natural ways in which we respond to lost and all of these reactions are uniquely individual. No person experiences grief the exact same way as another. And even different losses may generate different responses.
You see each loss is as unique as the individual relationship we had with the person who died. First of all, the relationships themselves are different. The loss of a spouse is different from the loss of a friend, child parent or sibling-not necessarily easier or harder to resolve-just different. Rabbi Earl Grollman once said that when we lose a parent, we lose our past. When we lose a spouse, we lose our present. And when we lose a child, we lose a future. It is a point well made. Each loss id different.
Not only is the relationship different in each role, but also in quality. We do not have the same relationship with each of our siblings or with each of our children. Each relationship is unique and distinctly mourned. Some relationships are more ambivalent than others. That is that they have mixed elements-of things we like about the person and things we dislike. Often relationships are more dependent. Some more intense.
Then too the way people die is different and that too affects our grieving. Often deaths that are very sudden or follow long, painful illnesses, create problems for resolving grief. Grieving a suicide or homicide is different from a normal death.
Sometimes the circumstances as well as the cause can create special issues for survivors. In one case, I knew a man who had great difficulty in resolving the loss of his parent, in part because it happened on a day when he was skiing and was unreachable.
Not only are relationships and circumstances different. We are different too. Each of us has his own unique personality and his own individual ways of coping. Some people are better able to cope than others. And we all cope in different ways with a crisis. Some people will bury themselves in work, seeking diversion. Some will want to talk; others will avoid conversation.
Sometimes aspects our background will affect our grieving. We all belong to varied ethnic and religious groups, each with its own beliefs and rituals about death. Sometimes these rituals, customs and beliefs will facilitate our grieving. Other times they may complicate it. For example, perhaps our religious beliefs provide comfort that the person is in heaven or at peace. Different gender roles, males or females, can affect our grieving. Men, for example maybe more reluctant to cry or show emotion.
Our situations may be different as well. It is harder to resolve grief if we are simultaneously dealing with all kinds of other crises in our lives. It is harder to deal with the stress of grief if our health is poor. It is harder to cope with loss if friends and family are unavailable or unsupportive.
Note only is grief a unique individual process; it is a long, time consuming one as well. I have found it helpful to describe grief as a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, highs and lows. Like many roller coasters, the ride tends to be rougher in the beginning, the lows deeper and longer. Gradually though, over time, the highs and lows become less intensive.
Often holidays, special day and the anniversary of the death are the low times. Holidays and special days such as birthdays are days heavily invested with memories. It is natural that the pain of the loss would be keen. The anniversary of the death too is often a low point. Here the season and weather remind one of the time of loss. And each date-the anniversary of hospitalization, the day of death, the date of the funeral may have its own significance.
And it does take time to resolve grief. Often the popular misconception of grief is that people would get over their losses in a relatively short period of time-perhaps a few months or a year at best. The reality through is very different. Psychologists and sociologist who have studied grief tell us that it often takes years to get over the loss. And each date-the anniversary of hospitalization, the day of death, the date of the funeral may have its own significance.
And it does take time to resolve grief. Often the popular misconception of grief is that people would get over their losses in a relatively short period of time-perhaps a few months or a year at best. The reality though is very different. Psychologists and sociologists who have studied grief tell us that it often takes years to get over a loss. Again, the roller coaster analogy may help us understand that it is normal and natural to experience low points even a few years after a loss. Hopefully they will be less intense and shorter as time goes by.
Grief and the Family:
This discussion of the individuality of grief reactions and they general pattern of bereavement may also help us to understand that individual members of a family may grieve in different ways. I have often found that the bereaved are often troubled when they compare their reactions to others in their families.
There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, others may have a different experience of loss. Each member of a family has had his own special and highly personal loss. The circumstances, the relationship with the decreased are all experienced differently by each member.
Secondly, each member of a family has its own individual ways of coping. No one reacts to crisis and loss in the same way. As we said earlier, one member of a family may wish to visit the grave while another finds it painful.
Thirdly, the symptoms or patterns of grief can differ. One member of a family may respond with deep feelings of guilt while another one bristles with anger. Or perhaps one family member feels low while in another the cycle of depression begins to lift.
Sometimes these different ways of reacting and responding can create conflicts within families. For sometimes our individual responses to loss can complicate rather than help another’s grief. For example, in one family that had just lost a child, the father reacted by plunging into work while the mother felt a more troubled that her brother, whose grief seemed intense, loved their mother more.
If the reactions of another are troubling your own grief, it’s sometimes helpful to recognize that we can never really know or fell the unique pain that someone is experiencing. It also helps to realize that we do feel and cope differently and that these ways of feeling or coping have little to do with the intensity of our love for the deceased.
When families face these problems, communication and compromise are the keys as they are for so many of life’s other conflicts. Perhaps we have not communicated our needs clearly to each other. Or perhaps we have not seen solutions since we are are so burdened by pain. One family for example, had a huge conflict over whether or not they should have a Christmas tree the first Christmas after the father’s death. They later decided that instead of a large natural tree, the usual custom, they would have at least for this year, a small artificial one. In cases where the very experiences of grief impede the communication and compromise, counseling can often help break the impasse.
What Helps When it Hurts? Resolving Grief:
The work of grieving is one of the hardest tasks an individual has to do. Patricia Murphy, a leading grief counselor, once described the work of grieving as one of the hardest tasks an individual has to do. It is very difficult. Building a relationship with someone takes years of effort. Letting go too involves similar effort. Resolving grief, then, is a long complicated process that involves work at a variety of levels-emotional, intellectual and behavioral. Generally, grief counselors remind us that resolving grief then involves a number of tasks.
Accepting the Reality of Loss:
Often when a death first occurs, we can’t or don’t wish to believe it. We feel it’s a bad dream. We believe that the deceased will walk through the door. that life will return to a normal pattern again.
Often the first sign of recovery is the ability to recognize that a loss has occurred. This doesn’t mean that we are ready to emotionally accept the loss or to adjust to life without the person. It only means that we intellectually realize that the loss has occurred, that a person we love has died.
Often funeral rituals are effective in helping us accept reality. The time of the funeral, the somber break in routines, the rituals themselves, all are vivid reminders that a loss has occurred.
It also helps to talk freely about the decreased. Often you may find yourself repeating the details and circumstances of the death. This, too, can be healthy. For it can be a way for the reality of that death to seep into our consciousness.
Facing the Emotions of Grief:
This task is often one of the hardest. Grief is by its very nature, an emotionally wrenching experience filled with all kinds of vivid and contradictory feelings. In order to resolve grief we have to understand and work through these difficult emotions.
This may involve many things. Again it often helps just to talk to pour your feelings out with someone who can listen patiently and understandingly. Because this is often difficult for family and friends who may it painful or wish to stop the pain, it can sometimes help to talk with clergy, counselors or within self-help groups. What is important is to allow yourself an opportunity to ventilate and explore your emotions. Only then will you be able to work through time.
For example, many times in grief we may be troubled by such uncomfortable emotions as anger. First, it’s important to recognize that these emotions, however uncomfortable and troubling, are normal and natural responses to grief. Once we verbalize our feelings, we can then begin to express them. What makes you feel angry? Is the anger an over-reaction? If it is, what else is really troubling? How will you deal with that anger? There are constructive or destructive ways to respond to that anger. For example, some constructive ways can include dealing with it physically (by punching a pillow), screaming at an empty chair, fantasizing, crying or directing it in an appropriate way. Many mothers, angered at lax drunken-driver laws that may have killed their child, lobbied for stricter laws or enforcement. Destructive patterns can include lashing out at all those around you, complicating their grief and limiting your social support.
Guilt can also be dealt with in similar ways. Once we verbalize out guilt, we can examine it. Is it realistic? Sometimes we hold ourselves responsible for all kinds of things that we can never really control. We can not foresee all possible consequences of any act, nor can we maintain perfect relationships. Sometimes when we examine our guilt we can see it’s unrealistic and it fades like a mist.
Other times, though we may need to do more. We may find it useful to examine our own religious and philosophical beliefs to find a sense of forgiveness. Or sometimes we may wish to create our own little ritual that expiates our guilt. One widow, for example, feeling guilty over her impatience as she watched her husband’s health decline due to Alzheimer’s, later found it helpful to volunteer in a day program for Alzheimer’s victims. Her ability to support other spouses and her kindness toward victims allowed her a feeling that she was ‘atoning’ for all the anger and impatience she had experienced in her husband’s illness.
Often as we deal with these emotions, two themes arise. One is ambivalence. We may have a difficult time coping with our natural, mixed feelings about the deceased. We may be troubled by previous conflicts, hurt by unpleasant memories of that person. It may help us get in touch with that ambivalence by exploring what we liked about that person, what we will miss as well as what we did not like or will not miss. Coming to terms with that normal ambivalence may help us to better understand our emotional reactions and find effective ways to cope with them.
Another theme that sometimes comes out as we explore our feelings is that we may have left some unfinished business. Perhaps there is a world unsaid, an act undone. Once we recognize what is unfinished, we can find ways to complete the act, to bring closure. Sometimes it may help to imagine that person in the room and to simply say what needs to be said. Perhaps a small, private ritual may allow that sense of closure. For illustration, one young child felt a deep sense of guilt that he had not told a favorite uncle that he loved him. We talked about all the ways that he had nonverbally shown his love-the way his face lit up when he saw his uncle, his hugs and kisses. But he still felt a sense of incompleteness. Finally he decided to dedicate church flowers to his uncle. Delivering those flowers to the grave, he simply stated those words of love. Now that business was finished.
Life Without the Person:
One of the most difficult things about grief is learning to live without the person, adjusting to a world in which the deceased is not present. The loss of someone we love changes our world completely. We may experience all kinds of other losses as well. We may have lost not only a spouse but a lover, friend, gardener, accountant or cook. We may no longer find pleasure in the old habits and in our former activities. Even relationships with some of our friends may change.
Just getting by may seem so overwhelming. Not only are our energy levels and coping abilities challenged but we also may have new tasks or responsibilities. A widow or widower, for example may all of a sudden need to take on new responsibilities. Functions that their spouses once did would be a good starting point for many.
Sometimes it helps if we just assess how much our life has changed. Often this helps to give us perspective that keeps us from being overwhelmed by the massive changes we are experiencing.
It also helps us to realize life now will be different. Often we spend considerable energy trying uselessly to preserve the past. Life after loss is changed life but we do have some control over that change.
Examine those changes in your life. If you are feeling overwhelmed, “prioritize.” What are the tasks that need to be done? What’s really most important? What can wait? What can be contracted out-given to others?
Examine too your own coping style. How do you deal with change? How can you minimize the stress that change inevitably brings? How well do you cope with that stress?
Because we are experiencing so much change and stress with loss, it is critical not to increase the level of stress already experienced. There are no rules in grief. Each person should do those things which he finds most helpful. But if I were to give one rule it would be, seek to avoid making any additional significant change in your life for six months. Moving, a new job, all complicate the levels of stress experienced and isolate a person from his natural support groups. If you can avoid such significant changes, do!
Often loneliness can be one of the hardest aspects of adjustment. One bereaved father told me that he could not get used to “the continued absence of his daughter’s presence.” Loneliness is that feeling. It doesn’t mean we are necessarily alone, but that we miss the presence of that particular person.
As with any feelings, it can help to explore that feeling. When do I feel lonely? What are the worst times and the worst periods? What can I do about them? One widow found the most difficult time for her, her worst moment for loneliness, was dinner time. Once she understood that, she able to reach out to some other widows and arrange to have dinners with them.
The end of grief is not the end of memory but the end of memory with great pain. That’s important to keep in mind because often we are fearful that once we let go of the pain, we will cease to remember that person.
Yes the resolution of grief involves finding appropriate images and ways to remember the person who died. A person who has touched our lives always remains part of that life.
Thus, we can reflect on that person. What are the special memories we have of them? What did their lives teach us? What aspects of their lives do we wish to carry on? Sometimes even when our experiences are negative, there still may be lessons to be learned.
We can consider not only how we will remember that person but when as well. Some individuals develop special ways or times to remember the person who died. It may be as simple as visiting the grave on special days. Or families may develop their own individual ways to remember. One older widower I know tend his wife’s tomato garden. Each harvest he distributes the tomatoes to his neighbors, allowing an opportunity to reminisce about his wife. Another widow of a teacher administers a small scholarship fund in her husband’s memory. Both are healthy ways of remembering, for they acknowledge loss, celebrate the legacy of the person and allow for individuals to continue to grow and develop.
Another problem that we may experience as we grieve is a crisis in our faith. To some people the nature or circumstances of the loss may challenge their very beliefs. They may wonder why they have suffered such a loss. They may feel the world is unfair. They may feel alienated and separated from God.
These feelings too are very normal and natural. Even C.S. Lewis the Christian writer had a crisis of faith as he watched his beloved wife die a slow agonizing death. “Where is God when you need him?” he wrote, “A door slammed in your face.” Later he would realize, “It was my own fantic need that slammed that door.”
If you are experiencing such conflict, it may help to discuss your feeling with a sympathetic clergy person or counselor. Rabbi Kushner’s ‘When Bad Things Happen to Good People’ or C.S. Lewis’s ‘A Grief Observed’ may help. It also may help to understand that doubt too is part of the cycle of faith and that even honest anger can be a form of prayer.
Picking up the Pieces:
There comes a point in loss when one has to painfully choose life-a time when one has to recognize that one now has to reconstruct a life beyond loss. This too is difficult for so much life has changed-including you.
You are not longer the person you once were. Loss has changed you. And while you can not control the fear of change, you can control the way you change.
Catherine Sanders, an noted Grief Therapist, often asks her clients three key questions as they begin to get ready to explore their options and their alternatives in finding their new selves.
First she asks them, what do you wish to take into your changed life? What are the skills and attributes of the past that you wish to maintain and preserve? What are the skills and characteristics that you’ve developed as you struggled with loss that you wish to maintain?
A second question is what do you wish to leave behind? What baggage from the past needs to be discarded? What feelings-anger, guilt or the like-yet need to be worked through?
Her final question is what do you wish to add? What new skills or characteristics will be essential to develop? Perhaps this will mean new training or schooling. But the answer will begin to aid and equip one for a beyond loss.
But all of this takes time. Perhaps the most important thing to stress is that each of us should remember that the time it takes for resolving grief is different for each individual. Be gentle with yourself. Do what you feel necessary when you are comfortable doing it. What other people did, when they did it, does not mean that you need to operate on the same schedule or to do the same things. Follow your own instincts.
Be open to help. Throughout our grieving we may wish to use a variety of resources as we cope with loss. Our families and friends can often provide powerful assistance in our crisis. They can listen to us and support us. They can reassure us that despite the loss and throughout our struggle, they still love and care about us. One widow once shared with me the significant support one friend provided at her husband’s funeral. This friend pressed a key into her hand. “There will be times,” she said, “when you can not bear to face an empty house. Don’t-my house will be open to you.”
In other situations though we may not feel that level of support. Perhaps, the pain of family and friends is so great that they can not be available.
Perhaps we are asking them for help that they are not able to give. Someone once said that most friends are either ‘listeners’ or ‘doers’. There are some who are great to talk to, others that are always willing to do a favor. Rarely can a friend do both. Perhaps we may not be feeling the support we need because we are asking out friends to do thing they do not do well. For example we may be asking the ‘doers’ to listen.
And sometimes friends may just not be available. Perhaps out pain is too powerful, our loss too threatening, that their own abilities are challenged.
In summary, seek out family and friends for support. Cherish their help. But when that help is not forthcoming or sufficient, be willing to seek additional or even complementary help as well.
That can come in many forms. Throughout the past decade, numerous self-help books on loss and grief have been published. Some like Lynn Caines’ ‘Widow’ are first person accounts of loss. Others, like Theresa A. Rando’s Grieving are by psychologists or counselors and offer sage advice.
Books can be valued source of assistance in grief. They can reassure us that our reactions and responses are normal and natural. They can provide advice and suggestions for resolving problems. And they can also offer hope that one can live beyond loss.
Keep one thought in mind as you select books. Remember that each person’s loss and methods of coping are unique. Review what another recommends but do what seems best and comfortable for you. What worked for someone else may not necessarily be right for you. Trust your own instincts.
Another source of help may be offered through self-help groups. Self-help groups are made up of individuals who have suffered similar problems or losses. In some communities, these may generally deal with loss. In other communities there may be specific self-help groups for widows. parents or persons who have experienced a specific loss.
Another source of help is counseling. Counseling is short term assistance that helps us confront problematic situations in our lives. It is the push or lift that gets us over the hump. Rather than a sign of poor coping, counseling is a sign of growth, evidence of a willingness to use all the resources that one can.
When we experience a loss, counseling can be useful in a number of ways. It too can provide continued reassurance that the reactions and responses we have are normal and natural. It can allow additional opportunities to discuss these feelings with others or when these feelings are too painful or embarrassing to share with those around us. And counseling also can assist us as we examine our own ways of coping with loss.
While counseling can be helpful to anyone, it is especially important for those who are experiencing a very difficult time dealing with loss. For example, if you are experiencing active suicidal thoughts, a desire to hurt others, increased drinking or use of drugs or are unhappy with the ways you are behaving and reacting, it would do well to seek professional assistance.
You can find life beyond loss-a changed life but life nevertheless. This will not mean you will ever forget the person who died nor that you will not at various times in your life mourn your loved one’s death. But it does not mean that slowly over time you may find joy again in living a life beyond loss.
Association for Death Education and Counseling
60 Revere Drive, Suite 500
Northbrook, IL 60062
National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved
PO Box 16353
St. Louis, MO 63125-2638
AARP Foundation: Grief and Loss Programs
601 East Street NW
Washington DC 20049
The Compassionate Friends Inc.
PO Box 3696
Oak Brook, IL 60522-3696
National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization
1700 Diagonal Road, Suite 625
Alexandria, VA 22314
Canadian Health Network
(In search field type: Grief)
The Compassionate Friends of Canada
Phone: (866) 823-0141
Disclaimer: I wanted to Dr. Kenneth J. Doka Ph. D. for this wonderful book that got me through the darkest days of my losses in my family and I wanted to share this very special book with all my readers. I create all this material to him and want to thank him for guiding people through their losses. It was very helpful. I credit all this work to him.
My best to all of you who have experienced a loss in your life.