Helping Yourself When Someone You Love Has Died
Someone you love has died. You are beginning a journey that is often frightening, painful and lonely. No words, written or spoken, can take away the pain you now feel. This information may bring comfort and encouragement as you commit to helping yourself heal.
Perhaps you’ve already heard, “In time, you’ll feel better.” Actually, time alone has nothing to do with healing. To heal, you must be willing to understand the grief process and how it will affect you today, tomorrow and forever.
As scary as this may sound, you will never “get over” your grief. Instead, you will learn to live with it. This does not mean that you will never be happy again. If you allow yourself the time and compassion to mourn, if you truly work through your grief, you too, will heal and find continued meaning in living and loving.
What You May Feel
Although grief is different for every person and every circumstance, the following emotions and behaviors are experienced by many:
Shock: You may feel dazed and stunned, especially immediately following the death.
Confusion: You may feel a sense of ongoing confusion, where disconnected thoughts race through your mind and you are unable to complete tasks.
Anxiety: You may fear that you or others will die. You may doubt your ability to survive and feel anxious about everyday realities, such as work or finances.
Anger: Anger and hate, blame, terror, resentment, rage and jealousy are normal responses. These explosive emotions provide a vehicle for you to protest your loss.
Guilt: You may feel guilt or regret. These are natural reactions.
Sadness: Weeks or often months will pass before you fully experience the depths of your sadness. This slow progression is natural and gives you time to embrace your loss.
Physical: You may experience trouble sleeping and have low energy. Other changes may include muscle aches and pains, shortness of breath, tightness in throat or chest, digestive problems, sensitivity to noise, heart palpitations, headaches, increased allergic reactions, appetite changes, weight loss or gain, agitation and generalized tension.
The Reconciliation Needs of Mourning
While your grief journey will be unique, all mourners have certain needs that must be met if they are to heal. I call the most central of these “The Reconciliation Needs of Mourning.” Do not interpret these needs as orderly steps. Instead, you will probably bounce back and forth from one to another, and maybe even work on two or more simultaneously.
Acknowledge the Reality of the Death
Whether sudden or anticipated, acknowledging the full reality of the loss may take weeks or months. You may move back and forth between protesting and acknowledging the reality of the death. You may replay events surrounding the death and confront memories, both good and bad. It’s as if each time you talk it out, the event is a little more real.
Move Toward the Pain of the Loss
Expressing your intense thoughts and feelings about the death is a difficult but important need. You will probably need to “dose” yourself when experiencing the pain of your loss. In other words, you cannot or should not try to meet this need all at once.
Through Memory, Continue the Relationship with the Person Who Died
Embracing your memories – both happy and sad – can be a very slow and, at times, painful process. But remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible.
Develop A New Self-Identity
Part of your self-identity comes from the relationships you have created with others. When someone with whom you have a relationship dies, your self-identity naturally changes. As bereaved persons move forward in their grief journeys, many discover that some aspects of their self-identities have positively changed. For example, you may feel more confident or more open to life’s challenges.
Search for Meaning
You will naturally question the meaning and purpose of life. You must come to terms with these questions if you are to progress in your grief journey. Move at your own pace. Recognize that allowing yourself to hurt and find ongoing meaning in your life will eventually allow healing to occur.
Continue to Receive Support from Others
Continue to receive support from others. You will never stop needing the love and support of others because you never “get over” your grief. As you learn to reconcile your grief, however, you will need help less intensely and less often. You will always need your friends and family members to listen and support you in your continuing grief journey. Support groups can be another long-term helping resource.
Reaching Out for Help
As you embrace the pain of your loss, healing requires the support and understanding of those around you. Perhaps the most compassionate thing you can do for yourself is reach out for help. Friends and family members will probably form the core of your support system. You may also find comfort in talking to a minister or other church leader. A professional counselor may also be very helpful and an objective listener. For many grieving people, support groups are one of their best resources, where they can connect with others who have experienced similar thoughts and feelings.
About the Author
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is a noted author, teacher and grief counselor known internationally for outstanding educational contributions to both adult and childhood grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine.
Helping Yourself When Someone You Love is Dying
Most of us think of “grief” as something we experience only after the death of someone close to us. But grieving can begin long before the final loss occurs, for you as well as your loved one. In its purest definition, grief is the reaction to loss.
Although they may be almost imperceptible, a number of losses often occur in the course of a terminal illness, such as loss of one’s identity as a productive person, loss of physical strength, loss of independence or loss of the ability to communicate. As the person who is ill grieves these losses, those close to him or her may feel a parallel series of losses. Reaction to these losses is called anticipatory grief, a term commonly associated with slow and expected deaths.
Because the best understood form of grief occurs after death, many people will not understand what you are experiencing during the worst moments of anticipatory grief. Few people in our society are geared to offer support to family members before a death occurs. Anticipatory grief, though, is a normal and healthy response to loss.
A woman whose husband suffers from Alzheimer’s disease may grieve the loss-in-process of his ability to provide support and companionship. She may also grieve losses yet to come, such as the further deterioration of his health and the unfulfilled dreams they shared.
In spite of these painful aspects, however, love and attachment during this time can still exist. One can grieve and love at the same time. While loss generates grief, love reaffirms the value of attachments that still survive. Even though he grieves his lost vocational role, a man dying of cancer may still cherish the time he has left to share with his family.
The woman who grieves the impact of her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease may still find comfort in his physical presence and determine to do everything she can to love and care for him until he dies.
What You Can Do
When it is clear that physicians cannot save the life of a terminally ill person, we often hear: “There is nothing more that we can do.” While that may be true in the healing sense, caregivers can still work to minimize the sources of distress. You can seek medical assistance to manage pain and provide tender, loving care – tucking your loved one in bed, fluffing a pillow or feeding him a cup of soup. Anyone who is willing to be helpful can simply offer his or her presence, reducing the sense of isolation and abandonment that affects so many ill and dying people.
Helping Them Cope
Professional grief counselors have identified four ways we can help the terminally ill cope.
They involve the most basic dimensions of life:
Good physical care is often fundamental to coping with a life-threatening or terminal illness. Caregivers who help an ailing loved one get comfortable in bed, help them get to the bathroom or drink and eat are providing care in its best and most basic sense.
Personal security is often a high priority for people who are aware of their declining mental faculties. Alert individuals may need reinforcement of their autonomy by being involved in decisions about their own care, such as where they will live. Even smaller, more symbolic decisions such as choosing what to wear or eat can be important.
As their energy diminishes, individuals facing death may have to decide which relationships they wish to sustain and which to loosen gently. A dying person might wish to deal with legalities for the protection of her estate or to simplify survivors’ tasks. One may also participate in his/her own funeral arrangements or the settlement of other affairs. Doing so can help maintain a sense of control.
People nearing the end of life often wish to identify a sense of meaning in their lives. At this time, developing or reaffirming religious values or philosophical convictions can be very important.
Caring for the Caregivers
Good end-of-life care must include both the ill person and family members. Each of you is a feeling person who deserves support and assistance in meeting your own needs at this difficult time. Immediate family members and close friends must be given the opportunity to take part in the caregiving, since the desire to be helpful is almost always among their needs. While specific roles may vary for each person, the fact that they are doing something lets them feel they are contributing and can help them avoid feelings of guilt after the death occurs.
Most importantly, at-home caregivers must avoid becoming overburdened. If you do, you will be unable to take care of your loved one or yourself. The role at-home caregivers assume in the caring process should be appropriate for them and within the limits of their resources. Professionals and other external care providers can help family members identify and fulfill more difficult roles. The aim should be to do all that we can – not more than we can – to take care of those we love.
The knowledge of approaching death provides a rare opportunity to express your true feelings for one who has been important in your life. It’s a time when you can say thank you; I love you; forgive me as I forgive you; and goodbye. Grief and sadness are not eliminated, but they can be faced without complications in the knowledge that you did whatever you could for someone you loved.
About the Author
Charles A. Corr, Ph.D., is Professor emeritus, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and former Chairperson (1989-1993) of the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement. Dr. Corr’s professional publications include 22 books and more than 80 articles and chapters on a wide variety of death-related topics.