Helping Yourself at Your Time of Loss

By Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

I seem to be falling apart. My attention span can be measured in seconds. My patience in minutes. I cry at the drop of a hat. Feelings of anxiety and restlessness are my constant companions. Rainy days seem extra dreary. Sunny days seem an outrage. Other people’s pain and frustration seem insignificant. Laughing, happy people seem out of place in my world. It has become routine to feel half crazy. I am normal I am told. I am a newly grieving person. - Anonymous

Someone you love has died. The first few days following a death can be very draining. You may be feeling numb and overwhelmed with all the details requiring attention. You may not know what you are expected to do. You may also fear doing the wrong thing.

Take a deep breath and realize that you are not alone. Many people are ready to help you plan the funeral and do all that must be done in the coming week.

Be assured that your funeral director and staff associates will help you with the planning, paperwork and the many details that follow a death. Especially if you have never planned a funeral before, know that they are working to ensure everything goes smoothly. Their experience will help guide you through the next several days.

The role of shock and numbness

Feelings of shock, denial, numbness and disbelief are nature’s way of temporarily protecting you from the full reality of the loss. Especially if you had little or no opportunity to anticipate the death, you may feel dazed and stunned now and in the coming days.

Trust that these feelings are normal and necessary. They serve as psychological “shock absorbers,” giving your emotions time to catch up with what your mind has been told. You may also find yourself crying (or laughing) hysterically, having angry outbursts or simply feeling foggy and unable to think.

These are common feelings, but they can make it more difficult to plan the funeral. Continue to ask others to help.

Planning the funeral

Why do we have funerals? For thousands of years, funerals have been a means of expressing our beliefs, thoughts and feelings about the death of someone we love.

The funeral ceremony:

  • Helps us acknowledge that someone we love has died.
  • Allows us to say goodbye.
  • Provides a social support system for loved ones, friends and family members.
  • Allows us to contemplate the meaning of life and death.
  • Offers continuity and hope for the living.

Another way to think of the funeral is as a final tribute to the person who died.

After the funeral

After the funeral, along with shock and numbness, you may feel a sense of relief that the “work” of planning the ceremony and receiving friends and family members is over. This is normal. It is also normal during this time to begin to feel more deeply the reality of the death. It’s as if for the first time since the death that you’ve really had a chance to sit down and think about what it all means. Feelings of sadness and despair may grow stronger.

Sometimes it’s hard for friends and family members to know how to help you after the funeral. They’re not sure if they should leave you alone of if they should stay by your side. Let them know what you’d prefer. Be honest. If having others around comforts you, ask them to stay. If you need some alone time, tell them so and ask them to come back tomorrow. Don’t be afraid to ask for help with errands, shopping, thank-you notes, etc.

Believe in your capacity to heal

This early in your grief journey, it may be hard for you to believe that you’ll get through this. You will. Over time and with the support of others, you can and will learn to reconcile this loss. Although your pain may get worse before it gets better, in the coming months and years the intense feelings of grief will soften.

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.