Helping Yourself When Someone You Love Has Died
By Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
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:
You may feel dazed and stunned, especially immediately following the death.
You may feel a sense of ongoing confusion, where disconnected thoughts race through your mind and you are unable to complete tasks.
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 and hate, blame, terror, resentment, rage and jealousy are normal responses. These explosive emotions provide a vehicle for you to protest your loss.
You may feel guilt or regret. These are natural reactions.
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.
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 2 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.
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.
Reach 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.