When a Loved One Dies: Coping Through a Time of Grief
By David Kessler
Everyone experiences many losses throughout life, but the death of a loved one is unmatched in its emptiness and profound sadness. Your world has stopped. You can quote the exact time your loved one left. It is marked in your memory and etched in your soul. There are times when it seems strange that the world continues as if nothing has happened, when your world has been turned inside out.
Your life continues, but you are not sure why. A different life is in front of you, one in which your loved one will not be physically present. As much as people may try, no one can come up with any words to make you feel better or make this hurt go away. You will survive, even though you may not be sure how or even if you want to.
What you are feeling is grief
Grief is the reflection of a connection that has been lost and what we feel on the inside.
Mourning is about all the outer expressions of that grief.
Your loss and the grief that accompanies it are very personal, different than anyone else’s.
Only you know all that you lost when your loved one died. Only you feel your inner world of grief. Everyone grieves a loss although some may not show it in their mourning—or outward appearance.
Grief is the natural reaction to a loss of a loved one and the healing process that ultimately brings us comfort in our loss.
In some cases the pain of loss comes before death. Keep in mind that illness comes with many losses in itself. It is often a painful prediction of things to come. Anticipatory grief is the grief we privately feel before a loved one dies. It was originally called preparatory grief, which in some ways describes it more accurately. It is how our mind, heart and soul prepare for impending loss. Not only do those who are about to lose someone feel it, but often the dying person feels it too.
While we are more accustomed to talking about grief after loss, anticipatory grief is much more non-verbal. We often keep those thoughts to ourselves. Once the death has occurred, you may feel guilty that you were grieving their loss before they died. Just know that anticipatory grief is a very normal part of the experience.
Anticipatory grief does not necessarily lessen the grief we feel afterwards, and in some cases of long, drawn-out illnesses, we may do a lot of our grieving during the last years of our loved one’s life.
It is not our choice whether or not we will feel anticipatory grief. It may or may not be a part of your personal grieving process. If it is or was, don’t judge it. Just know that the possibility of the loss of your loved one was enough to trigger your psyche to begin to protect itself.
Feelings of relief
Sometimes during grief, especially if a long illness preceded the loss, an unexpected feeling of relief may emerge. It feels out of place, out of step, and is often considered wrong. Why would you feel a sense of relief at the loss of someone so close and so dear?
If you feel any type of relief, it is probably because your loved one was suffering and you are grateful it has ended. A loved one suffering causes a heavy pain on top of the sadness. Because you wanted to end the suffering so much, you feel somewhat relieved that he or she is dead.
That is what causes the confusion, when the loss and sadness mix together. That relief should not be judged, but rather it should be seen for what it is—a statement that you hated to see your loved one in so much pain and/or suffering.
The 5 stages of grief
Anticipatory grief and relief are just 2 of the unexpected visitors we sometimes feel after a loss. After our loved one dies we often go through stages.
The 5 stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—are a part of the framework that helps us learn to live without the one we lost. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. The stages are not stops on some linear timeline in the grieving of a loss. Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order. The stages of loss have been widely used and misused, but they are very useful in giving us some idea of the unknown terrain of grief, making us better equipped to cope with loss.
When you have lost a loved one, denial is more symbolic than literal. This does not mean that you literally don’t know your loved one has died. It means you come home and you can’t believe that your wife isn’t going to walk in the door at any minute, or that your husband isn’t just away on a business trip. You simply can’t fathom that he will never walk through that door again. The person in denial is actually stating that when it first happens, it is too much for his or her psyche to absorb.
- Denial helps us to survive the loss and unconsciously manage feelings.
- Denial and shock help us to cope and make survival possible.
- Denial helps us to pace our feelings of grief.
- There is a grace in denial.
In this stage, the world can become meaningless and overwhelming. Life makes no sense. We are in a state of shock and denial. We wonder how we can go on, if we can go on, why we should go on. We try to find a way to simply get through each day.
The denial often comes in the form of questioning our reality: “Is it true? Did he really die? Is she really gone?” Denial helps us to pace our feelings.
Denial leads to the reality of loss
People often find themselves telling the story of their loss over and over, which is one way that our mind deals with trauma. It is a way of denying the pain while trying to accept the reality of the loss. As denial fades, it is slowly replaced with the reality of the loss.
You then begin to question the how and why: “How did this happen?” you may ask, as you review the circumstances. You are no longer in an outer storytelling mode. Now you turn inward as you begin the search for understanding. You explore the circumstances surrounding the loss. "Did she have to die? Did it have to happen that way?"
The reality of the loss begins to gradually sink in. "She is not coming back. This time he didn’t make it." With each question asked, you begin to believe they are really gone.
Healing has begun
As you accept the reality of the loss and start to ask yourself questions, you are unknowingly beginning the healing process. You are becoming stronger, and the denial is beginning to fade. But as you proceed, all the feelings you were denying begin to surface. The first feeling that emerges is often anger.
The stage of anger may present itself in many different ways and does not have to be logical or valid.
- You may feel anger toward your loved one that he didn’t take better care of himself or anger that you didn’t take better care of him.
- You might be angry that you didn’t see this coming, and when you did, nothing could stop it.
- You may be angry with the doctors for not being able to save someone so dear to you.
- You may be angry that loss and death could happen to someone who meant so much to you.
- You may also be angry that you’ve been left behind and the 2 of you should have had more time together.
You know intellectually that your loved one didn’t want to die. But emotionally, all you know is that he did die. It was not supposed to happen, or at least not now. You may also be angry with yourself that you couldn’t prevent this illness or death from happening. Remember, this is not logical. No matter how desperately we want someone to live, we do not have the power to stop death. It is important to remember that the anger surfaces only when you feel safe enough to know you will probably survive whatever comes.
Feel your anger
Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process. Be willing to feel your anger, even though it may seem endless. The more you truly feel it, the more it will begin to dissipate and the more you will heal. There are many hidden emotions under the anger, and you will get to them in time. We choose anger, often to avoid the feelings underneath, until we are ready to face them. It may feel all-consuming, but as long as it doesn’t consume you for a long period of time, it is part of your emotional management.
It is a useful emotion until you’ve moved past the first waves of it. Then you will be ready to go deeper. In the process of grief and loss, you may have many subsequent visits with anger in its many forms.
The truth is that anger has no limits.
It can, unfortunately, be shared with and directed at friends, doctors, your family, yourself and your loved one who died, but for some, it even extends to God.
We often assume that if we are good people, we will not suffer the ills of the world. You may feel that you and your loved one honored your part of the deal. You attended your place of worship and maybe you were loving, kind and charitable. You tried your best to do what was right in the world. You believed you would be rewarded if you did these things. And now, this loss is the consequence. We also assume that if we care for our body, eat right, get medical checkups and exercise, we will be granted good health. These assumptions come crashing down around us when the good, the just, the loving, the healthy, the needed and most wanted among us die.
Other people and your anger
If we ask people to move through their anger too fast, we will only alienate them. Whenever we ask people to be different than they are, or to feel something different, we are not accepting them as they are and where they are. Nobody likes to be asked to change and not be accepted as they are. We like it even less in the midst of grief.
Underneath anger is pain. It is natural to feel deserted and abandoned when a loved one dies, but we live in a society that fears anger. People often tell us our anger is misplaced, inappropriate or disproportionate. Some people may feel your anger is harsh or too much. Unfortunately for them, they too will know the anger of loss some day. But for now, your job is to honor your anger by allowing yourself to be angry. Find a solitary place and let it out.
The structure and progress of anger
Anger is strength and it can be an anchor, giving temporary structure to the nothingness of loss. At first, it feels like being lost at sea with no connection to anything. Then you get angry with someone, maybe a person who didn’t attend the funeral, maybe a person who isn’t around as much as they were before. Suddenly you have a structure—your anger toward them. The anger becomes a bridge over that open sea, a connection from you to them. It is something to hold onto, because a connection made from the strength of anger feels better than no connection at all.
We usually know more about suppressing anger than feeling it. Do not bottle anger up inside. Instead, let it out. The anger is just another indication of the intensity of your love.
- Tell a counselor how angry you are.
- Share it with friends and family.
- Find ways to get your anger out without hurting yourself or someone else.
- Try walking, jogging, sports—any type of exercise that can help you externalize your anger.
Anger also means you are progressing, that you are allowing all those feelings that were so overwhelming before, to rise to the surface. It is important to feel the anger without judging it. Life is unfair. Death is unfair. Anger is a natural reaction to the unfairness of loss. But as important as it is to feel it, anger can also isolate you from friends and family at the precise time you may need them the most.
You also may experience feelings of guilt, which is anger turned inward on yourself. But you are not to blame. If you could change things, you would, but you can’t. Anger affirms that you can feel, that you did love and that you have lost.
The more anger you allow, the more feelings you will discover underneath. Mostly you will find the pain of loss. The power of your anger may overwhelm you because it is in proportion to the amount of love lost. It may seem that if you go into the pain, you will never come out of it or that the pain will never end. You will come out the other end. The anger will subside, and the feelings of loss will change form again. So don’t let anyone diminish the importance of feeling your anger fully. And don’t let anyone criticize your anger, not even you.
Before a loss, it seems like you will do anything if only your loved one could be spared. “Please God,” you bargain, “I’ll never be angry at my wife again if you’ll just let her live.” After a loss, bargaining may take the form of a temporary truce. “What if I devote the rest of my life to helping others? Then can I wake up and realize this has all been a bad dream?”
We become lost in a maze of “If only…” or “What if…” statements. We want life returned to what it was, and we want our loved one restored. We want to go back in time so we can find the tumor sooner, recognize the illness more quickly, stop the accident from happening… if only, if only, if only.
Guilt is often bargaining’s companion.
The “if only’s” cause us to find fault in ourselves and what we “think” we could have done differently. We may even bargain with the pain. We will do anything not to feel the pain of this loss. We remain in the past, trying to negotiate our way out of the hurt.
The benefits of bargaining
Bargaining can sometimes be a way to escape from the pain, a distraction from the sad reality of loss; a momentary unconscious relief. In some cases, bargaining can help our mind move from one state of loss to another. It can be a way-station that gives our psyche the time it may need to adjust. Bargaining can fill the gaps that our strong emotions generally dominate as it keeps suffering at a distance. It allows us to believe that we can restore order to the chaos that has taken over.
After a death, bargaining often moves from the past to the future. We may bargain that we will see our loved ones again in heaven. We may bargain for a respite from illnesses in our family, or ask that no other tragedies visit our loved ones. A mother who loses a child may bargain that her other children remain safe and healthy.
As we move through the bargaining process, the mind alters the past events while exploring all those “what if” and “if only” statements. Sadly, the mind inevitably comes to the same conclusion… the tragic reality is that our loved one is truly gone.
The movement of grief
People often think of the stages of grief as lasting weeks or months. They forget that the stages are responses to feelings that can also last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one stage, then another and return again to the first one.
After bargaining, our attention moves squarely into the present. Emptiness presents itself, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined.
This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness. It is the appropriate response to a great loss. We may withdraw from life, asking ourselves if there is any point in going on alone? Why go on at all?
Others around you see this lethargy and want to “get you out” of your depression.
But, depression is a normal response
Depression after a loss is too often seen as unnatural—a state to be fixed, something to snap out of. The first question to ask yourself is whether or not your situation is actually depressing. The loss of a loved one is a very depressing situation, and depression is a normal and appropriate response. To not experience depression after a loved one dies would be unusual. When a loss fully settles in your soul, the realization that your loved one didn’t get better this time and is not coming back is understandably depressing.
When we are grieving, people may wonder about us and we may wonder about ourselves. The heavy, dark feelings of depression that come with grief, however normal, are often viewed in our society as something to be cured. After a loss, depression is a way for nature to keep us protected by shutting down the nervous system so we can adapt to something we feel we cannot handle.
Depression is a step toward healing
If grief is a process of healing, then depression is one of the many necessary steps along the way. As tough as it is, depression can be dealt with in a paradoxical way. See it as a visitor, of course an unwelcome one, but one who is visiting whether you like it or not. Make a place for your guest. Invite your depression to pull up a chair with you in front of the fire, and sit with it, without looking for a way to escape. Allow the sadness and emptiness to cleanse you and help you explore your loss in its entirety. When you allow yourself to experience depression, it will leave as soon as it has served its purpose in your loss. As you grow stronger, it may return from time to time, but that is how grief works.
Our society almost seems to be involved in a “stamp-out depression” campaign. Sometimes intervention is vital, but most of the time, we do not allow the normal depression that comes with grief to have its place. Normal depression is the sadness we feel at certain times in our lives—the common cold of mental illnesses. We see magazines, Internet and television advertisements offering help with it, selling pills or vitamin supplements promising to get rid of it.
When a normal depression becomes a clinical depression requiring professional help, antidepressants may be helpful for a time. Only a trained medical professional familiar with the griever’s unique situation can make an accurate diagnosis.
We must accept sadness as an appropriate, natural stage of loss without letting an unmanaged, ongoing depression leech our quality of life.
As difficult as it is to endure, depression has elements that can be helpful in grief:
- It slows us down and allows us to take real stock of the loss.
- It makes us rebuild ourselves from the ground up. It clears the deck for growth.
- It takes us to a deeper place in our soul than we would normally explore.
Mourners need to experience their sorrow
Most people’s initial reaction to sad people is to try to cheer them up, to tell them not to look at things so grimly, to look at the bright side of life. This cheering up reaction is often an expression of that person’s own needs and that person’s own inability to tolerate a long face over an extended period of time. A mourner should be allowed to experience his sorrow, and he will be grateful for those who can sit with him without telling him not to be sad or depressed.
Acceptance is often confused with the notion of being “all right” or “OK” with what has happened. This is not the case. Most people don’t ever feel OK or all right about the loss of a loved one. This stage is about accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone and this new reality is the permanent reality.
We may cease to be angry with God. We may become aware of the common-sense reasons for our loss, even if we never actually understand the reasons. Of course it was too soon for us, and probably too soon for him or her, too. Perhaps he was very old or full of pain and disease. Perhaps her body was worn down and she was ready for her journey to be over. But our journey still continues. It is not yet time for us to die. In fact, it is time for us to heal.
After loss, we must try to live in a world where our loved one is missing. In initially resisting this new world, many people want to maintain life as it was before a loved one died. In time, through bits and pieces of acceptance, however, we see that we cannot maintain the past intact. It has been forever changed and we must readjust. We must learn to reorganize roles, re-assign them to others, take them on ourselves or let some roles go.
We learn who we are and who our loved one was in life. Oddly enough, healing can bring us closer to the person we loved. A new, purely spiritual relationship begins. We learn to live with the loved one we lost. We start rebuilding, trying to put the pieces back that were taken away by death.
In situations where the bereaved might be seeking a form of justice, it is vital to understand that we have a legal system, but it is not necessarily a justice system. For some, the only justice would be to get their loved one back. Acceptance is a process that we experience, not a final stage with an end point.
Invest in life
Over time we withdraw our energy from the loss and begin to invest it in life. We put the loss into perspective, learning how to remember our loved ones and commemorate their lives. We need to allow our feelings to be there as long as they need to be. With acceptance comes reinvestment in life.
For many people, finding acceptance may be measured by our having more good days than bad ones. As we begin to live again and enjoy our life, we often feel that in doing so, we are betraying our loved one. We can never replace what has been lost, but we can make new connections and new meaningful relationships. Acceptance is ultimately playing the hand we have been dealt. So it goes with loss. We will never like this reality or make it OK, but eventually we accept it. We learn to live with it. It is the new norm with which we must learn to live.
Dealing with holidays and special occasions
Holidays are part of the milestones we share with each other, and they generally represent time spent with family and friends. But since holidays are meant for those we love the most, how can anyone cope with them when a loved one has died? For many people, this is the hardest part of grieving—a time when we miss our loved ones even more than usual.
How can you celebrate togetherness when one of us is gone? Holidays only magnify the loss. The sadness feels sadder and the loneliness goes deeper. The need for support may be the greatest during the holidays. Pretending you don’t hurt or that it isn’t a harder time of the year is just not the truth for you. You can and will get through the holidays, and there are a number of ways to incorporate your loved one and your loss.
Here are some helpful tips and information for dealing with holidays:
1. Mother's and Father's Day
Mother’s and Father’s Day are often observed as an invisible day of mourning while other people are rushing around, trying to get that perfect gift or make sure they remember to send mom and dad a card.
- Find ways to honor and remember your mother, father or both.
- Think of ways to honor your child.
- Light a candle.
- Say a prayer.
- Donate time or money in their name.
- Do something you loved to do together on that day.
- It isn’t important how you remember—you honor them by the fact that you do remember.
2. Valentine's Day
Valentine’s Day is when we honor our spouse, girlfriend, boyfriend or anyone with whom we are romantically involved. The past can represent a hole in your heart where your loved one used to be.
- Write a love letter.
- Smile a smile for them.
- Light a red candle.
- Tell someone about them.
3. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Years, Birthdays and Anniversaries
These are the biggest and usually most challenging of all.
- Have a Plan A/Plan B
- Plan A: You go to the Thanksgiving, Christmas day or Christmas Eve dinner with family and friends. If it doesn’t feel right have your Plan B ready.
- Plan B: Rent a movie you both liked or look through a photo album. Take a special walk where you both enjoyed the scenery. Many people find that simply having a Plan B makes Plan A feel easier.
- Another alternative is to cancel the holiday all together. Yes, you can. If you’re going through the motions and feeling nothing, cancel the holidays and take a year off. They will come around again.
- Give the loss a voice and a place. Have everyone share a story at the dinner table—maybe a Christmas or birthday story. It doesn’t have to be morbid. It can be a funny story of your loved one.
The ways we handle holidays are as individual as we are. What is vitally important is that we remain present for the loss in whatever form the holidays do or don’t take. These holidays are part of the journey to be felt fully. They are usually very sad, but sometimes we may catch ourselves doing okay, and we may even have a brief moment of laughter—allow it.
Reflecting on our grief
As we reflect on grief, we realize that the time we take following a loss is important in grief as well as in healing. Grief represents a completion of a connection we will never forget. It is a time of reflection, pain, despair, tragedy, hope, re-adjustment, re-involvement and healing.
When we think of grieving, we often think we would rather avoid it. But what we really want to avoid is not the grief, but the pain we feel from the loss. We may not realize that grief is a necessary and helpful tool that has been given to us to help us heal from the pain. Grief alone can take a broken soul and restore it to life—not the same life as before, but a new one.
Don't cut short your grief
As death is the great equalizer—in our grief, we are connected to all who have lost. As much as we try to understand and empathize with those who have lost a loved one, we often have no idea what they may be going through until we have our own personal experience with grief. It is a part of being human. Many long for the day when they will be over their grief, as if it’s something we can recover from. In reality we don’t recover. We grieve for the rest of our lives when we lose a loved one. In the years to come, it doesn’t hurt less, just less often. We eventually take that pain, surround it with love and tuck it into our hearts.
Only our souls know if we will grieve with tears and, if we do, how many tears we have to shed. It doesn’t really matter if you have a few or a boatful. It only matters that if you have 800 tears to cry, you don’t stop at 600.
The process of grief often reveals many wonderful things. We may still be in the beginning of our grief and yet, it winds its way from the feelings of anticipating a loss to the beginnings of fully living again. It completes an intense cycle of emotional upheaval.
Healing doesn’t mean we forget our loved one, nor does it mean we are not revisited by the pain of loss. The person we loved and lost will always be imprinted in our soul, and we will reach a point someday when we can remember them, more with love than with sadness. Until then, they still remain tucked in our hearts.
About the author
David Kessler is one of the most well-known experts on grief and loss today, reaching people through his books including “On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss,” co-authored with the legendary Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. They also co-authored, “Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach us about the Mysteries of Life and Living.” His first book, “The Needs of the Dying: A Guide for Bringing Hope, Comfort and Love to Life’s Final Chapter,” received praise by Mother Teresa.
His work has been discussed in the LA Times, the NY Times and has been featured on CNN, NBC, MSNBC, PBS, “Entertainment Tonight” and “Oprah’s Friends.” He has written for the Boston Globe, the LA Times and the SF Chronicle.