Helping yourself heal when someone dies By Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, Center for Loss and Life Transition
Allow yourself to mourn
Someone you love has died. You are now faced with the difficult, but important, need to mourn. Mourning is the open expression of your thoughts and feelings regarding the death and the person who has died. It is an essential part of healing. You are beginning a journey that is often frightening, painful, overwhelming and sometimes lonely.
Realize your grief is unique
Your grief is unique. No one will grieve in exactly the same way. Your experience will be influenced by a variety of factors: the relationship you had with the person who died; the circumstances surrounding the death; your emotional support system and your cultural and religious background. As a result of these factors, you will grieve in your own special way. Don't try to compare your experience with that of other people or to adopt assumptions about just how long your grief should last. Consider taking a "one-day-at-a-time" approach that allows you to grieve at your own pace.
Talk about your grief
Express your grief openly. By sharing your grief outside yourself, healing occurs. Ignoring your grief won't make it go away; talking about it often makes you feel better. Allow yourself to speak from your heart, not just your head. Doing so doesn't mean you are losing control, or going "crazy". It is a normal part of your grief journey.
Find caring friends and relatives who will listen without judging. Seek out those persons who will "walk with," not "in front of" or "behind" you in your journey through grief. Avoid persons who are critical or who try to steal your grief from you. They may tell you, "keep your chin up" or "carry on" or "be happy." While these comments may be well-intended, you do not have to accept them. You have a right to express your grief; no one has the right to take it away.
Expect to feel a multitude of emotions
Experiencing a loss affects your head, heart and spirit. So you may experience a variety of emotions as part of your grief work. Confusion, disorganization, fear, guilt, relief or explosive emotions are just a few of the emotions you may feel. Sometimes these emotions will follow each other within a short period of time. Or they may occur simultaneously.
As strange as some of these emotions may seem, they are normal and healthy. Allow yourself to learn from these feelings. And don't be surprised if out of nowhere you suddenly experience surges of grief, even at the most unexpected times. These grief attacks can be frightening and leave you feeling overwhelmed. They are, however, a natural response to the death of someone loved. Find someone who understands your feelings and will allow you to talk about them.
Allow for numbness
Feeling dazed or numb when someone loved dies is often part of your early grief experience. This numbness serves a valuable purpose: it gives your emotions time to catch up with what your mind has told you. This feeling helps create insulation from the reality of the death until you are more able to tolerate what you don't want to believe.
Be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits
Your feelings of loss and sadness will probably leave you fatigued. Your ability to think clearly and make decisions may be impaired. And your low energy level may naturally slow you down. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. Nurture yourself. Get daily rest. Eat balanced meals. Lighten your schedule as much as possible. Caring for yourself doesn't mean feeling sorry for yourself; it means you are using survival skills.
Develop a support system
Reaching out to others and accepting support is often difficult, particularly when you hurt so much. But the most compassionate self-action you can do at this difficult time is to find a support system of caring friends and relatives who will provide the understanding you need. Find those people who encourage you to be yourself and acknowledge your feelings-both happy and sad.
Make use of ritual
The funeral ritual does more than acknowledge the death of someone loved. It helps provide you with the support of caring people. Most importantly, the funeral is a way for you to express your grief outside yourself. This allows everyone who cares for the deceased to pay tribute and help each other heal.
Embrace your spirituality
If faith is part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs. If you are angry at God because of the death of someone you loved, realize this feeling as a normal part of your grief work. Find someone to talk with who won't be critical of whatever thoughts and feelings you need to explore.
You may hear someone say, "With faith, you don't need to grieve." Don't believe it. Having your personal faith does not insulate you from needing to talk out and explore your thoughts and feelings. To deny your grief is to invite problems that build up inside you. Express your faith, but express your grief as well.
Allow a search for meaning
You may find yourself asking, "Why did he die?" "Why this way?" "Why now?" This search for meaning is another normal part of the healing process. Some questions have answers. Some do not. Actually, the healing occurs in the opportunity to pose the questions, not necessarily in answering them. Find a supportive friend who will listen responsively as you search for meaning.
Treasure your memories
Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after someone loved dies. Treasure them. Share them with your family and friends. Recognize that your memories may make you laugh or cry. In either case, they are a lasting part of the relationship that you had with a very special person in your life.
Move toward your grief and heal
The capacity to love requires the necessity to grieve when someone you loved dies. You can't heal unless you openly express your grief. Denying your grief will only make it become more confusing and overwhelming. Embrace your grief and heal.
Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Remember, grief is a process, not an event. Be patient and tolerate with yourself. Never forget that the death of someone loved changes your life forever. It's not that you won't be happy again. It's simply that you will never be exactly the same as you were before the death.
Helpful approaches in providing emotional support
- Be there – there is nothing like the gift of your presence!
- Listen ... listen ... listen!
- Remember the value of silence – a look, a nod, and a touch conveys a lot.
- Anticipate and recognize particularly difficult times of the year.
- Write notes offering encouragement and support.
- Whenever possible, mention the deceased by name and encourage reminiscing.
- Encourage and accept the expression of a wide range of feelings.
- Learn about the grief process and become comfortable with your own feelings.
- Be patient! Allow the person to grieve at his or her own pace, not at your pace.
- Become knowledgeable about community resources.
- Encourage exercise to help relieve tension and anger, to relax the person, and to aid sleep.
- Give the person permission to grieve, and not to grieve.
- Avoid remarks such as "Time will heal all wounds."
What to say:
- I'm sorry.
- I'm sad for you.
- How are you doing with all this?
- I don't know why it happened.
- What can I do for you?
- I'm here and I want to listen.
- Please tell me what you are feeling.
- This must be hard for you.
- What's the hardest part for you?
- I'll call you tomorrow.
- You must really be hurting.
- You must really feel angry.
- Take all the time you need.
- Thank you for sharing your feelings.
What not to say:
- I understand how you feel.
- Death was a blessing.
- It was God's will.
- It all happened for the best.
- You're still young.
- You have your whole life ahead of you.
- You'll feel worse before you feel better.
- You can have other children.
- You can always remarry.
- Call me when I can help.
- Something good will come out of this.
- At least you have another child.
- He/she led a full life.
- It's time to put it behind you now.
- Be strong.