The holidays are traditionally a time of family, feasting, and togetherness. But how do we get through this time when grieving the loss of a loved one? Take a look at my new guest blog post for O'Connor Mortuary: When the Holidays Mean Pain: Grieving During the Holiday Season.
When a loved one dies, it can feel like life is turned upside down. A significant loss has a way of making us question our own place in the world and wonder how, and if, we’ll ever regain our equilibrium. Here are some ways to stay balanced during times of grief, when it seems the ground is shifting under your feet.
1. Reconnect with your passions.
When we’re feeling down, it can be hard to muster up the energy to do the things that we’ve always loved to do. Make the choice to reincorporate some of the activities that you know to be a tried-and-true source of pleasure. What about finishing that colorful scarf you’d been excited to start knitting? Perhaps it’s time to take advantage of spring’s arrival by planting some bright blooms in your garden. Maybe this weekend you can check out that local farmers’ market you’ve been meaning to explore. Set aside some time to dedicate to revel in what brings you joy, whatever that may be.
2. Rely on others.
It’s often the case that we want to isolate when grief becomes overwhelming. We don’t want to burden others with our pain, and so we shut ourselves off from our friends and family. Remember the old adage: “Joy shared is joy doubled; a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.” By reaching out to others, we allow them the gift of giving to us by being a witness to our pain. We are comforted by the knowledge that as lonely as grief can feel, we are not alone; we have those in our lives who want to support us, not only in happy times but in tough times, as well.
3. Double-up on self-care.
Before the death of your loved one, you might have been pretty good about eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly. Have these healthy lifestyle habits started to slip a bit? Now’s the time, more than ever before, to consciously nurture yourself. Self-care doesn’t end with the physical, though. Your self-talk plays an important role. What are you saying to yourself? Are you mentally beating yourself up for having feelings of guilt, anger and overwhelm? Be mindful of any self-criticism that might sap your energy and rob you of self-esteem. Your feelings are valid, and emotions during times of grief can run the gamut. Treat yourself the way you’d like others to treat you: with kindness, patience, humor, and love.
4. Consider professional support.
Grief is not pathological. It is a normal, largely universal, process that most of us face at various points in our lives. Although the loss will remain, the acute pain will lessen with time. Although this is a natural process, some people benefit greatly by obtaining additional support through their grief. They might attend a grief support group, or seek out individual therapy for help on working through the feelings brought about by the loss.
_ When discussing bereavement and loss with colleagues the other day, I learned of a Bill of Rights for those in grief. I thought that it was a wonderful way to give ourselves "permission" to grieve and to acknowledge our feelings in times of loss, be it from a death or another loss such as divorce, illness, or other life transition. I share it here with you in the hopes that you'll find it meaningful as well. Is there anything you would add to it? I invite you to add your comments below.
The Grieving Person's Bill of Rights
by Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD
Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Ft. Collins, Colorado
_When I heard poet Marie Howe read her poems aloud on NPR's "Fresh Air" I was moved to tears. Howe has a gift in her ability to beautifully put into words feelings that are shared by many but not often easily accessed in such an eloquent way. Universal sentiments that accompany grief, loss, love, and connection are themes that run through much of her work. I wanted to share with my readers the following poem which holds particular resonance for me, and I thank Marie Howe for graciously accepting my request to post it here.
"My Mother's Body" by Marie Howe
from The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Bless my mother’s body, the first song of her beating
heart and her breathing, her voice, which I could dimly hear,
grew louder. From inside her body I heard almost every word she said.
Within that girl I drove to the store and back, her feet pressing
pedals of the blue car, her voice, first gate to the cold sunny mornings,
rain, moonlight, snow fall, dogs…
Her kidneys failed, the womb where I once lived is gone.
Her young astonished body pushed me down that long corridor,
and my body hurt her, I know that – 24 years old. I’m old enough
to be that girl’s mother, to smooth her hair, to look into her exultant frightened
her bedsheets stained with chocolate, her heart in constant failure.
It’s a girl, someone must have said. She must have kissed me
with her mouth, first grief, first air,
and soon I was drinking her, first food, I was eating my mother,
slumped in her wheelchair, one of my brothers pushing it,
across the snowy lawn, her eyes fixed, her face averted.
Bless this body she made, my long legs, her long arms and fingers,
our voice in my throat speaking to you now.
Click here to hear poet Marie Howe's interview with Terry Gross on NPR's "Fresh Air"
What do we say to someone who has just lost a loved one? This is a question that can leave us feeling powerless in the face of another’s grief. In our society, there seems to be a taboo about discussing death. Death is the one thing that we can all count on, that we all know will come to pass for each of us. Yet many of us live our lives trying to sidestep the topic. When we hear that the loved one of a friend, colleague, or acquaintance has died, we are often at a loss for words. Death can bring up feelings in us that are uncomfortable and complicated. We know that we should say something to acknowledge the pain of the bereaved, but we often find ourselves tongue-tied or even wishing that we could avoid the subject altogether.
Much has been written about the process of bereavement. In her seminal book “On Death and Dying,” (1969) Elisabeth Kübler-Ross presents a model of grief resolution identifying the following five “stages” that a bereaved person may experience: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While it may seem that this model presents grief as a linear process with the bereaved person moving from one stage to another in a neat and tidy sequence, in practice, this process is more cyclical. An alternate model of grieving was developed by J. William Worden, PhD, and outlined in his book "Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, Second Edition" (Springer, 1991). Rather than stages, this model focuses on what Worden terms the “four tasks of mourning” and describes the tasks as follows: to accept the reality of the loss, to experience the pain of grief, to adjust to an environment in which the deceased is no longer there, to withdraw emotional energy from the relationship with the deceased and refocus it into new relationships. Grieving can be a multi-faceted process and how it manifests is highly specific to each person. These models help us to intellectually conceptualize what a person might be facing when someone close to them dies. However, when we are challenged with finding something to say to someone in mourning, we must look into our hearts and access our empathic nature.
Here are some general guidelines to consider when speaking to someone who has experienced the loss of a loved one:
1. Avoid saying things such as: “This too shall pass” or “Time heals all wounds.”
While it may be true that the passage of time allows us to work through some of the acute pain of grief, the loss of a loved one never truly “heals.” The void that the loss has created in the survivor’s life is constant and ongoing. The loved one is irreplaceable and to imply that the pain will completely pass can be viewed as insensitive. Along these same lines, avoid religious statements unless you are confident in your understanding of the mourner’s spiritual beliefs. Though you may mean well, offering words such as “your loved one is in a better place” to someone who does not believe in an afterlife can be hurtful.
2. Consider saying instead: “I know that nothing I can say will take away the pain, but I am here with you.”
Acknowledging the powerlessness of words to comfort the bereaved person is, in itself, powerful. What matters more is the empathetic connection and feeling behind the words. When you make it clear that you are a witness to the bereaved person’s pain, and will stay present in the face of their grief, your intention speaks louder than an awkward platitude. The truth is that there is nothing that can be said that will truly make the bereaved person feel much better. The comfort to the mourner lies in your courage to face the pain by their side and in their knowing that a loving friend is there to listen when and if they are ready to speak about their loss.
3. Take action.
There many concrete details to attend to when a loved one dies and the bereaved person may not solicit help. Appropriate to your level of intimacy with the bereaved, you can proactively offer specific assistance. Perhaps that means proposing to coordinate some of the funeral arrangements. Maybe it’s keeping an ongoing list of condolence cards and flowers that have been sent. One woman, with whom I recently spoke, talked of helping an overwhelmed grieving mother by “running interference” with guests at the wake. A widow shared with me how much it meant to her to be sent flowers and a note several days after her husband’s death. This personal remembrance touched her more than if the flowers had been sent to the cemetery as part of the funeral services.
4. Be careful about making assumptions about what the bereaved is feeling.
As mentioned above, grief can manifest itself in a myriad of ways. If someone who has lost a loved one is not forthcoming with outward expressions of emotion such as tears and sobs, do not assume that this person is repressing the pain. Not everyone who is invited to share deeper feelings will chose to do so and, in fact, may not be in great emotional distress. A son who had lost his father in an automobile accident received expressions of sympathy from his co-workers who couldn’t understand why he did not seem to be “upset enough.” What the well-intentioned co-workers hadn’t known, however, was that the son had been estranged from his abusive father for years and had done extensive processing of the loss of a relationship with his father well before the latter’s physical death. Subsequently, the son’s outer presentation at the news of his father’s passing was relatively lacking in emotion.
In sum, when the subject of grief, loss and bereavement is raised, we strive to say the right thing but are often at a loss to know how to provide comfort. Don’t be afraid that by acknowledging the pain of a mourner’s loss you might be causing them more pain. Sorrow may be an unavoidable part of life, but one that is made more bearable by human connection, compassion, and empathy.
Cook, A. S., & Dworkin, D. S. (1992). Helping the Bereaved: Therapeutic interventions for children, adolescents, and adults. USA: BasicBooks.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation. Five stages of grief. Retrieved September 13, 2011, from http://www.ekrfoundation.org/five-stages-of-grief
Marnee Reiley is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working with couples and adults in Irvine, Orange County, California.