Although inevitable, dealing with death remains one of the most difficult experiences that humans encounter. The loss of a family member or close friend produces a range of emotions that include trying to avoid the pain, profound anxiety and a deep feeling of helplessness. Other days may bring feelings of life returning to normal, albeit, with a giant asterisk that now becomes an emotional landmark associated with the deceased.
After losing a loved one, lives become bifurcated by the date of their death; people begin to refer to life experiences that occurred “before” the loved one passed away, while also placing many things in the “after” the loved one died category.
Regardless of the gamut of emotions, grieving the loss is not only necessary in order to move forward, it’s extremely healthy. Grieving helps people to cope and heal. It honors the space in their lives where that person existed and acknowledges that without them there, a painful void now exists. The intense distress is a message that a deep connection has been severed. Grieving hurts. But it is necessary.
People who are not able to move through the grieving process may become chronically stuck and unable to move forward with their lives. Because unaddressed pain festers and interferes with normal functioning, many people resort to self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, food or some other destructive habit. The problem with using those things to numb the pain is their temporary resolve. When the numbing effects wear off, the pain is still there.
Accompanying the pain may be guilt about moving forward or enjoying their life because of the mistaken belief that the loved one is forgotten or that they are no longer missed. Finding peace after experiencing a major loss does not mean betrayal of that loved one. It simply means that grief has run its course.
In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced what became known as the “five stages of grief,” which represent feelings of those who have faced death and tragedy. Kübler-Ross proposed the following pattern of phases many people experience based on her years of working with terminal cancer patients:
Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ….”
Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what has happened.”
Although common, not everyone experiences the stages in the same order, some people remain in a stage for longer periods of time and some people may revisit stages. Understanding that the stages are normal can help a grieving person to make sense of what they’re feeling.
It’s also important to consider that because grieving can take a toll on a person physically, emotionally and spiritually; self-care is extremely important. Being gentle with oneself and affording themselves the opportunity to reflect on the loss is a necessary aspect of moving forward.
Taking care of their bodies, spending time with others and reaching out to their church community are all necessary steps for a grieving person to take. Writing about their loss in a journal can also help a grieving person to “download” feelings that are running amok within them. Ultimately, people having difficulty moving forward should consider consulting a therapist skilled with managing grief to help them to navigate this new phase of life.
The death of a loved one is a core-shaking experience that impacts every aspect of a person’s life. As hard as it may be, it is possible to find peace and move forward with hope.