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How to Deal With the Natural Process of Grieving After Loss

This life-changing process can take years to complete

By Family Caregiver Alliance | December 17, 2012

Grief is a natural process, an intense fundamental emotion, a universal experience which makes us human.

It is a process that entails extremely hard work over a period of many painful months or years. People grieve because they are deprived of a loved one; the sense of loss is profound.

The loss of a spouse, child or parent affects our very identities — the way we define ourselves as husband, wife, parent or offspring. Moreover, grief can arise from the survivor's sudden change in circumstances after a death and the fear of not knowing what lies ahead.

The death of someone close can be a life-changing experience. If you are the primary caregiver of someone you love, this experience can affect every aspect of your life for some time. It is natural to grieve the death of a loved one before, during and after the actual time of the death. The process of accepting the unacceptable is what grieving is all about.

Anticipatory Grief

If someone has had a prolonged illness or serious memory impairment, family members may begin grieving the loss of the person's "former self" long before the time of death. This is sometimes referred to as "anticipatory grief." Anticipating the loss, knowing what is coming, can be just as painful as losing a life. Family members may experience guilt or shame for "wishing it were over" or seeing their loved one as already "gone" intellectually. It is important to recognize these feelings as normal. Ultimately, anticipatory grief is a way of allowing us to prepare emotionally for the inevitable. Preparing for the death of a loved one can allow family members to contemplate and clear unresolved issues and seek the support of spiritual advisers, family and friends. Depending on the impaired person's intellectual capacity, this can be a time to identify your loved one's wishes for burial and funeral arrangements.

Sudden Loss

A death that happens suddenly, unexpectedly, is an immeasurable tragedy. This type of loss often generates shock and confusion for loved ones left behind. Such incidents as a fatal accident, heart attack or suicide can leave family members perplexed and searching for answers. In these cases, family members may be left with unresolved issues, like feelings of guilt that can haunt and overwhelm a grieving person. These feelings may seem to take over your life at first. But over time it is possible to get past these thoughts and forgive yourself and your loved one. Give yourself plenty of time; it's virtually impossible to make yourself "move on" before you're ready.

People experiencing the sudden loss of a loved one have a particular need for support to get through the initial devastating shock, pain and anger. Family members, close friends and clergy can be vital lifelines for the griever.

How Long Does Grieving Last?

Grief affects each individual differently. Recent research has shown that intense grieving lasts from three months to a year and many people continue experiencing profound grief for two years or more. Others' response to this extended grieving process may sometimes cause people to feel there is something wrong with them or they are behaving abnormally. This is not the case. The grieving process depends on the individual's belief system, religion, life experiences and the type of loss suffered. Prolonged bereavement is not unusual. Many people find solace in seeking out other grievers or trusted friends. However, if feelings of being overwhelmed continue over time, professional support should be sought.

Symptoms of Grief

Grief can provoke both physical and emotional symptoms, as well as spiritual insights and turmoil.

Physical symptoms include low energy or exhaustion, headaches or upset stomach. Some people will sleep excessively, others may find they are pushing themselves to extremes at work. These activity changes may make an individual more prone to illness. It is important to take care of yourself during this period of bereavement by maintaining a proper diet, exercise and rest. Taking care of your body can help heal the rest of you, even if you do not feel inclined to do so.

Emotional symptoms include memory gaps, distraction or preoccupation, irritability, depression, euphoria, wailing rages and passive resignation. Some people identify strongly with the person who died and his/her feelings. If you have experienced a loss and are hurting it is reasonable that your responses may seem "unreasonable." Nonetheless, it is important not to judge yourself too harshly as you experience conflicting and overwhelming emotions.

Like grief, people's coping strategies vary. Some people cope best through quiet reflection, others seek exercise or other distractions. Some have a tendency to engage in reckless or self-destructive activities (e.g., excessive drinking). It is vital to obtain support in order to regain some sense of control and to work through your feelings. A trained counselor, support group or trusted friend can help you sort through such feelings as anxiety, loss, anger, guilt and sadness. If depression or anxiety persist, a doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe antidepressant drugs to help alleviate feelings of hopelessness.

Spirituality You may feel closer to God and more open to religious experiences than ever before. Conversely, many people express anger or outrage at God. You may feel cut off from God or from your own soul altogether — a temporary paralysis of the spirit. If you are a person of faith, you may question your faith in God, in yourself, in others or in life. A member of the clergy or spiritual adviser can help you examine the feelings you are experiencing. Learning to deal with grief is learning to live again.

Stages of Grief

Often portrayed as a grief "wheel," these stages do not necessarily follow a set order. Some stages may be revisited many times as an individual goes through a grieving period.

  • Shock.
  • Emotional release.
  • Depression, loneliness and a sense of isolation.
  • Physical symptoms of distress.
  • Feelings of panic.
  • A sense of guilt.
  • Anger or rage.
  • Inability to return to usual activities.
  • The gradual regaining of hope.
  • Acceptance as we adjust our lives to reality.
Most people who have lost someone close go through all or some of these stages, although not necessarily in this specific order. This kind of healthy grieving can help a person move through a significant loss with minimal harm to self, either physical or mental.

Ethical Issues

Often family members and caregivers are faced with the decision to allow someone to die naturally or to prolong death and maintain life through artificial means. Physician training, hospital and nursing home policies often dictate the use of "heroic means" to sustain life. "Reviving" a very ill person after a stroke or using a respirator for someone deemed medically "brain dead" are standard procedures used in many hospitals.

If at all possible, it is important to learn and document a person's wishes about using artificial life support before any crisis arises. A living will or durable power of attorney for health care expresses a person's wishes when he or she can no longer speak for himself or herself. These documents can help instruct hospitals or nursing homes on an appropriate course of action to be taken at a critical moment. By law, all hospitals must inform patients about their right to fill out these documents.

When a person is confused, or otherwise unable to express preferences, family members are often put in the position of becoming surrogate decision makers. Such decisions present a thorny array of medical, legal and moral questions. Decisions to provide or withhold life support are based on personal values, beliefs and consideration for what the person might have wanted. Such decisions are painful. Family members should give themselves ample time to cope with these life and death decisions and to process feelings of doubt or blame which may surface.

Tips for Helping the Bereaved
  • Be available. Offer support in an unobtrusive but persistent manner.
  • Listen without giving advice.
  • Do not offer stories of your own. This can have the effect of dismissing the grieving person's pain.
  • Allow the grieving person to use expressions of anger or bitterness, including such expressions against God. This may be normal behavior in an attempt to find meaning in what has happened.
  • Realize that no one can replace or undo the loss. To heal, the individual must endure the grief process. Allow him or her to feel the pain.
  • Be patient, kind and understanding without being patronizing. Don't claim to know what the other person is feeling.
  • Don't force the individual to share feelings if he or she doesn't want to.
  • Physical and emotional touch can bring great comfort to the bereaved. Don't hesitate to share a hug or handclasp when appropriate.
  • Be there later, when friends and family have all gone back to their routines.
  • Remember holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries that have important meaning for the bereaved. Offer support during this time. Don't be afraid of reminding the person of the loss; he or she is already thinking about it.

Practical Assistance for the Bereaved

Things a person can do without asking:
  • Send a card or flowers.
  • Bring food.
  • Water or mow their lawn.
  • Donate blood.
  • Contribute to a cause that is meaningful to your friend or family member.
Things a person can do to help but should ask first:
  • Offer to stay in the home to take phone calls, receive food and guests.
  • Offer child care on a specific date.
  • Offer to care for pets.
  • Offer transportation.

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