How to Deal With Grief After a Loved One's Death
This can be a devastating time, but these tips from a grief expert may help
I’ll never forget that night. I was expecting my husband to arrive home from an out-of-town business meeting, but instead of hearing the garage door go up, I heard a doorbell. My heart pounded as I opened the door, and I felt it would stop when I heard that John died in a car accident and would never come home again.
The death of a beloved person is a scenario we all dread, and rightly so. It is one of the most devastating experiences one can endure. In the initial period of time after it occurs, most people wonder whether they’ll survive.
So if it happens to you, what can you expect and how do you cope? Full discussion would take a book, but hopefully these tips will help.
What to Expect Soon After the Death of a Loved One
Shock and numbness: You can’t instantly grasp the reality of what happened, much less the implications for your life. That’s actually good. The numbness allows you to compartmentalize as needed, so you can focus on essential decisions and actions. Yet because your brain still expects that person’s presence, you may dial the number, call out the name as you walk in the door or think you see him or her walking down the street. The reality will gradually hit home, bringing waves of pain and grief.
Unhelpful friends and family members: Despite their best intentions, most people don’t know what to say or do after the death of a loved one because they’ve never been taught. Many don’t want to say the wrong thing so they say nothing, skillfully avoiding you or talking about anything except what happened. Others do try, yet they repeat what everyone else always does, so their attempts are often neutral or even pain-inducing.
Still others feel it is their duty to “fix” you, telling you what to feel and how to grieve or saying that you should "get over it." This is terribly unfair, so you frequently find yourself educating others on how to support you.
A wide range of emotions: Every human emotion is caught up in the spiral of grief. You may be angry, sad, relieved, guilty, confused, vulnerable, afraid, searching, despairing or hopeful. You sometimes experience several emotions at once; other times, you cycle through them at a dizzying pace. You are simultaneously genuinely grateful for some things but desperately sad about others.
The unpredictable volatility may cause you to feel you’re going crazy. You’re not. It’s all normal for a grieving person.
4 Things to Do After the Death of a Loved One
Face the grief: Allow whatever emotions arise without allowing others to judge you for it. Cry when you need to, with no apologies. Let yourself smile or laugh, too; that helps sustain you. Find ways to name, express and gradually resolve your experience. Write in a journal, use music or drawing and/or talk to people who “get it” (friends, family, a counselor or a support group). Exercise. Sleep as best you can. Get out in nature. Freely accept help; there will be time to return the favor later. Do things that comfort you. Take care of your fragile self.
Be patient with yourself: Grief is not over in a month or even a year. The pain diminishes over time and you regain your footing, sense of purpose and capacity to love. But set no deadlines and follow your own path. Take whatever advice makes sense and ignore the rest. Live into the experience and let it unfold. Expect that even years later, you will occasionally get ambushed. You loved someone who died. Give yourself permission to mourn.
Build memories to carry with you: You will never forget, get over it, or “put it behind you and get on with life.” That’s not what healing looks like. Instead, even as you learn to let go of what can no longer be, you create memories and stories that you take with you for the rest of your life. You carry that person, their love and who you became because they lived. In fact, as Rabbi Earl Grollman says, the greatest memorial you can build to a person who dies is to live your life now as fully as possible, enriched by their memory.
Choose to heal: There is an element of healing that is a choice. You can’t go back. You don’t get a do-over. This happened to you. So now what? Do you choose to live in pain and grief or do you choose to heal? Make the choice, every day, every hour, sometimes every minute. As unbelievable as it seems at first, healing and joy are possible. Your future may be very different from the one you had planned, but it can still be a good one, holding promise, happiness and hope. Choose life.
Remember: We forever carry the burning ember of those we love within us. They are gone from our sight, but not from our hearts.