Someone close to you has died. As you struggle to accept this difficult loss, you may find yourself consumed by pain, fear and grief.
Grief is a natural response to losing someone who was important to you. Grief hurts, but it is necessary. When a death tears your world apart, grieving is the process that helps put it back together.
While grief is natural, it is also highly individual. How a person grieves depends on a number of factors. Your relationship with the person who died will certainly influence your grief, but so will your age, sex, religion and previous experiences with death. The age of the deceased and the circumstances of death will also affect the intensity of your grief. In short, no one can tell you exactly how you will, or should, experience grief.
Reactions to Death
Certain reactions to the death of a loved one are quite common and you can expect to experience some of them. You may go into shock. If the death was unexpected, you may even find yourself denying at first that the person has died. "You feel numb, you feel like a spectator watching what's going on," explains Dr. Earl Grollman, noted author of books on death, dying and bereavement. Grollman says this response is nature's way of protecting you, of insulating you from what is happening.
Another immediate reaction to a death is anger. You may feel anger toward the doctors or nurses who couldn't save your loved one, toward the funeral director and toward God. You may even feel anger toward the deceased person for leaving you. Unfortunately, most of us were taught as children that anger is something to be avoided; you may therefore feel guilty when your anger will not go away.
In fact, you could find yourself feeling guilty for a number of reasons. It is common for a bereaved person to feel guilty simply for being alive when someone else has died. You may believe you somehow should have prevented the death or should have been present to say goodbye. There may be a tendency to dwell on an argument you had with the deceased.
As the reality of a death sinks in, it is common for the bereaved to slip into depression. Even if you are normally a committed, caring person, you could find that you don't care about anything or anyone.
You may also feel helpless and childlike. When you lose someone close, you also experience "secondary losses" that accrue because of the death. A woman who loses a child, for example, loses more than just her child, she loses being a mother and a parent. These secondary losses can leave you feeling confused and panicky. For this reason, you should avoid making any major decisions; try to postpone them until you can think more clearly and have a better idea of how your life is going to change.
Another common reaction among grievers is preoccupation with the person who died. You may think about him or her constantly, re-create the circumstances of the death over and over in your mind, have dreams or nightmares about the person-you may even think you see or hear the deceased. Many people are surprised and frightened by the intensity of these reactions, but it's important to realize that, bizarre as they may seem, these reactions are normal.
The mental strain of grief can take a physical toll as well. It's not unusual for the bereaved to lose weight, experience difficulty sleeping, become irritable or listless, or feel short of breath.
Coping With Grief
How can you overcome the problems of grief? You must first recognize that grief is necessary, and that it is something you must work through. As Grollman says, there is no shortcut through grief.
One of the best ways to begin working through grief is to attend the funeral. A funeral confirms the reality of death and serves as a focus for expressing feelings of loss. Funerals also stimulate mourners to begin talking about the deceased, one of the first steps toward accepting the death.
Both before and after the funeral, it is important that you express your feelings. Take time to cry and don't be afraid to share your tears with other mourners. Talk openly with family members and friends. Don't try to "protect" other family members by hiding your sadness: it helps them as much as it does you. Express your anger if you are feeling it. This is the time to lean on friends. They may feel awkward for awhile because they don't know how to talk to you about your loss. But you can help them help you by simply telling them what you need.
Lighten Your Schedule
If you normally have a pressing schedule, try to lighten it. Remember, grief is mentally stressful; you don't need the added strain of too much work to do. Set aside some quiet times for yourself, so you can think about the death and your feelings and put things in perspective.
Watch Your Health
Remember to watch your health. With grief taking a toll on you physically, you need to eat well and get enough sleep. Try to exercise as well. Physical activity can often help offset depression and provide an outlet for your emotional energy.
What if you can't seem to handle your grief? It is difficult to say when a person needs professional help, but if you are worried that you aren't coping with your grief, it is time to seek help. You may simply be relieved to discover that you are reacting normally. If you believe you need help, ask your clergyperson, doctor or funeral director to suggest a counselor.
Finally, remember that as time goes on, your grief will diminish. This does not mean you will forget your loved one; it means you accept the death and can no longer enjoy the deceased person's physical presence. But he or she will still be part of your life. Even though your relationship with your loved one has changed forever, its existence and your feelings live on forever.