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Dealing with the death of a loved one

The death of a loved one is an event that all of us is likely to experience during our lifetimes, often on numerous occasions. Whilst lives are often transformed by such loss, it does not necessarily need to be for the worse in the long term. Dealing effectively and positively with grief caused by such a loss is central to your recovery process and your ability to continue with and fulfill your own life for the better.

We have put together some notes in this section to help you understand some of the emotions you are likely to go through after the death of a loved one and to offer some suggestions on how best to cope and deal with these emotions.

What is Grief? Am i Grieving?... I am Grieving.

You’ll grieve in your own unique way,and a general pattern will emerge as you do so. Those around you may be full of ideas about how you’re supposed to grieve, and how not. You may be told that grief comes in clear-cut stages and you may even be given a name for the stage you’re supposedly going through. You may hear advice like "Be strong!" or "Cheer up!" or "Get on with your life!" rather than be encouraged to allow your grief to run its natural course. It’s important for you to be clear that this is your grief, not theirs. You’ll grieve in no one’s way but your own.

Grief is about more than your feelings—it will show up in how you think. You may disbelieve this person actually died. You may have episodes of thinking like this even long after they died. Your mind may be confused, your thinking muddled. You may find it difficult to concentrate on just about everything. Or you may be able to focus your attention but all you can focus on is the one who died, or how they died, or your life together before they died.

Physical responses are also to be expected. You may experience tightness in your throat, heaviness across your chest, or pain around your heart. Your stomach may be upset, along with other intestinal disturbances. You may have headaches, hot flashes, or cold chills. You may be dizzy at times, or tremble more than usual, or find yourself easily startled. Some people find it hard to get their breath. You may, in addition, undergo changes in your behavior. You may sleep less than you used to and wake up at odd hours. Or you may sleep more than normal. You may have odd dreams or frightening nightmares. You may become unusually restless, moving from one activity to another, sometimes not finishing one thing before moving on to the next. Or you may sit and do nothing for long periods.

Some people engage in what’s called "searching behavior"—you look for your loved one’s face among a crowd of people, for instance, even though you know they’ve died. You may become attached to things you associate with your loved one, like wearing an article of their clothing or carrying a keepsake that belonged to them. Or you may wish to avoid all such reminders.

Many grieving people want to spend more time alone. Sometimes they’re drawn to the quiet and safety they experience there, and sometimes it’s a way of dodging other people. Even venturing out to the grocery store, a shopping mall, or a worship service can feel uncomfortable. There are some people, however, who want to be around others even more than before. You may find that you’re jealous of people around you who aren’t grieving. You may envy what they have that you don’t. You may resent how much they take for granted when you now realize that nothing should ever be taken for granted. You may become critical in ways that are unlike you. Fortunately, this shift is usually temporary.

Some grieving people report unusual happenings that are not easy to describe yet seem very real. You may be going about your daily life and suddenly have a sense of your loved one’s presence. Some people report having auditory or visual experiences related to this person. At times the loved one offers a message during a dream or time of meditation. Try not to worry if something like this should happen to you once in a while. Such experiences are more common than you might think. Research also indicates that people’s responses during times of personal loss will be influenced by how they’re raised, their genetic make-up, and society’s expectations. Consequently, some people are naturally more feeling-oriented as they grieve, while others are more oriented toward using their thinking processes. Some respond outwardly, while others keep to themselves. Some want to have a close network of friends around them, and others prefer to be independent.

Ordinary, healthy grief has many possible faces and can express itself in many different ways. You are your own person, with your own personality, your own life experiences, your own relationship with the one who died, and your own understanding of life and death. So you should not expect a "one-size-fits-all grief" that will suit you. You’re too unique for that. Despite your individual uniqueness, you’ll probably discover an overall pattern to your grief as it progresses. It often begins with a time of shock and numbness, especially if the death was sudden. Everything seems unreal. This is usually followed by a time when pain sets in. Sadness, loneliness, helplessness, and fear may come over you in powerful waves. Anger and guilt may do the same, and continue for awhile. In time there comes a slowly growing acceptance of what has happened, but it’s not necessarily a happy acceptance.

It’s common to feel listless and lifeless, discouraged and sometimes depressed. Other strong emotions can still pop up. This is the winter of your grief—a long, slow, dormant period. In actuality, something is beginning to grow, but it’s hidden deep underground. A time of gradual reawakening eventually occurs, though you can’t always predict when. Energy begins to return. So does hope. Finally there comes a time of renewed life. You’re not the same person you were before—you’ll be different, having been changed by this experience, having grown. You’ll forge a new relationship with the one who died, a relationship that transcends time. This entire process is very fluid. It may not feel very orderly. These time periods will flow into one another almost imperceptibly. But when you look back, you’ll recognize what’s happened: by going all the way through your grief, you’ve taken the path toward your healing.

The story of the "bird on the branch"

A tired bird was resting on a branch for support. It enjoyed the view from the branch and the safety it offered from dangerous animals. Just as it had become used to that branch and the support and safety that it offered, a strong wind started blowing and the branch started swaying back and forth, with such great intensity, that it seemed that it was going to break.

But the bird was not in the least worried for it knew two important truths. One was that even without the branch it was able to fly and thus remain safe through the power of its own two wings. The second is that there are many other branches upon which it can temporarily rest.

This small example represents the ideal relationship between ourselves and our relationships, possessions and social and professional positions. We have the right to enjoy all these, but cannot as long as we are dependent on them and are afraid of losing them. They are all in a state of change and can disappear at any time.

Our real strength dose not lie in those external ephemeral things, but rather on our two internal wings of love and wisdom. These must become our security base, our source of enjoyment and happiness.

Key principles to remember when dealing with the death of a loved one

Accept that loss is a basic part of our life cycle. Whatever is born must die. Whatever grows must decay. These are universal laws. We tend to forget that these physical bodies are mortal. Everything we see around us will one-day decay and cease to be. That includes all plants, animals, people, buildings, cities, the planet earth, the sun and even the galaxy. Everything in the physical universe is temporary. When this fact is understood and accepted, we will begin to seek other, inner sources of security and happiness.

Confront death: We need to ask, "what is death?" What is the nature of that energy, that power, that consciousness which, when it was in that body, caused it to think, speak, move, love, feel and create? Now that it is gone, there is a mass of cells that will soon decompose.

What is life? What is its purpose? A number of us have been forced by the death of the loved one to investigate these questions. Death forces us to look deeper into the nature and purpose of life. Reexamine our life values and goals: Contact with death awakens us to the fact that someday we too will die. This generates a number of questions. Will we have fulfilled our life purpose? Why have we come here to the earth? Why have we taken this physical body? Is our life part of some greater process? If so, what does it require of us? How can we live our lives more in harmony with that purpose?

Answering these questions might motivate us to change our life style, live a more meaningful existence, improve our character, purify our love, or investigate the deeper truths of life. We may also discover that life is more meaningful when we value others and their needs.

How can I help a friend with the death of a loved one

Someone you know may be experiencing grief - perhaps the loss of a loved one, perhaps another type of loss - and you want to help. The fear of making things worse may encourage you to do nothing. Yet you do not wish to appear to be uncaring.

Remember that it is better to try to do something, inadequate as you may feel, than to do nothing at all. Don't attempt to sooth or stifle the emotions of the griever. Tears and anger are an important part of the healing process. Grief is not a sign of weakness. It is the result of a strong relationship and deserves the honour of strong emotion.

When supporting someone in their grief the most important thing is to simply listen. Grief is a very confusing process, expressions of logic are lost on the griever. The question "tell me how you are feeling" followed by a patient and attentive ear will seem like a major blessing to the grief stricken. Be present, show that you care, listen.

Your desire is to assist your friend down the path of healing. They will find their own way down that path, but they need a helping hand, an assurance that they are not entirely alone on their journey. It does not matter that you do not understand the details, your presence is enough.

Risk a visit, it need not be long. The mourner may need time to be alone but will surely appreciate the effort you made to visit. Do some act of kindness. There are always ways to help. Run errands, answer the phone, prepare meals, mow the lawn, care for the children, shop for groceries, meet incoming planes or provide lodging for out of town relatives. The smallest good deed is better than the grandest good intention.

How can I help a child with the death of a loved one?

Children grieve just as adults do. Any child old enough to form a relationship will experience some form of grief when a relationship is severed. Adults may not view a child behavior as grief as it is often demonstrated in behavioral patterns which we misunderstand and do not appear to us to be grief such as "moody," "cranky," or "withdrawn."

When a death occurs children need to be surrounded by feelings of warmth, acceptance and understanding. This may be a tall order to expect of the adults who are experiencing their own grief and upset. Caring adults can guide children through this time when the child is experiencing feelings for which they have no words and thus can not identify. In a very real way, this time can be a growth experience for the child, teaching about love and relationships.

The first task is to create an atmosphere in which the child's thoughts, fears and wishes are recognized. This means that they should be allowed to participate in any of the arrangements, ceremonies and gatherings which are comfortable for them. First, explain what will be happening and why it is happening at a level the child can understand. A child may not be able to speak at a grandparent's funeral but would benefit greatly from the opportunity to draw a picture to be placed in the casket or displayed at the service. Be aware that children will probably have short attention spans and may need to leave a service or gathering before the adults are ready. Many families provide a non-family attendant to care for the children in this event.

The key is to allow the participation, not to force it. Forced participation can be harmful. Children instinctively have a good sense of how involved they wish to be. They should be listened to carefully. Parents who openly talk about their grief, cry, and express frustration, send a message to their children that it is okay for them to do so. Because children cannot carry the burden of all your pain, try to maintain times for play and talk without conversation about the dead person. Balance, as best you can, the sharing of sad feelings, with the sharing of more pleasant activities and times shared together. This lets your surviving children know how much they are valued.

If your child has had an experience with death, (perhaps a pet, or a grandparent), it may be easier to explain the death. Here are some questions which many children wonder about and some suggested answers:

Is death like sleeping? Death is different from sleeping. When you go to sleep your body still works. You still breathe and your heart beats and you dream. When a person is dead, his or her body doesn't work anymore. Remember that children who are told that death is like sleeping may develop fears about falling asleep.

Why did they die? If the death was from an illness, explain that the person's body couldn't fight the sickness any more. It stopped working. Make sure your children know that if they get the flu or a cold, or if mom or dad get sick, their bodies can fight the illness and get better. Their bodies still work. Explain that people do not usually die when they get sick. Most people get better. If the death was from an accident, explain that the person was hurt so badly that his or her body stoppingworking. Explain that when most people get hurt they can get better and live a long, long time.

Will you die? Will I die? Children are looking for reassurance. Let your child know that most people live for a very long time. Children also need to know who will take care of them if a parent or guardian dies. Let them know who to go to for help if there is a family emergency.

Did I do or think something bad to cause the death? Maybe your child had a fight with the person who died. Maybe your child wished this person wasn't around to get so much attention from other family members. Maybe your child said, "I wish you'd go away from me," or even "I wish you were dead." Reassure your children that saying and wishing things do not cause a death to happen.

Will they come back? "Forever" is a hard concept for young children to understand. They see that people go away and come back. Cartoon characters die and then jump up again. Young children may need to be told several times that the person won't be back ever.

Is she cold? What will he eat? Young children may think the dead body still has feelings and walks and talks under the ground. Some children might imagine a cemetery as a sort of "underground apartment complex." You may need to explain that the body doesn't work anymore. It can't breathe, walk, talk or eat anymore.

Why did God let this happen? Answer questions related to God and your faith according to your own beliefs. You may also want the counsel of your clergy. It's okay to not have answers for everything. Children can accept that you, too, have a hard time understanding some things. It is best to avoid suggesting God "took" someone to be with him, or that "only the good die young". Some children may fear that God will take them away too. They may try to be "bad" so that they won't die, also.

Returning to School

Going back to school following a death can be difficult. You can make this easier by helping your children with possible answers to questions and remarks. Schoolmates may not always be sensitive to your children's feelings. Tell the child that, if they don't want to, they don't have to answer questions. Explain that others may be uncomfortable talking about the person who died. Your home can be a place where you and your child can talk about and remember the loved one. You may want to talk with the school principal, your child's teacher, the school social worker, or counselor, to plan for a surviving child's return to school. You may also want to discuss what information you would like shared with his/her classmates.

Grief work to help effectively deal with grief

Psychotherapists refer to the process a bereaved person will encounter as "grief work." This is because the process is not one that just happens to you, or that will be healed only with time. "Grief work" means tackling some very difficult emotional tasks. Those families who work through these tasks do eventually experience relief from the intense pain. It has been said that there is no way around grief. You must go through it in order to come out of it.

A well-known psychologist, William Worden, Ph.D., has explained the tasks of grief. These tasks are discussed below. Working through your grief can take many, many months or years.

1. Accepting the reality of loss.
When a loved one dies, people often experience a sense that it isn't true. The first task of grieving is to come to the realization that this person is gone, and that reuniting with him or her, at least in this life, will not happen. Some families tell us they sense their loved one's presence through sound, sight, smell or touch. Whether or not these experiences are "real" is a matter of belief. However, they are common and not a sign that one is "going crazy".

2. Working through the pain of grief.
One of the goals of grief counselors is to help people through this difficult time, so that they do not carry their deep pain with them throughout their entire life. Those people who allow themselves to feel and work through the deep pain find that the pain lessens. Some things may prevent this experience. Friends, relatives, and co-workers may give subtle or not so subtle messages to "pick yourself up and go on" as if nothing has happened. Or, sometimes family members cut off their feelings and deny that pain is present. Allow yourself the time to cry or to be angry. Many people find these feelings appear while going through their daily routines such as grocery shopping or driving to work. Know that these experiences, though very hard, are normal.

3. Adjusting to an environment in which your loved one is no longer present
Your loved one had a special place in your heart and in your family. They can never be replaced. But bereaved families can eventually adjust to the absence of a loved one. This process might involve finding new ways of interacting with your surviving family members and friends.

4. Withdrawing emotional energy and reinvesting it in other relationships
Many people misunderstand this task and believe it means forgetting about their loved one. They believe that this would be dishonoring their loved one's memory. This task is simply a continuation of the first three tasks. It involves the process of allowing yourself to make relationships with others. It does not mean that you care any less about your loved one or that you will not keep your special memories.

5. Rebuilding faith, beliefs and values that are tested by the loss of a loved one.
The loss of a loved one can test your faith and philosophical views of life. Talking with a spiritual leader or advisor such as a rabbi, priest, minister or holy person may be helpful since they have experience counseling others who have experienced a loss. Many bereaved families, whom we have known over several years, can remember their loved one and smile. Sometimes there is still sadness, though it does not come as often and is not as draining.

Over time and through these "tasks", you will begin to remember your loved one without experiencing the unbearable pain. It will be a different kind of sadness. Do not hesitate to seek professional help. Counselors are trained to assist you in working through these tasks and other issues you may be facing. It is okay to ask for one session with a therapist to see if you both will be able to work together.

Do's and Don'ts for friends and families when dealing with the bereaved

As a friend or family member, you may not know what to say or how to act. There are few rights or wrongs. There are, however, some things that may be more helpful than others.

Here are a few suggestions that may help you.

  1. Just be a good listener. People need to talk a lot about the death of their loved one. The more they talk, the more they process the reality.
  2. Don't be judgmental. There is no timetable for completing the grief process. People resent being told "You should be over it by now." Moving toward acceptance is a lengthy process even if people return to work quickly.
  3. Talk about the person who died. Don't be afraid to bring up the subject for fear of making the family feel worse. They are already feeling bad and think about their loved one most of the time. They'll know that this person was also important to you and not forgotten.
  4. Inquire about the well-being of all family members and loved ones--men as well as women. Men are frequently presumed to be okay when, in fact, they are not.
  5. Stay in touch. People will not have the energy to call you. Reach out and make the contact by phone or a personal visit. Invite the bereaved family out for a meal.
  6. Don't use cliches. Be honest with your own feelings. If you have trouble thinking of something to say, just be there for the person. You can extend a touch, or send a card. Saying too little is better than too much.
  7. Look for an immediate need and fill it. This could be shopping, preparing a meal, answering the phone, baby-sitting, helping with out of town relatives. Check back often to offer support.
  8. Try to understand the grieving process. There are many good reference books for sale and in libraries.

Dealing Positively with the Loss of a loved one

The following list can be very supportive in our effort to cope with the departure of a loved one. If you find any of these helpful, write them down with large letters and place them where you can see them often. Feel free to alter them so that they apply more appropriately to your own specific needs. You could also make a cassette with such messages to play while in deep relaxation or as you fall asleep. Share these thoughts with others.
  1. I am an eternal soul and have the power to live an abundant and meaningful life. All is within me. I feel secure, protected and tranquil.
  2. My loved one is an eternal, immortal soul who continues to live in another dimension more beautiful than the one in which I currently exist.
  3. Since my loved one is very well and far closer to his or her true divine nature, I can be glad for him/her and can give joy to myself and to those around me.
  4. Everything happens according to wise and just divine laws which give us the lessons we need for our spiritual evolution. For some reason, it was best for my loved one to move on to another level of existence and for me continue on here, without him or her.
  5. Everyone on this earth has lost loved ones. This is a natural and universal aspect of material existence.
  6. The departure of the soul from the restrictions of the temporary physical body is a beautiful liberation from a very limited incarnated state.
  7. The loss of my loved one is a great opportunity for spiritual development through the cultivation of inner power, tranquility, security and self-acceptance.
  8. I accept the perfection of the Divine Laws, and I release God, myself and all others for any responsibility for what is happening to me.
  9. My loved one would want me to be happy and to continue my life creatively and beautifully.
  10. I am a pure divine being and deserve unconditional love. I am acceptable, lovable and interesting as I am.
  11. The loss of a loved one is not related to guilt or punishment but, is instead, a great opportunity for spiritual development and inner growth.
  12. No one can be responsible for someone elses death. Each soul has selected the hour and the place when he or she will leave. Others are simply the instruments we use for our departure.
  13. I can, even now, correct my relationship with my loved one with inner communication and prayer.
  14. I open myself to my brothers and sisters in the family of humanity who are now sharing this planet. My loved one would want me to do so.
  15. I share with others my sorrow and joy.
  16. I find meaning in myself and my life by relating, serving, creating and evolving.
  17. Life is a divine gift and it is my duty to use it to benefit myself and others.
  18. Today, 40,000 parents have lost their children. Tomorrow, another 40, 000 parents will lose their children. I am not alone in pain. Departure from the physical body is a natural part of life on earth.
  19. There is one universal life force, expressing itself through all beings. The same consciousness that expressed itself through my loved one is now expressing itself through every being around me. When loving and offering to others, I love and offer to him/her as well.

Using MuchLoved to help with your grieving

Creating a memorial website as a way of expressing and sharing your grief with friends and family is one way in which you can try to positively deal with grief caused by the death of a loved one. MuchLoved is dedicated to helping cope with death through the creation of individual and sensitive tribute websites and if you would like to create a tribute for your loved one please do consider giving MuchLoved a try. Thank you for your consideration.


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