If you Google the word ‘grief,’ the search engine will deliver well over 23 million results! That’s an unbelievable amount of information about dealing with grief at a time when you may already feel overwhelmed by the smallest of tasks. We are here to help.
You Aren’t Alone
While the experience of grief can be very isolating, we would like to help you take steps to counter the feelings of loneliness and disconnection. While the articles in our grief library can make a difference in your day-to-day life; should you need additional support, please don’t hesitate to call us at (619) 942 1994. We will do our best to ease your bereavement and, if requested, provide a referral to a local grief counselor or therapist.
No one is prepared for grief. The rush of feelings, the thoughts, anxieties, and heartache can take us by surprise and drive us to our knees. Yet, when we choose to harness that power for self-growth, amazing things can happen. Good can come from pain.
Sigmund Freud first brought up the concept of grief work in 1917, and today the idea that bereavement is purpose-driven continues.
Dr. James Worden chose to see the work of bereavement as task-oriented:
Your current job is to focus your attention on achieving each of those goals. It will not occur in any logical order; each of us is different and the path we walk in the bereavement journey is not a straight one.
Dealing with grief is hard work. It takes both courage and hard work to successfully adapt to the loss of a significant person in your life.
Six Signposts Along Your Journey
Dr. Stephen Joseph identifies what he calls six signposts to facilitate posttraumatic growth. He reminds readers too that “posttraumatic growth does not imply the absence of emotional distress and difficulties in living. It does imply that it is possible through the struggle to come out on the other side, stronger and more philosophical about life.”
Before identifying these six signposts, Dr. Joseph reminds his readers of three very important things:
He also provides a fundamental rule: don’t do anything you might not be able to handle now. “If you experience intense emotions, become physically upset, or begin to panic…stop.” He gently reminds readers that “having a sense of personal control over your recovery is important. There might be some things you do not feel ready to handle now, but in time, as you discover new strength and develop new coping skills, this will likely change.”
Sign Post #1: Taking Stock
Are you physically well? Are you getting enough sleep and eating the right foods for optimum health? Have you received the kind of medical, legal, or psychological help you need? What is your current condition: physically, spiritually, and emotionally?
Sign Post #2: Harvesting Hope
People traumatized by loss often feel hopeless. It’s hard to get up in the mourning and thinking about the future sparks pessimism and negativity. Find inspiration in the stories of personal growth written by others; set goals and practice hope as you set out to achieve them.
Sign Post #3: Re-Authoring
Learn to tell your story differently. Take the victim mentality out of the story of loss you tell yourself and others and replace it with the word survivor to return to a sense of control over your life.
Sign Post #4: Identifying Change
Keeping a daily diary can help you to see the small changes within more easily. You can also track those moments when you feel at your best and identify the conditions that brought them about. Identify and nurture the positive changes in your life throughout your bereavement journey.
Sign Post #5: Valuing Change
Review these changes, identifying the ones that you’d like to continue to nurture. Personal transformation requires it. Growth is encouraged when we take time to think about what we have gained from loved ones and when we find a way to use what we have learned to give to others.
Sign Post #6: Expressing Change in Action
Express your growth in new behaviors or, more simply, put your growth into action. When you think in terms of concrete actions, it helps make the growth experienced within your bereavement real to you.
“By focusing on these six signposts,” writes Dr. Joseph, “you will find that your posttraumatic growth is beginning to take root.”
Acceptance is the very first task in your bereavement. Dr. James Worden writes that we must “come full face with the reality that the person is dead, that the person is gone and will not return.”
This is where a funeral can be very important. Traditionally, the casketed body of the deceased is at the front of the room and guests are invited to step up to personally say their goodbyes. Part of stepping up means seeing with our own eyes that death has actually occurred and that actualizing is an essential part of coming to accept the death. Yet, the tradition of viewing has eroded over time with many families today choosing cremation and opting to hold a memorial service after the cremation has taken place. The focal point of the ceremony becomes the cremation urn, holding the cremated remains or ashes out-of-sight and making the reality of the death less evident and the road to acceptance less clearly marked.
Acceptance May Seem Out-of-Reach
For many, acceptance means agreeing to reality. Most of us, when we lose someone dear to us, simply don’t want to agree to it; we actually have an aversion to agreeing and accepting. So, let’s use a different word – try adjustment, or integration. Both words focus on the purposeful release of disbelief. Someone who has integrated the death of a loved one into their life has cleared the path to creating a new life; a pro-active life where a loved one’s memory is held dear, perhaps as a motivating force for change.
It does take time. In Coping with the Loss of a Loved One, the American Cancer Society cautions readers that “acceptance does not happen overnight. It’s common for it to take a year or longer to resolve the emotional and life changes that come with the death of a loved one. The pain may become less intense, but it’s normal to feel emotionally involved with the deceased for many years after their death. In time, the person should be able to reclaim the emotional energy that was invested in the relationship with the deceased, and use it in other relationships.”
Whatever you call it, this essential part of mourning is what allows us to live fully again. It allows us to step out of the darkness of mere existence and back into the sunshine where life is sweet again. Of course, it’s a very different life than the one you had before your loved one died.
People can be very supportive in the initial days after a death. There are lots of things for them to do: help to make funeral arrangements, notify other friends and family of the death, and take care of day-to-day chores. It’s a matter of being friends: taking on the necessary tasks so survivors have the time and energy to actively mourn their loss.
Unfortunately, once the funeral is over, things can change dramatically. This support system can dissolve quickly as people return to their normal routines. The phone stops ringing and the bereaved may find their days and nights to be long and lonely.
How to Really Help Someone in Mourning
It’s about not walking away. Granted, you may part company after the funeral but a true ally doesn’t stay away long; a better-than-good ally keeps checking in with the bereaved. Being a friend in need during this time can feel very difficult.
Rachael Naomi Remen, M.D, wrote what she considers to be the focus of this grief work: “Grieving allows us to heal, to remember with love rather than pain. It is a sorting process. One by one you let go of things that are gone and you mourn for them. One by one you take hold of the things that have become a part of who you are and build again.” You do that with a model of task-oriented bereavement.
The Four Tasks of Mourning
James Worden writes that the four things that must be completed in order to adjust to the death of a significant other are:
To find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life
Those four tasks define the work of grieving. When you choose to become an ally to someone in mourning, it becomes your responsibility to support them in achieving those things within their time frame – not yours.
In no way should you impose a limit on the amount of time their bereavement takes; the only limitations you can set have to do with any negative behaviors you witness. Is your friend using alcohol or drugs to manage their emotions? Are their eating habits becoming destructive? Are they choosing to isolate themselves from the wider world? All those things should raise red flags. If you think their grief has overwhelmed them and set them upon a self-destructive course, it may be time to suggest they see a certified grief counselor or therapist.
Other meaningful things you can do to help them successfully adapt to their loss – again using Worden’s four tasks as our guide – include:
Other simple tips include these:
Author Sarah Dessen captured the nature of good listening in this passage from her book, Just Listen: “This is the problem with dealing with someone who is actually a good listener. They don’t jump in on your sentences, saving you from actually finishing them, or talk over you; allowing what you do manage to get out to be lost or altered in transit. Instead, they wait, so you have to keep going.”
So, as an ally to your bereaved friend or family member, you need to cultivate patience and the willingness to wait. You need to be watchful for signs of depression, which may include continuing thoughts of worthlessness or hopelessness, being unable to perform day-to-day activities, feelings of intense guilt, extreme weight loss, and thoughts of death or suicide. The American Cancer Society cautions that “if symptoms like these last more than 2 months after the loss, the bereaved person is likely to benefit from professional help. If the person tries to hurt him- or herself, or has a plan to do so, they need help right away.”
Sometimes it feels as if your bereavement will never end. You feel as if you’d give anything to have the pain go away; to have the long lonely hours between nightfall and dawn pass without heartache. You are not the only grieving person who has longed for some measure of relief.
In the novel, My Sister’s Keeper, author Jodi Picoult wrote, “There should be a statute of limitations on grief. A rule book that says it is all right to wake up crying, but only for a month. That after 42 days you will no longer turn with your heart racing, certain you have heard her call out your name.”
No such rule book exists. Grief counselors and therapists tell us that the length of time it takes anyone to grieve the loss of someone they held dear to them is dependent on the situation, how attached you were to the deceased, how they died, your age and gender. So many variables exist and there’s absolutely no way to predict how long it will take for you to adapt to your loss.
The Difference between Normal and Complicated Grief
Research findings have led experts to come up with many differing categories of grief experience ranging from normal to complicated. Normal (or uncomplicated) grief has no timeline and encompasses a range of feelings and behaviors common after loss such as bodily distress, guilt, hostility, preoccupation with the image of the deceased, and the inability to function as one had before the loss. All are normal and present us with profound – and seemingly endless – challenges. Yet, Katherine Walsh says, “Over the course of time, with average social support…most individuals will gradually experience a diminishment of these feelings, behaviors, and sensations.”
So, how can you know if your bereavement is no longer within the range of normal? Ms. Walsh goes on to say, “While there is no definitive time period by which this happens, if an individual or members of a family continue to experience distress intensely or for a prolonged period – or even unexpectedly years after a loss – they may benefit from treatment for complicated grief.”
A Useful Model for Assessment: Worden’s Four Tasks of Mourning
There are certain tasks that when achieved during your bereavement, can successfully allow you to emerge on the other side of loss as a better, stronger, and more resilient individual. James Worden proposed these four tasks:
To accept the reality of the loss
To process the pain of grief
To adjust to a world without the deceased
To find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life
Instead of focusing on your bodily discomforts, feelings, and common behaviors, this model allows you to better see where you may be stuck or stalled in the adaptive process. Fortunately, Worden also gives us a list of indicators advising that “any one of these clues in and of itself may not be sufficient” for a diagnosis of complicated grief. “However,” he continues, “any of these…should be taken seriously, and the diagnosis of complicated grief should be considered when they appear.”
12 Clues…12 Insights
While grief educators and theorists tell us that a diagnosis of complicated grief should not even be attempted until after the first anniversary of the death, if any one of the following symptomatic clues exists for longer than six months, you may want to consider grief counseling or grief therapy:
There are many types of complicated grief; it can be delayed, masked, exaggerated, or chronic. Self-diagnosis is without purpose. A year after the death, if you feel your grief symptoms worsening, we advise that you seek a referral from your family physician for professional grief counseling or therapy.