Going Forward after Grief and Loss

grief-and-lossLike many of life’s passages, how we approach and deal with the loss of a loved one is as individual as each person. Even if we are not experiencing an immediate loss, most of us have lost family and friends over the years. The older we get, the more likely we are to live with a sense of bereavement (loss from death) in some meaningful way.

Many are familiar with “On Death and Dying”, by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, which outlines five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Kubler–Ross’s “Stages of Grief” are commonly recognized and identified in our culture as part of the grief process.

Current research and theory has moved beyond that model. In fact, it is more widely appreciated now that Kubler-Ross’s work was not actually based on grief felt by surviving loved ones. Rather it was based on the grief process experienced by terminally ill patients who were facing up to their own deaths. In that context, the first stages of denial, anger, and bargaining make more obvious sense than when applied to the sudden but very real death of a spouse or child.

A newer model of the grief process is tailored to fit individual situations. This model could be seen as three stages. The first stage is Shock and Numbness. This is often noticeable after a sudden loss when family members and loved ones seem to move through the funeral events in a trance and are often described to be “in shock”. The sense of shock seems almost protective, allowing survivors to do what must be done at the end of life and to endure the goodbyes and events that will take place.

After shock wears off, a second stage of Acute Grief may set in, where the bereaved deal with the deep sense of loss and change that has happened.  This may last for a long or short time, depending on the individual. What usually happens is that this period does not come to a clear end point. Instead it starts to be interrupted by periods of normalcy, happiness, etc., where the person feels good for a while. Then the acute grief may return. Over time, the periods of normalcy become more frequent and the periods of active grieving become shorter.

Eventually, the stage of Resolving the Loss and gradual re-entry into normalcy or what may be a new normal life begins. As with the earlier stages, this is flexible and may come with a return to active grief for periods of time. Landmark holidays or memorable dates, family events etc. often cause a temporary return to a more acute sense of loss and grief.

What this means is that grieving is best regarded as a universal journey that is unique to each person. The following are some suggestions for providing support to someone dealing with grief and loss.

1. Listen

This means putting aside our natural desire to “fix” what is wrong and simply being there to allow the grieving person to express what they are going through in the moment.   Often, people only need to be heard. Someone suffering a great loss does not expect another person to make it better. Just getting through a day is may be very difficult and having someone there who is willing to spend some time by their side, letting them express only what they want to say can be much appreciated.

2. Don’t minimize the loss

Sometimes in our efforts to make someone feel better, we offer quick fixes for things that can’t be fixed and unintentionally trivialize major issues. Saying things like “it wasn’t meant to be” or “He’s in a better place,” may not comfort a grieving person. If you want to be supportive, you have to be supportive of what the person is actually feeling – not your definition of what they should be feeling. Many people feel angry and lost and have other complicated emotions. The best consolers do not attempt to frame the loss or put it in any context but simply acknowledge and respect it regardless.

3. Don’t be afraid to mention the loss or the person

Many feel that talking about the specific loss makes things worse. This is not usually the case. Often so many people avoid mentioning it or the person who has died that it seems like they never existed. It can be comforting to remember happy times, to talk about how much the person meant in their lives. This also respects and acknowledges the grieving person by dealing with the reality of their loss rather than treating them like a child or like someone who is likely to fall apart.

4. Reach out

Grieving people are often dealing with a combination of feelings and tasks that suddenly must be done or taken over from someone else. Dealing with insurance, now having to mow the lawn, deal with taxes, the car, or just get food on the table can be overwhelming. People often don’t know where to begin and when well-meaning helpers say “Just tell me what I can do,” they may have no answers. Better to offer some specific help. Say “Can I mow the law for you?”, “Let me take the kids for the afternoon,” etc. or whatever you know would really help. All of this will depend on how well you know the person and how they feel about accepting help in general. You may have to offer a few times and make it a point to be very present so the person feels that you really mean it when you say you want to help.

5. When to suggest professional help

If the grieving person is having trouble carrying on with daily life, having severe physical symptoms, not eating, or sleeping, etc., professional help may be in order. Often their personal or family physician is the first call too make. An employee assistance program such as Capital EAP can offer direct counseling support to grieving individuals as well as provide referrals to qualified counselors for non-EAP members. A call to Capital EAP at (518) 465-3813 can be an important first step on this important life journey.

(Adapted from Grief and Bereavement Issues, Kathryn Patricelli, MA, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.)