Dealing with the Death of a Loved One

INTRODUCTION

Dealing with the death of a loved one is one of the most difficult experiences you will face in your life. After the initial shock and numbness wears off, people usually are left with depression. Your emotions may go up and down, but your pain will be there for a long time. Give yourself time to slowly heal—grieving is an important process. It can also be emotionally draining, confusing and sometimes frightening because many people are unfamiliar with it. The following will help you to understand about grief.


IMMEDIATE RESPONSES TO THE DEATH OF A LOVED ONE

The most immediate response to the death of a loved one is shock. You may feel a numbness, a feeling of being disassociated from your body, or a sense of not feeling that keeps the full awareness of the death in the background.

This shock may last for days or weeks and is a buffer so that you are not overwhelmed. It may seem that you are not reacting at all. You may respond in the following ways.

• Physical, mental and emotional numbness

• Feeling of unreality

• Hyperactivity

• Disorganized thinking

• Pain in the chest/heart

• Outbursts of crying

• Being passive—not feeling

• Thinking about not wanting to live

• Shortness of breath/tightness of throat

There is a wide range of responses to the death of a loved one.

You are unique, and your responses will be unique.


STAGES OF GRIEF

Most people who have lost a loved one report going through several stages in grieving. These stages vary in length for each individual. Any feelings you have are normal. Remember that the intensity of feeling will not last forever.

The impact stage, involving shock, disbelief and denial, is the first stage. You may feel numb, paralyzed, confused, or helpless. It is too soon to accept the depth of your loss.

Next, the reality of your loss begins to sink in. This can be very upsetting. You will probably feel overwhelmed by depression, guilt and/or anger. You might find yourself directing anger at the nearest object, whether appropriate or not (your spouse, children, doctor, minister, God or even the dead person himself). You may feel vulnerable. Your mind may wander, making it difficult to read, write or make decisions. Sleep can be difficult, leaving you tired and less able to deal with everyday matters. You may lose interest in eating. You may also be more susceptible to minor aches and illnesses. You may have an irresistible urge to get away, a fear or dread of being alone or an unreasonable fear of danger.

Remember that any or all of these feelings are normal, and that they will not last forever. Most mourners will move beyond this stage of anger and depression into the recovery stage. This does not mean that you will forget your loved one or that the pain disappears completely. But you do slowly heal and start to break the strong emotional ties with the past and focus on the present and the past and focus on the present and the future. You become aware of sources of strength within yourself and decide to move on with your life. Give yourself all the time you need to heal.


FEELINGS

At times you may seem fine and then, for no apparent reasons, the pain will wash over you like a wave and knock you down. Maybe a sight, smell or sound that you didn’t even recognize will trigger that waver of pain. Let it be there, it will subside.

Lowered self-esteem may be a result of feeling that you must have done something bad to deserve this kind of pain and loss.

Detachment -- Feeling detached from self and others are common during the grieving process. You may feel empty and disconnected—that you are a “shadow of your former self.” Know that this conflict is normal.

Denial – Denial manifests itself in expressions like, “This just can’t be true!” or feelings that it’s all a bad dream and you’ll soon wake up and all will be well.

Guilt – You may feel guilty. Grief often involves guilt. “If only” and I should haves” may be swimming around in your head. Express your feelings, knowing that all relationships have their difficult moments and shortcomings. Forgive yourself and remember, too, the loving times.

Anger – You may be feeling anger at your loved one for dying and leaving you. You may know that this is unreasonable, but still feel anger. It is normal to feel anger at someone for dying, even if they had no control over dying.

Remember that everyone responds differently to grief. Give yourself all the time you need to heal.


NORMAL REACTIONS

When the numbness/shock wears off, you may experience the full impact and pain of your loss.

Emotional Reactions – You may feel any of the following: crying, anger, sadness, guilt, loneliness, helplessness, acute suffering, withdrawal, unresponsiveness, emptiness, hopelessness, despair, panic depression, feelings of being overwhelmed, bitterness, self-pity, resentment, abandonment.

Physical Reactions – Your body may react to grief with: numbness, tightness in the throat, difficulty in breathing, pain or tightness in chest, nausea, exhaustion, fatigue, digestive problems, sleep disturbance, blood pressure changes, blurred vision, headaches, weight loss/gain, decreased resistance to illness, glandular disturbances, lack of muscular strength, a feeling of emptiness, diarrhea/constipation, loss of interest in sex, dizziness, taking on the physical symptoms of the deceased.

Mental Reactions – As your mind attempts to take in your loss, you may experience confusion, decreased self-esteem, lack of concentration, denial, a sense of unreality, detachment, loss of control, insecurity, disorganized thinking, “if onlys” and regrets, hostility, unfairness of the situation, searching for the deceased, thinking you are going insane, thinking constantly of your loved one, thought of dying, dreams of the deceased.

Spiritual Reactions – In your need to find a meaning related to your loss, you may feel anger at God, and a need to question “Why did this happen? You may question, temporarily abandon or change your belief system, or you may become more religious than in the past, or search for answers or meaning in death/life.

These feelings and responses may come in waves and are normal.


REACTIONS OF CHILDREN

It is impossible to predict how an individual child will react to the death of a loved one, and there can be many, varied normal responses. One response is insecurity and distrust. The child may think that if one loved one deserts him, other may too. Some children fear that they themselves will disappear. They must be reassured that there is no reason to think this will happen. They need an extra amount of love and affection.

Another response is bodily distress. Children may not able to sleep, have more nightmares, lose interest in eating, wet the bed or have trouble at school.

Many children will show an unending curiosity about death and ask questions repeatedly. It is best to answer these questions honestly and openly, to the best of your ability.

It is common for children to feel very guilty about a family death, especially of a sibling or parent. Children have difficulty separating their thoughts and acts. They may think their own bad thoughts caused a person to die. Sometimes, they may act badly to get attention or to get the punishment they think they deserve.

Children may not show obvious grief. They may simply imitate the dead person in play activity, and seem unconcerned. Remember that this reaction also is normal.

Regardless of the individual child’s reaction, he or she needs to feel safe and loved. There is so much happening at the time of a death that children sometimes are forgotten. It is important to include children in your grief. Let your child see your feelings so he or she understands that it is okay to feel hurt, angry, lonely or sad. It is best to be honest about the death and to share your true feelings about what happens when we die. Saying the dead person has “taken a journey” or “gone to sleep” can cause confusion. Honest, direct explanations plus a lot of love and reassurance will help your child deal with death.


REACTIONS OF MEN AND WOMEN

Men and women often deal with feelings differently. Society encourages women to openly express themselves while encourage men to “be strong.” Women may want to talk about their grief. Men may want to keep their feelings inside and focus their energy on work. These differences may make if difficult for husbands and wives to support each other. Communication, trust and acceptance of differences can help.


COPING WITH FAMILY AND FRIENDS

Friends and family may feel inadequate, and they may not know how to support you in your grief. How can you help them to help you?

• Let them know that it is OK for you to talk about your loved one. Memories are precious and need to be shared.

• If someone offers to help, give them specific tasks for which you have no energy (i.e., errands, bringing in dinner, answering phones, etc.). A friend or neighbor can coordinate these tasks.

• If you have children, ask their friends or special adults in their lives to help you support them.

• Let them know that you need some one to continue to listen to you, even though you may be retelling or repeating your story.

• Tell them you will need more calls after several months when the reality sets in and the loneliness begins.

It’s okay to cry, get angry or express your emotions with family and friends.


THE FUNERAL

In this time of loss, making decisions about the way you choose to honor your loved one may be difficult. If the death is sudden and plans have not been made, you can still make appropriate choices. Planning may be painful, but the funeral is an important ritual acknowledging the life and death of your loved one. Important things to remember:

Support – The funeral or memorial service is an occasion for support by your friends and community.

Children – Should you include them? Yes, if they are willing to participate. Grief is a family affair. Being included in the plans and attending the service will allow the children to express their feelings. Be hones and answer questions as they ask them. The fear of the unknown is greater than the known.

Family Meeting – Decide together the most appropriate way to honor your loved one.

Choices – Remember you have choices and options. In making decisions you gain some feeling of control in the situation. Some questions need to be addressed immediately:

• Do you want a funeral or memorial service?

• Where do you want to hold the service?

• What can you comfortably afford?

• Do you want burial or cremation?

• Will there be a viewing or visitation?

• Do you want an open casket?

• Do you want to write the obituary?

• Who do you want to write the eulogy?

• Do you want a memorial or flowers?

• What music would comfort you?

Viewing the body – This can help in the acceptance of the death. It is also a time of saying goodbye to your loved one. Viewing the body makes the death a reality, and triggers open expression of grief. The viewing can be done in the days before the service, as well as at the service.

REMEMBER that you DO have choices.


SOME SUGGESTIONS FOR HEALING

Take care of yourself. Don’t expect too much from yourself. Take some time out to let your body and emotions rest. Take care not to overextend yourself.

• Eat a balanced diet.

• Stay away from alcohol and tranquilizers—they will only delay the healing process.

• Give yourself permission to pamper yourself.

• Take baths, walks in the park, read a book, get a massage, listen to music, go to a movie. Do whatever makes you feel better.

• Working can help to ease your mind, but be careful to do only as much as is comfortable and no more.

• You will probably need more rest than usual.

• Ask for help with daily tasks. People want to be of help.

• Reach out to others. Don’t isolate yourself. Be accepting of understand and support from your friends, family and fellow employees.

There is no need to overprotect yourself. Just understand that most of your energy is being used in the healing process.


WHERE TO GO FOR HELP

Often in times of distress, we turn to our families for help. It is important to remember that your family members are probably experiencing feelings similar to your own. They may be so involved with trying to cope themselves, that they don’t have the energy to help you. You may not be able to give them emotional support either. Don’t feel that you have to be strong for others. Take time to heal yourself.

Sometimes friends and relatives may not seem to understand. They may tell you not to dwell in the past or to “get on with your life.” These comments are usually said in an effort to help, but may make you feel isolated and alone.

There are places you can go for help. There are counselors who understand grief and who are there to let you talk, cry or share your experience. They can help you find ways to cope with your loss. There are also support groups of people who have suffered a similar loss. Don’t be reluctant to ask for help. Reach out for support.