Dealing With Grief
Boarding a flight, Lisa Niemi pulled out her phone and texted “I love you” to her husband. It was a sentiment she’d often shared with her partner of 34 years, actor Patrick Swayze. And even though he’d lost his battle to pancreatic cancer a year ago that week, she wasn’t ready to give it up. “Either somewhere out there he received [the message], or someone’s going, ‘Somebody loves me!’ And you know what? I figured it was a win-win situation,” revealed Niemi in an interview with People Magazine.
While sending text messages to a deceased loved one may not seem like a standard part of the mourning process, there’s no guidebook for grief.
“I have a client who never turned off her husband’s cell phone after he died. She takes comfort in calling his voice mail to hear him speak,” says Claire Bidwell Smith, M.A., L.P.C., a hospice and bereavement specialist. “Rituals and routines like that are actually healthy in confronting your emotions and can hold a person in a secure place for longer.”
Actress Michelle Williams echoed the sentiment in the months after Heath Ledger’s death. “I wish we had rituals about grief,” she said in an interview with Vogue. “I wish it were still the Victorian times, and we could go from black to gray to mauve to pink, and have rings with hair in them.”
Instead, Williams found some solace in her upstate New York garden. “[A friend] got me gardening in the spring, and that’s when it started to turn around…I remember being on my hands and knees. The ground was cold and muddy. I pushed back the dead leaves and saw the bright green shoots of spring. Under all this decay something was growing,” she said. “Caring for the garden reminded me to care for myself.”
That was something Williams had neglected to do in the weeks after Ledger’s fatal overdose, “I was severely accident-prone…I fell downstairs, broke a toe, put my fingers in a blender,” she confided. “I was holding it together by a string and a paper clip…I didn’t know if I could keep it all together.”
Jennifer Hudson described a similar fugue state after the grave murder of her mother, brother and nephew in 2008. “It’s all a blur, it was surreal,” Hudson explained in a VH1 interview. “It was like I was outside of myself.” To cope, she took to routine prayers. ”I prayed when I’d get up in the morning and prayed before I laid down at night.”
For Gwyneth Paltrow her own hair became a way of coping with the loss of her father in 2002.
“When my dad died I didn’t want to cut it off. I think it was because it was the hair he knew,” she divulged in a 2008 press interview. “One day I was on a shoot and I just suddenly said, ‘I need to cut it now.’ It was almost as if it was part of the grieving process. I just had to let something go.” Her impulse decision took six years to make.
Part of the struggle comes from the fact that there’s no time-line for the pain. Secret habits and rituals born out of loss can carry over for decades, even to the point where it becomes second nature.
“After a while you worry that the pain will pass and you’ll stop missing them, so you keep these connections,” says hospice and bereavement specialist Smith.
Smith’s familiarity with the process is more than clinical. When her mother, a talented chef, passed away, the Chicago native taught herself to tackle her mother’s recipes.
“Cooking was a big part of her physical presence so when she was gone, so were the wonderful smells that reminded me of her. It was like losing one of my senses,” says Smith who now features her mother’s dishes on her blog.
Brooke Berman, author of the new memoir “No Place Like Home,” found similar solace through her mother’s passion for clothes. “She kept everything in remarkable condition — sweaters in sweater bags, shoes in boxes, jewelry tucked away in Tiffany’s boxes.” After her death, Berman spent a year dressed in her mother’s belongings. “I had a pair of her sunglasses adapted with my prescription lenses. I wore her socks every day. I wore scarves and gloves, to keep warm that winter. I’d tell myself it was my mom keeping me warm. It completed my relationship with her, or possibly continued it.”
In the wake of Brittany Murphy’s death, her grieving mother, Sharon, admitted to sleeping in her daughter’s marital bed every night, beside Murphy’s widower, Simon Monjack. The unconventional arrangement may have seemed bizarre, but it wasn’t all that different from Berman inhabiting her mother’s wardrobe.
Unfortunately, these cathartic gestures are often partnered with shame. On one online grief forum, members anonymously share their unusual habits: buying annual Christmas presents for a deceased father, doing word puzzles once relished by a mother, calling non-working numbers just to go through the motions of contacting a lost friend. All members then pose the same question: “Is this normal?”
But nothing is normal in grief and no two mourners are the same. Some people find it helpful to broadcast their memories to a wide audience. YouTube is flooded with memorial montages. Even Angelina Jolie and her brother, James Haven, created a web video tribute of their mother three years after her death. Others would rather pay tribute in private. Kelly Preston, who planned to participate in a recent panel discussion on grief, canceled at the last minute, releasing the statement: “I am still deeply in the process of healing, and it’s just too soon.”
There is no uniform approach to loss. “The only thing that’s common is the feeling you’re losing your mind,” says Smith. “But once you share your coping rituals, however odd they may feel, you’ll find you’re not alone and not crazy at all. Then, you can start moving forward.”
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Kahlil Gibran.
At some point in our lives, we all have to face the reality of losing a friend or family member to death. The idea of losing someone we love, however, can make even the most impervious people feel uncomfortable, confused, and afraid. Yet only when we confront death can we truly understand the value and meaning of life itself.
While we all need to work through our loss, there is no set way to deal with the death of someone we love. In experiencing grief people go through a range of jarring, contradictory emotions such as denial, anger, sorrow, guilt, and relief. People may fluctuate from feeling stable to being depressed.
Ultimately, however, the key to dealing with death is the ability to accept, and adapt to, change. We must accept our loss, and we know we have achieved this when we can see the life of our loved one as a fond memory rather than as a harsh reality.
According to research, some or all of the following emotions emerge throughout the course of a normal grieving process:
Shock and surprise: People are rarely braced for someone’s death. In fact, the reality of death may not occur to a person for a number of days afterward.
Emotional release: The healthy release of tension and other emotions usually occurs during the memorialization or with family and friends, but this is only the beginning of the grieving process.
Physical distress and anxiety: During some more advanced stages of the grieving process, a person may feel so lonesome that he or she appears to develop symptoms of physical distress.
Loneliness: After the memorialization events are over, when family and friends have gone home, feelings of emptiness, isolation, and depression may occur.
Panic: It may become difficult to concentrate because of constant memories of the deceased. In fact, this may cause a person to worry about his or her own stability. Not knowing what is happening or what to do can result in panic and weakened self-esteem.
Guilt: Oftentimes survivors of the deceased dwell on the things they could have done differently and may even feel responsible for the person’s death.
Hostility and projection: This is one of the most difficult stages for relatives and friends because the survivor suddenly becomes hostile to those whom he or she thinks could have helped prevent the death. Family and friends should be tolerant and non-defensive.
Fatigue: Usually the survivor suffers in silence, weary from the depression and frustration. Becoming more active is part of the answer.
Gradual overcoming of grief: Through the affection and encouragement of friends and family, gradually a new meaning of life unfolds.
Readjustment to reality: Recalling the deceased becomes a pleasant experience and planning for the future becomes more realistic.
If you, a family member or friend are experiencing any of these symptoms, realize they are all part of the normal, healthy, and absolutely necessary process of grieving.
“One friend, one person who is truly understanding, who takes the trouble to listen to us as we consider our problems, can change our whole outlook on the world.” Dr. Elliott Mayo
Basic Needs of the Bereaved
A healthy balance of companionship and privacy: The bereaved require both time to reflect and time to share their feelings.
The opportunity to express grief without embarrassment: It is essential to provide a warm, comforting environment in which the bereaved can express their feelings openly and honestly.
Recognition of symptoms that may result from intense grieving: These symptoms often resemble physical changes that occur during or following a serious illness, including changes in: Sleep patterns, Energy levels, Eating habits, Behavioral patterns.
Support and assistance in reentering the social world: Bereaved people need to be able to trust and depend on others to help them cope with the new social situations.
The knowledge that grief is a normal, healthy process of life.
Assistance in resolving legal matters and business affairs: The bereaved need someone to help them think clearly, settle issues, and plan for the future.
The opportunity to share their experience of loss: An active, patient, open-minded listener can facilitate others’ healing by helping the bereaved reach their own conclusions about death, dying, and loss.
Six Mourning Needs
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., has identified what he calls the “six mourning needs.” There are several ways to address each of these needs and to find comfort throughout the planning of the funeral, the actual visitation or wake, the funeral or memorial service, and long afterward.
When someone we love passes away, we need to do the following: Acknowledge the reality of the death, Move toward the pain of the loss, Remember the person who died, Develop a new self-identity, Search for meaning, Receive support from others.
Although life will never be the same without the person who has died, part of him or her will remain a part of us as long as we remember what is important and forget the rest. Eventually, a new feeling of normalcy will emerge.
Acknowledge the reality of death: Have a memorialization event, speak of the person by name and in the past tense, touch the body’s hands and notice how they feel, sit with the body in private for a while, talk to the body or cremated remains (even if only in your head), or think about the things that will be different without the deceased person.
Try to move toward the pain of the loss: Viewing the dead body may be one of the most painful yet therapeutic moments for survivors, according to Dr. Wolfelt. Open yourself to your feelings by listening to music, reading poems or quotations, creating a list of what you’ll miss most, or visiting favorite places and feeling the difference of these places without your deceased friend or family member.
Remember the person who has died: Talk about him or her, look at scrapbooks or albums you may have, set up a display of his or her hobbies or talents, play the person’s favorite music, or wash and fold his or her clothes.
Develop a new self-identity: How are you different since he or she died? How are you the same? What can you do now that you didn’t consider before the death? Make a list of your strengths and needs, then create a plan for using those strengths and taking care of your needs.
Search for meaning: Consider the deep questions about life. Ask “why” questions in many ways until you begin to envision an answer—even if you believe the answer would make no difference to you. Ponder what lessons might be learned from the deceased person’s life and read poetry or philosophy that enriches your understanding of life and death.
Receive support from others: Learn to say “thank you” sincerely. Accept that you deserve support from others. Write notes to people who sent flowers, brought food, baby-sat, chopped wood, or whatever kind of gesture. Let people know what you would need or appreciate, or call a friend and explain that you just need to talk.
If you have questions or would like to speak with us about the feelings that you are experiencing or just need to talk to someone who will listen, feel free to contact us at any time. In addition to the ways of reaching us listed on the ‘Contact Us’ page of this web site, you may also reach us by e-mail at: MMountain@centurytel.net, or MountainFuneralHome@yahoo.com.