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Grieving

When A Loved One Dies
Preparing yourself for the inevitable

Grief is a normal response to any loss and affects the grieving person physically, emotionally, and spiritually often causing the person to think and act in ways different from their previous "normal" behavior.

You may have heard something to the effect of "just give it time and you will eventually feel better. Time is necessary to the healing process, but it is only one aspect of effective grieving.

In addition to taking time, grief requires intentional "work" by the bereaved in order to achieve a healthy outcome from the process. Similar to someone taking action to seek medical help to set a broken leg so that it might heal properly, the bereaved must take action to move through grief.

The intentional "work" of grief can be summarized in five basic tasks, which involve specific behaviors (things to do to help yourself work through grief). These five basic tasks facing a bereaved person are:

  • Recognize and accept that your loved one has died and is unable to return.
  • Although this task may sound obvious, many bereaved have a difficult time accepting the reality of a loved one’s death and facing the harsh fact that the person is not coming back.
  • Experience all the emotions associated with the death of your loved one.
  • Rather than attempting to suppress emotions only to have them come to expression later in more detrimental ways, a bereaved person achieves a healthier state more quickly by giving full expression to all the emotions they are experiencing (as long as they do not express themselves in destructive ways).
  • Identify, summarize, and find a place to store memories of the deceased person which will honor the memories of that person and make room for the bereaved to eventually move on to a new volume in their life. Resolution of grief never means forgetting the loved one. Memories are precious possessions, but appropriate memories do not control our emotions on a daily basis. We are free to live life fully again in the present and remember the deceased when we chose to.
  • Identify who you are now, independent of your prior connection with the deceased person. Basically we are all individuals – that is how we were born and that is how we die. In order to truly live a full and complete life, especially following the death of a loved one, we must once again (re)discover who we are individually and independent of the relationship we had with the deceased.
  • Reinvest in life as an individual without the deceased person. We must learn to accept that all of life is marked by change. Each day calls for a new form of investment. A bereaved person has experienced a deep trauma, but eventually this can be seen as an opportunity to "begin again" in a new and fresh way.

The grieving process usually takes at least one year in order to experience all the "firsts". The grief process may take as long as two or three years, but the intensity of the emotional pain should decrease during that period of time. It is important not to make important decisions too quickly because you will feel differently about things as you move through the grief process.

A sudden or unexpected death may cause significant initial shock or numbness and may also lengthen the grieving process.

Knowing in some way that a person is going to die (anticipating the death) does not reduce the intensity of the grief or pain. Anticipating the death may help motivate you to engage in some planning (e.g., concerning financial, funeral, and relationships matters) which might make the grief process less cumbersome.

The grieving process is also affected by many other factors, including the personalities of the people involved, the type of relationship someone had with the deceased, and the present circumstances of one s life (e.g., age, family structures, finances, health, employment, children, etc.).

A person can "resolve" their grief and move again into a happy, healthy and satisfying life. "Resolution" means that the emotional pain of the death no longer controls your day to day activities and that you are once again able to develop a perspective on your life which is positive and future-oriented. Moments may arise which trigger a temporary emotional response to the death in the same way that emotions are associated with other past events in our lives, but resolved grief means that you have been able to (re)construct a new "normal" lifestyle which is fulfilling and purposeful without holding on to the deceased person.

©Susan J. Zonnebelt-Smeenge and Robert C. DeVries, 2000. Authors of Getting to the Other Side of Grief: Overcoming the Loss of a Spouse (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Company, 1998) ISBN: 0-8010-5821-X