Although we all know death is simply a part of life, for many of us this is an inconvenient truth, which can be pushed aside until death somehow touches us. Nowhere is this felt and realised more than when someone close to us dies. On top of the grief that inevitably springs from such a loss, for many, the process of coming to terms with such a loss is not dealt with. When such a loss is interrupted or frozen mid stream, life can no longer proceed as it has proceeded before for the survivor. In these instances, it is ironically the acceptance of death, which re-enables the process of living.
What complicates and stops the grieving process?
There are many factors. For some, the loss can feel too large and the experience of grief can feel too engulfing and overwhelming to the point that feeling these feelings must be avoided and denied. The reality is that denial of the loss is quite a normal part of the grieving process, although it becomes complicated if one stays in that denial indefinitely.
Denial can be achieved through throwing oneself into a project or work, or making up for the loss by showering love on another, the options are endless but the strategy of avoidance is simply to be consumed by something other than the loss so as to avoid the difficult feelings of grief, sadness, shock and anger. Unfortunately when feelings as powerful as these are not faced, over time they manifest in other ways. Some people face long term depression, some have unexplainable bouts of anger or rage, others just become anxious or “heady” and uptight. Regardless of how it plays out the common factor is that the person loses their ability to understand why state of being has changed. Over time, when someone avoids the loss in these kinds of ways it is often called complicated grief. Complicated in the way that the symptoms now being faced are no longer experienced as being connected to the loss of their loved one/s.
Another complicating factor is when there’s something unresolved in the relationship with the deceased. For instance if important things were not said and completed whilst the person was alive, this incompleteness can carry forward in the living. This can be as simple as not making amends or finding forgiveness for things said and done, or not having said thank you for all which needed gratitude before they moved on. In such instances the unresolved need can live on with the survivor until they can find a way to reconcile this in themselves.
So how can we best navigate ourselves in the face of losing a loved one?
- Discuss the death with friends family. Talking through the loss is a powerful way to come to terms with the loss and is a way to stay connected in having them live on in memory and story.
- Accept your feelings. This is essential if one is to move through their grief. Feelings can range from grief, sadness, anger, depression and anxiety through to acceptance. What’s important to know is that whatever you feel in this process is ok and that over time these feelings will change, so long as they are allowed to be felt and expressed.
- Finish what is unresolved. This can be difficult if the person has already passed. How can one finish what is incomplete without them being here? Ultimately, after death, whatever is unresolved resides only in the survivor and so it is a process of reconciling in one’s self. Some ways to do this can be to write a letter and say what was not said and ceremonially then burn the letter, or travel to a special place in nature that has connection to the deceased and speak as if they were there. What is important in this resolution is not that the deceased hear it, it is that it is expressed by the survivor.
- Finding a way to say goodbye. This is why memorial services are so important, they allow us the opportunity to say goodbye whilst being connected to family and friends. If attending the funeral is not possible one can still hold their own moment of remembrance and say what needs to be said to say goodbye.
- Moving on with the deceased in your heart. In working with many clients around grief and loss, I have found that certain statements verbalised can help people to find a way of moving forward in life whilst still honouring the person lost. The task seems to be to navigate the fact one’s path with their loved one now ends, but their love lives on.
- Sometimes people feel they are not allowed to live now that their loved one has passed. When a spouse is struggling to achieve this I suggest they speak as if the person was here and say something like “I loved you in life, and I love you in death. I take you forward in my heart and will honour you in how I life my life”; or when someone loses a parent I sometimes suggest “ Thank you for giving me life, I say goodbye from here and will now celebrate the life you gave me”. The goal is to express a goodbye that is both final and not final; although they are no longer, they still live on within us and in living on with us, we choose to live.
- Recalling the good times. Funerals are about celebrating life as much as saying goodbye. Taking time to recall the good times and memories one has of the deceased helps them to find a way of taking them forward and finding a new meaning this person has in their life.
When one grieves the loss of a loved one fully and completely, research shows that they find a way of having the deceased live on within them. Ironically, this can result in one experiencing new gifts from the deceased; gifts not available whilst they were alive, although only accessible because they were.