What is Grief?
“Grief is reaching out for someone who’s always been there, only to find when you need them the most, one last time, they’re gone.”
The death of a loved one is life’s most painful event. People’s reactions to death remain one of society’s least understood and most off-limits topics for discussion. Oftentimes, grievers are left totally alone in dealing with their pain, loneliness, and isolation.
Grief is a natural emotion that follows death. It hurts. Sadness, denial, guilt, physical discomfort, and sleeplessness are some of the symptoms of grief. It is like an open wound which must become healed. At times, it seems as if this healing will never happen. While some of life’s spontaneity begins to return, it never seems to get back to the way it was. It is still incomplete. We know, however, that these feelings of being incomplete can disappear.
Healing is a process of allowing ourselves to feel, experience, and accept the pain. In other words, we give ourselves permission to heal. Allowing ourselves to accept these feelings is the beginning of that process.
The healing process can take much less time than we have been led to believe. There are two missing parts. One is a safe, loving, professionally guided atmosphere in which to express our feelings; the other is knowing how and what to communicate.
The Grieving Process
When we experience a major loss, grief is the normal and natural way our mind and body react. Everyone grieves differently. And at the same time there are common patterns people tend to share.
For example, someone experiencing grief usually moves through a series of emotional stages, such as shock, numbness, guilt, anger and denial. And physical responses are typical also. They can include: sleeplessness, inability to eat or concentrate, lack of energy, and lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed.
Time always plays an important role in the grieving process. As the days, weeks and months go by, the person who is experiencing loss moves through emotional and physical reactions that normally lead toward acceptance, healing and getting on with life as fully as possible.
Sometimes a person can become overwhelmed or bogged down in the grieving process. Serious losses are never easy to deal with, but someone who is having trouble beginning to actively re-engage in life after a few months should consider getting professional help. For example, if continual depression or physical symptoms such as loss of appetite, inability to sleep, or chronic lack of energy persists, it is probably time to see a doctor.
Allow Yourself to Mourn
Someone you love has died. You are now faced with the difficult, but important, need to mourn. Mourning is the open expression of your thoughts and feelings regarding the death and the person who has died. It is an essential part of healing. You are beginning a journey that is often frightening, painful, overwhelming and sometimes lonely. This brochure provides practical suggestions to help you move toward healing in your personal grief experience.
Realize Your Grief is Unique
Your grief is unique. No one will grieve in exactly the same way. Your experience will be influenced by a variety of factors: the relationship you had with the person who died, the circumstances surrounding the death, your emotional support system and your cultural and religious background.
As a result of these factors, you will grieve in your own special way. Don’t try to compare your experience with that of other people or to adopt assumptions about just how long your grief should last. Consider taking a “one-day-at-a-time” approach that allows you to grieve at your own pace.
Talk About Your Grief
Express your grief openly. By sharing your grief outside yourself, healing occurs. Ignoring your grief won’t make it go away; talking about it often makes you feel better. Allow yourself to speak from your heart, not just your head. Doing so doesn’t mean you are losing control, or going “crazy”. It is a normal part of your grief journey. Find caring friends and relatives who will listen without judging. Seek out those persons who will “Walk with, not in front of” or “behind” you in your journey through grief. Avoid people who are critical or who try to steal your grief from you. They may tell you, “keep your chin up” or “carry on” or “be happy.” While these comments may be well intended, you do not have to accept them. You have a right to express your grief; no one has the right to take it away.
Expect to Feel a Multitude of Emotions
Experiencing a loss affects your head, heart and spirit. So you may experience a variety of emotions as part of your grief work. Confusion, disorganization, fear, guilt, relief or explosive emotions are just a few of the emotions you may feel. Sometimes these emotions will follow each other within a short period of time. Or they may occur simultaneously.
As strange as some of these emotions may seem, they are normal and healthy. Allow yourself to learn from these feelings. And don’t be surprised if out of nowhere you suddenly experience surges of grief, even at the most unexpected times. These grief attacks can be frightening and leave you feeling overwhelmed. They are, however, a natural response to the death of someone loved. Find someone who understands your feelings and will allow you to talk about them.
Allow for Numbness
Feeling dazed or numb when someone loved dies is often part of your early grief experience. This numbness serves a valuable purpose: it gives your emotions time to catch up with what your mind has told you. This feeling helps create insulation from the reality of the death until you are more able to tolerate what you don’t want to believe.
Be Tolerant of Your Physical and Emotional Limits
Your feelings of loss and sadness will probably leave you fatigued. Your ability to think clearly and make decisions may be impaired. And your low energy level may naturally slow you down. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. Nurture yourself. Get daily rest. Eat balanced meals. Lighten your schedule as much as possible. Caring for yourself doesn’t mean feeling sorry for yourself; it means you are using survival skills.
Develop a Support System
Reaching out to others and accepting support is often difficult, particularly when you hurt so much. But the most compassionate self-action you can do during this difficult time is to find a support system of caring friends and relatives who will provide the understanding you need. Find those people who encourage you to be yourself and acknowledge your feelings - both happy and sad.
Make Use of Ritual
The funeral ritual does more than acknowledge the death of someone loved. It helps provide you with the support of caring people. Most importantly, the funeral is a way for you to express your grief outside yourself. If you eliminate this ritual, you often set yourself up to repress your feelings and you cheat everyone who cares for a chance to pay tribute to someone who was, and always will be, loved.
Embrace Your Spirituality
If faith is part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs. If you are angry with God because of the death of someone you loved, recognize this feeling as a normal part of your grief work. Find someone to talk with who won’t be critical of whatever thoughts and feelings you need to explore.
You may hear someone say, “With faith, you don’t need to grieve.” Don’t believe it. Having your personal faith does not insulate you from needing to talk out and explore your thoughts and feelings. To deny your grief is to invite problems that build up inside you. Express your faith, but express your grief as well.
Allow a Search for Meaning
You may find yourself asking, “Why did he die?” “Why this way?” “Why now?” This search for meaning is another normal part of the healing process. Some questions have answers. Some do not. Actually, the healing occurs in the opportunity to pose the questions, not necessarily in answering them. Find a supportive friend who will listen responsively as you search for meaning.
Treasure Your Memories
Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after someone loved dies. Treasure them. Share them with your family and friends. Recognize that your memories may make you laugh or cry. In either case, they are a lasting part of the relationship that you had with a very special person in your life.
Move Toward Your Grief and Heal
The capacity to love require the necessity to grieve when someone you love dies. You can’t heal unless you openly express your grief. Denying your grief will only make it become more confusing and overwhelming.
Embrace your grief and heal.
Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Remember, grief is a process, not an event. Be patient and tolerant with yourself. Never forget that the death of someone loved changes your life forever. It’s not that you won’t be happy again. It’s simply that you will never be exactly the same as you were before the death.
Accepting a Loss
For each of us - rich or poor, young or old -there are times in our lives when we must face and deal with personal losses and the pain and sorrow they cause. Examples that come easily to mind are the death of a parent, spouse, child, or other close family member or friend. Many other events and transitions also bring with them sadness and a need to grieve:
Being told you have a serious, possibly terminal illness.
Having to give up interests and activities that have been a major part of your life.
Seeing serious decline in mental or physical health of someone you love.
Retiring from a work career or voluntary activity that has helped shape who you are and what you stand for.
Losing a significant part of your independence and mobility; even giving up driving a car can be a significant loss for many people.
Moving out of your home.
Saying goodbye to a favourite pet.
Losses such as these are simply part of living. Like their counterparts among the joyful occasions in our lifetime - the birth of a child or grandchild, a celebration of marriage, an enduring friendship - they are part of what it means to share in the human experience. And the emotions they create in us are part of living, as well.
“The experience of grief is powerful. So, too, is your ability to help yourself heal. In doing the work of grieving, you are moving toward a renewed sense of meaning and purpose in your life.”
- Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, Center for Loss and Life Transition
The death of someone we care about can be one of the most difficult experiences of life. Words seem inadequate to describe how painful the grief we feel can be. It is often much more challenging than we expect and then others seem to think. These articles will help you understand something about the grief and how we can help ourselves and others through the difficult process.
These articles were written by Dr Bill Webster, a Director of Grief Education. Dr Bill is the founder and Executive Director of the Centre for the Grief Journey. He earned his doctorate at the University of Toronto in 1990, and has been awarded the prestigious Fellow in Thanatology by the Association of Death Education and Counselling (ADEC).
Dr Bill’s knowledge of grief is not just in theory, but from a very difficult personal experience. In 1983, Bill’s young wife died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving him not only to cope with his loss, but also to raise his 2 sons, who were only 9 and 7 when their mother died. Dr Bill has become a recognized author, a renowned international speaker and seminar leader, and brings 30 years of experience in the field of grief support and counselling.
Here at the funeral home Betty Wood facilitates a Peer Grief Support Group twice a year, spring and fall. Betty has spent over 150 hours training with Dr Allan Wolfelt in Colorado at the Centre of Loss and Life Transitions, receiving her Death and Grief Studies Certificate. This group meets for twelve consecutive weeks, at the funeral home. During the meetings people share as much or as little as they like. New relationships are built, and tools for dealing with grief are learned. Having a funeral here is not required to join the group, just contact Betty at the funeral home to see about availability. The group is usually limited to ten people. Our funeral home also has a grief library that books may be signed out of.
The Loss of a Spouse
By Dr Bill Webster
A 50/50 chance, to any gambler, is a pretty good bet. But did you ever stop to think that if you are in a significant relationship, there is a 50/50 chance that you will eventually grieve the loss of your partner. Listen to some of the stories of people who experienced the loss of a spouse.
“I would go to work and it would seem that everything was the same as it had always been. But then I would come home. Wow! Just walking into that empty house. Nobody to say hello or ask me how I got on that day. No delicious aroma of supper in the oven. I had to make my own meal, when I felt like it and most of the time I didn’t because I was missing what I had lost, not just my wife, but also the person who used to look after me. That was when it hit me hardest.” Michael
“The days that followed his death were both utterly full and completely empty, full of activity yet empty of life. Much of the time I sleep walked through the things I had to do, so numb that I was often completely unaware of what was going on around me. I felt like Pinocchio must have felt inside of the whale, cut off from everything that I thought was my life. Then an event or a few spoken words would bring me out of my darkness, only to find myself standing alone and confused on some strange and unfamiliar shore, full of feelings and memories, but also feeling utterly lost.” Robyn
“She was not only my wife. She was also the one who would tell me if my socks matched; if my tie was straight, or if my hair was combed. She was able to tell me with one look if I was talking too much or saying something stupid. She was the one who would remember all the birthdays and special occasions, and all I had to do was sign cards. She was good at all the things I am not good at. So she complemented me and made me more whole. God, I miss her so much. I feel like part of me is missing.” Joe
A common theme among people who have lost their spouse is the debilitating effects of feeling entirely alone and incomplete. The sense of feeling like you have lost an essential part of yourself is both painful and disconcerting. The world suddenly looks like a different place, often odd and distanced. You are not sure how to cope with life in general, and sometimes you may even wonder if you even want to try.
One 68 year old widow said, “There is no use trying because you can’t get anywhere anyway. I’m so tired all the time. Everything is too much effort.”
Some of the most common feelings and concerns after the loss of a spouse are reflected in the following statements:
I felt like I had lost my best friend
I am angry
I feel guilty that I didn’t do enough for him/her
I am afraid
I worry about lots of things, especially money
Suddenly I feel very old
I feel sick all the time
I think about my own death more frequently
I seem to be going through an identity crisis
I feel relieved that his suffering is over, then immediately guilty for feeling that way
Behind each of these statements is a feeling. To fully understand the effects that the loss of that spouse has on that survivor, we need to understand the dynamics behind each of these reactions. The feeling communicates what the person is missing and offers an opportunity to examine the deficiency and find ways to cope with these responses in a way which will ultimately facilitate healing.
First, it is essential to recognize that healing cannot take place unless you express what you are feeling and thinking as a result of your loss. That which cannot be put into words, cannot be put to rest. This is where a support group can play such a vital role for grieving people. The opportunity to talk about the person, their life as well as their death, what you miss about them, your feelings of loneliness, anger and many others, and to review the final days of their life and your relationship.
Even when there is some ambivalence about certain aspects of the life shared, it is important to verbalize your anger or your regret about what you lost and never had, or about what could or should have been.
There are some very real consequences from not expressing feelings. Studies clearly show that mortality rates are higher among those who do not articulate their grief, and this may also account for the much higher rate of males who die within a year of their spouse, due to the societal norms that make it more difficult for men to express emotions.
Some survivors ask, “How long should I talk about this? What is normal?” This concern is often motivated by the fact that within a few weeks or months of the death, others seem reluctant to talk about it. After all, their life has returned to normal. But the widow or widower needs to talk about it, because it just feels unbelievable. Life will never be “normal” again (even though a new definition of normality will be established eventually). So some grieving people need to talk for six months, but for others it can be two years or longer. Everyone needs and deserves to follow their own time line.
Over the years, I have noted four situations particularly affecting grieving spouses that require an inordinate amount of personal courage:
Coping with persistent unpleasant memories
Avoiding certain rooms or situations in the house
Experiencing hallucinations where the dead spouse is seen or heard
Dealing with their spouse’s personal effects (clothes, tools, etc.)
Unpleasant memories most often relate to the painful images surrounding the death, and the frustration of not being able to “do” anything to change the outcome. Often through a life-threatening illness, a relationship will peak in one direction or another, a good relationship will tend to get better, a poor relationship will tend to get worse, although there are glorious exceptions.
This intensity of the relationship prior to the death magnifies the loss, either by the person missing all the things done and shared through the illness, or by feelings of regret that they did not do enough. Often the inability of the survivor to “let go” of the image of the person in the present is connected to one or other of these factors.
If the person is avoiding sleeping in their own bed, or steering clear of certain areas of the house, this behaviour should not be considered unusual or pathological. They are merely protecting themselves from stress. There is a reason for every behaviour and perhaps that location is a too painful reminder of the death, or expresses a concern as to “how will I manage”.
Hallucinations (or however we choose to define these experiences) have a wide range of “explanations”. Is it a “visitation of the person’s spirit”, or is it a “product of sensory recall”? I try not to attempt to explain what it may or may not be, but rather to ask how the survivor felt after the experience. And almost always, the person feels reassured, relieved, comforted. If that is the effect, it hardly matters whether it is a dream, a hallucination or a visitation, and to argue that seems to me to miss the point.
Dealing with a spouse’s personal effects is something many survivors procrastinate over. Sometimes this has to do with an understandably low physical energy and emotional stamina. Because these are “special things” you may not know who to give them to or what to do with them. That is OK.
Do nothing until you are sure that you feel comfortable with what will happen, even if that takes several months or longer. But when you do decide, ask a friend or family member to assist, or even just to be there and talk to you while you do it. Maybe there will be things that you simply do not want to discard or give away so keep them. Remember, it doesn’t hurt anyone or anything to leave your spouse’s things right where they are. Don’t allow anyone to force you into dealing with things until you are ready, sure and comfortable.
So far we have looked at some of the unique challenges surrounding the loss of a spouse.
Now we turn to examine how the surviving individual must convert the mourning process into a nurturing process as they seek to rebuild and reorganize a life where they feel like a half of them is missing.
I believe that an often overlooked aspect of losing a spouse is the change in identity the survivor experiences. We tend to define ourselves by our relationships, our work, our activities and involvements. Many couples define themselves as just that - a couple. It is not me, it is we. Admittedly the degree of change will be determined by the complexity of the relationship. But we really cannot understand what any person has lost until we understand the relationship that was shared and is now lost. What is missing from that relationship is really what the person is grieving. And, obviously, every single relationship is unique, with different dynamics and interaction.
So it is reasonable to say that the more dependency the person had on their spouse and the role as husband or wife, the greater the void now that the role is no longer there.
In other words, the surviving spouse not only grieves the person who has died, they also grieve the role that is lost. They suddenly find themselves cast into the role of being a “widow” or a “widower”, a role they neither relish nor desire. The question becomes, “Who am I now?” I still feel like the same person, but my roles in the family, community have changed. This, by the way is often why a grieving spouse will find comfort in getting back to work, because at least there, their role remains somewhat “constant” in that familiar context.
Read the comments of one widow:
“For almost a year after Jim’s death, I thought of myself as only his wife. I had invested my whole self in him. I had to think, no, I didn’t give him all I had, I loaned it to him. Now I needed to reclaim it, take it back, because I needed it for myself.”
Of course, reclaiming ones self is only possible when you know who your “self” is. Before you are able to reclaim, you have to identify and redefine, “Who am I now” in the light of my loss. The W of ‘we’ has to become the M of ‘me’, but turning a W to an M means turning everything upside down, and that is exactly what the widowed person may feel.
So how can a grieving widow or widower redefine themselves? I think it is inextricably linked to interests and experiences. People who get involved, whether in necessary tasks like looking after children, family or work, or by involvements in the community, groups, activities, find that these things increase self esteem and energy as they enhance the person’s identity.
But let’s take a walk on the wild side. Although it is grossly unfair, the widower is often viewed as more “socially acceptable” than the widow. Because the percentage of widows greatly exceeds that of widowers, males are regarded as “eligible” whereas females are regarded as a “threat”. Accordingly, hostesses more frequently extend social invitations to males than to females, so a widow’s social life may not be as jam-packed. On the other hand, because many men rely on their wives to arrange social activities, after her death it may be difficult to go out without her, to develop social skills, or to put forth the effort that he will need to enjoy the pleasure of other people’s company. Again, social clubs or support groups can provide a good bridge to help the person develop skills, or at least feel more comfortable in such situations. Michael, almost a year after his wife died, said:
“I think the difference between a male’s grief and that of a female is a cultural thing. Men are not as social as women. I mean I have friends, but when we sit down for a drink or something we talk about business or sports or activities.”
“Men aren’t really taught to relate their feelings, or emotions, and certainly not their vulnerabilities. So when my wife died, my friends didn’t know what to say, as if they were afraid to ask me how I was feeling.”
Physical health is another area that concerns many people. Suppressed emotions can contribute to physiological symptoms, which can have serious consequences. Health doesn’t just happen! It involves exercise, good nutrition, avoiding excessive intake of caffeine, alcohol or drugs. Some survivors live on coffee or snack foods and rarely eat a balanced meal.
“The last thing in the world I wanted to do was eat. Everyone kept urging me to “eat something” so if someone was there or watching me, I would eat something to please them. But when I was alone, I ate nothing. In the first month after my husband’s death, I lost 20 pounds. It wasn’t till I started walking daily with my neighbour that my normal appetite returned.”
Insomnia is one of the major symptoms resulting from conjugal bereavement. This can be aided by what we do and what we consume in the hours before going to bed. But many males experience other physical symptoms. Again Michael brings an important insight:
“I’ve noticed some changes in my health. Particularly in my stomach - pains, indigestion, and other symptoms I won’t mention in polite company. My doctor put me through tests, which I think was a good thing to do, but he indicated that often men experience physiological reactions to the emotional stress of grief. That doesn’t minimize their importance. Maybe it’s easier for us to say “I have a pain in my stomach” than it is to say, “I have an ache in my heart.” But whatever it is, it is important to pay attention to the message.”
It may seem strange, but several people have reported to me how changing their physical environment has helped their emotional state. We should all from time to time look around our environment, at home and at work. Many times that can reflect our emotional state. A cluttered, untidy or dismal environment can often reflect a state of mind. But the opposite is also true.
Change usually happens from the inside out rather than the other way. The more you do to enhance your environment, making it cheerful and pleasant, the more your emotional health will be positively influenced. While everyone is different, I found after my own wife died, and I was left to raise my two young sons, that I had to carefully arrange the surroundings in my home in order to better cope. I put lots of colourful and happy things in the kitchen, because that was where I had my biggest struggles after her death. I put positive, inspiring posters and items in the bedroom, because that was where I felt most lonely. I had one room where I had pictures and artifacts of our life together, and when I wanted to think about her, that is where I would go. When I left that room, I closed the door and focused on all the tasks I had to get on with.
Add colour, brighten the place, tidy up a space for yourself, buy a new chair...the ways to make your daily living more pleasant are innumerable and the positive impact on your emotional wellbeing will be tangible.
There is of course no definite point at which the grieving process is complete. Can we ever say, “I have completely healed from the loss of my spouse”? Who knows! But as we redefine ourselves; as we relinquish old roles and establish new ones; as we develop increasing confidence in our social outlets that satisfy personal needs and coincide with our interests; as we become more able to talk about our loss with relative ease; as we become able to be involved in an activity without being plagued by painful memories and images, as we find ourselves more able to reach out to others, and not be afraid to have fun and even to laugh again; you will be reassured that healing is being reaffirmed.
But it does take time. As one lady put it:
“A year was a big event for me. But once I got through that, I felt like I didn’t have to look back. Now I could look forward to see what I could do with what I had left. So I asked myself “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” I want to do something significant but I’m not exactly sure what just yet. For the first time in my life I can do whatever I want and I plan to make the most of it.” And why not?
Loss from a Child’s Perspective
By Dr Bill Webster
“My mother died when I was 5 years old. I felt like I was insignificant, as if I was getting smaller and smaller - so unimportant that I might disappear. It’s very hard to explain, but I believed I was wrong, somehow. For years I felt like I was on the outside of things, even though others would not have thought I was.” Sally, 35, who lost her mother.
Sally’s words teach us that a child’s feelings resulting from the death of a parent or sibling may not be obvious to others. Because the child thinks the universe revolves around them, a death can produce an anxiety that translates into a “fear of losing myself”. Sally, at 5, felt like she was getting “smaller and smaller” and that she might “disappear”. This fear of being lost, and the related anxieties about being on the outside of things is common among children of all ages. It should be obvious that any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve. Children of all ages are affected by any significant loss, and often very deeply, because their coping mechanisms are just developing. To understand the complexity of how each situation affects a child, we should ask ourselves:
“What does this loss mean to this child, at this time in his/her life?”
However it is important to recognize that a child’s comprehension and their response to a death varies, depending on their age and developmental levels. Death means different things to children of different ages.
For infants, awareness of their world is limited, so the death of a mother is perceived as “unavailability” or “absence”. An infant’s needs are for physical contact, warmth and consistency, which creates security. The absence of a nurturer poses a threat to survival, resulting in fears.
Between about 2 - 4 years, a child still has no concept of the permanence of death, but their fears are more numerous. Cartoons suggest that characters can be blown up, run over, hurt, but then simply get up and go about their business. Likewise the young child may believe that “Mum will come back” and may continue to act as if the dead person is still alive. Death is just a “sleep” from which they didn’t wake up.
Between ages 5 - 9, a child’s understanding of death undergoes another change. This is often the age of “magical thinking”. They see death as coming from an external source; a bogeyman, or angel who comes to take people away. They regard it as some kind of enemy or assailant. Thus children may regard death as something to outwit, rationalizing “if I am good or do the right things I will be able to reverse this.” If we do not make children a part of what is happening, or keep it “a secret”, they assume that somehow they are responsible, which mistaken perception merely adds complications to their mourning.
Again remembering that we are talking developmental levels as well as actual ages, between 9 - 12 the child begins to understand that death is the end of life, irreversible, and is a natural part of life rather than an enemy who steals people away. They become more concerned with the consequences of death...“who will take care of me? will we have to move? will Dad marry again? (and if so what will happen to us?)” Because they are no longer thinking of themselves as “little children”, they may present a façade of independence and coping. They want to comfort a surviving parent or family member, and may try to assume the roles of the person who has died. They want to be helpful, which can be OK, but caution is required.
All too often younger children have a terrible burden placed on them by some well intentioned person who says, “You need to act grown up. You’re the father/mother of the family now.” The child will assume the role to attempt to master their pain and deny their helplessness, but it is unrealistic to expect a child to be anything other than a child.
Older children often need help to express their grief, especially over the loss of a parent. Research clearly shows that teenagers have more intense grief, but struggle desperately not to show it.
Adolescents are suspended between the dependency of childhood and the adult responsibility they hope to earn. The young person may fear that expressing deep sadness or grief displays a return to childhood vulnerability, which they resist stoically. But also, it is part of the teenage role to be in conflict with parents, and so when a parent dies during this transition between reliance and self-determination, there can be a struggle. Besides, it is not regarded as “cool” to be talking about missing your parents.
Teenagers are exceedingly concerned about the acceptability of their responses to others, particularly their peers. Thus the teen may find it difficult to express the feelings the death of a parent can raise.
Any death confronts teenagers with their own mortality. They could die. Angry at the death, they may adopt a “Why should I care” attitude. Perhaps as a defense, or maybe in defiance, young people sometimes engage in reckless or dangerous behaviours to show they don’t care or to try to prove they are immortal.
As we have mentioned, a child who has been personally affected by death will have multiple fears, among which might be:
Fear of losing the other parent (then what will happen to me)
Fear that he or she too will die
Fear of going to sleep (lest I never wake up, like Mum)
Fear of being separated from a parent or sibling
Fear of being unprotected
Fear of sharing feelings or emotions with others
One teenager says: “I was afraid to talk about how I felt to my mother because I knew she would start crying. Then my older brother would get mad at me for upsetting mom. So I kept my feelings to myself, and pretty soon I was afraid to say anything to anyone.”
Guilt often comes from four common beliefs expressed by surviving children:
The death is a punishment for my bad behaviour.
I wished the other person dead. (The child is thinking that their wish that the person would “drop dead” or similar sentiment has caused it to happen.)
I didn’t love them enough, (so that is why they left.)
I should have died. (Often with the death of a sibling, the child may hear the parents talk of the deceased in glowing terms, and feel like they preferred the sibling to the surviving one; or maybe would wish that they had died and the deceased had survived.
Special care is necessary when talking to children about death:
Children tend to mourn little by little, bit by bit, and should be allowed to process their grief in child-sized segments. Do not expect the child to respond in an “adult way”.
Use language that is appropriate to the age of the child. Try to use concrete rather than abstract language. Initiate the conversation. Children may not ask questions because they are unsure if they will upset us adults. Ask, “You’ve probably been wondering about...” and then try to pose the question the child may be asking. Answer the child’s questions openly and honestly, and even if there is no answer, be up front about that.
Observe how the child may be feeling. Dispel any fears, including the anxiety that someone else in their family, or they themselves will die also.
Reassure the child about his/her place in the family; that the family still exists and their place in it is just like always.
A few practical guidelines:
Speak to your childrens school and teachers, and make sure that they are aware of the circumstances surrounding the death. This will help them understand your child’s behaviour and help them if they become upset. In some cases counselling or support groups may be available through the school.
When describing the death of a loved one, use simple direct language.
Be honest. Never teach a child something they will later have to unlearn.
Allow children to express all their emotions.
Listen to children, don’t just talk to them.
Don’t expect the child to react immediately. Be patient and available.
Understand your own adult feelings about death and grief, for until we have come to terms with it for ourselves, it will be difficult to convey a positive attitude to children.
Children do not stop grieving until they have gone through all their developmental levels. At each stage, there is a new learning about the old experience. The child may grieve until they become young adults, because it is not until we are sure that we can survive the experience that we are able to integrate the fact of our loss into our changing lives.
Helping Children Cope with Grief
By Dr Bill Webster
It is important to note that children have many questions about death, and these are usually different than the ones that occur to adults. Children’s questions deserve simple, straightforward answers.
The first task of a grieving child is to make sense of the factual information about how the loss occurred. A caregiver’s direct, concrete explanation of the facts surrounding the death will help the children begin to come to terms with what has happened. They may ask to hear the facts a number of times. They may also want to share the story with many others - friends, teachers, strangers etc., to try to comprehend the unimaginable that has happened.
Children’s perception of loss and their grief has to be understood according to their developmental levels. Death, or indeed any loss, means different things to children of different ages. Enquire and try to figure out what this loss mean to this child at this particular time in life. What they feel they have lost will be a determinate of what they are missing, and what needs to be.
Dispel any fears the child may have. Children are often afraid that someone else in the family, or they themselves will die also. They need to have reassurance that these fears are unfounded. Every child is afraid of being abandoned, so if one parent has died, the remaining parent can assure the child that he/she expects to live a long time, and will take care of all the child’s needs.
Children need to teach adults about their grief. Every child and every response is unique. Rather than assuming that we know what the child is feeling, we must allow the children to be our teachers. As children share their grief with others they trust, they tell us what they are feeling and experiencing. As adults communicate respect, acceptance, warmth and understanding, the child will sense that they are being taken seriously and be more open to the stabilizing presence of that individual as they reach out with meaningful support.
Children express themselves in a variety of ways after a loss. Some of the most widely recognized include: an apparent lack of feelings; acting out behaviour, due to feelings of insecurity and abandonment are often expressed by behaviours which provoke punishment, for children would rather be punished than feel ignored; regressive behaviour; fear; guilt and self-blame; “Big Man” or “Big Woman” syndrome, (often encouraged by those who with good, yet unwise intentions tell a 10 year old that he has to be the “man of the family”); disorganization and panic; loss and loneliness; explosive emotions.
Simple ceremonies such as lighting a candle next to a photograph; placing a letter, picture or special memento in a casket; or releasing a helium balloon with a message attached for the person who died, can be effective rituals of farewell. Children can be wonderfully creative with these kinds of meaningful, symbolic ideas.
Speak in simple language: Ask the child what he/she thinks, knows and feels, and respond specifically to these concerns. Do not give excessive detail, and make sure you check how the child is putting the information all together.
Be honest. Avoid half truths. Never tell a child something he/she will later have to unlearn. Don’t avoid the word death, because sometimes the alternatives (asleep, gone away, in a better place, etc.) create worse difficulty in a child’s mind.
Be open about the situation: When my wife died, my boys were 9 and 7 years of age. As much as I might have wanted to, there was no avoiding the questions that arose. “Why did Mommy die?” “Where is she now?” “What will we do if you die too?” I tried to answer the questions they asked simply and honestly, without giving too complicated responses. They discerned that I was making them a part of it all, and was being open about everything and accepted that.
Initiate the conversation: Children may not ask questions because they are not sure if they will upset we adults. They may not know what to ask, or be able to put their uncertainties into words. They know that something unusual is happening, and are scared by it. Instead of asking questions, they may turn to whining or other negative behaviors, which add to your emotional stress. In response, rather than helping them cope, adults may get upset or angry and this adds to the reluctance to talk. Try to be sensitive to opportunities to ask children how they feel. We might ask, “You’ve probably been wondering about...”, and pose the question that the children may be asking.
Sometimes our concern for the children can mask a deep need to resolve our own adult grief issues. Sometimes it is easier and more socially acceptable to say, “I am concerned about the children,” than it is to say, “I’m having a hard time dealing with this myself.” So be careful not to transfer your own fears and anxieties on to the children.
Often a child may benefit from a support program. Talk to your doctor, spiritual leader or other community resource people to see what programs are available for your children.
Above all, let the child know that these feelings of grief are natural and a necessary part of the grieving process and that their grief will pass. Assure them they are not alone, and that others, including you yourself, feel sad as well. Assure the child, however, that these feelings will pass with time, and that life will return to normal.
An important influence on children is watching how adults are responding. Caring adults can help guide children through this difficult time and make it a valuable part of personal growth and development. When you support children through these difficult life transitions, they will know without a doubt they are not alone. There is no greater gift we can give our children.
Grief After Suicide
By Dr Bill Webster
“You never get over a suicide. You just learn to deal with it. The worst part is not knowing why. If I could just say he had been depressed, or seeing a shrink, or anything that might have explained it, it would have been better. But I just don’t know why he did it.” (Julie, whose teenage son hanged himself.)
Jim’s 29 year old son had suffered from severe manic depression for 4 years when he jumped from a high rise apartment building. Jim did know a reason, but found that to be of little comfort:
“It was just unbelievable to me. Why did he do this? Why didn’t he come to me for help? And then I felt anger. For four and a half years, I had done everything under the sun to help him. What else could I have done? I felt very guilty because if I could have helped my son, I would have done anything.”
While we often correctly say that “there is no such thing as more or less difficult, it is just different”, there are some situations that are uniquely difficult. One is the loss of a child. Another is a death by suicide. And when these two situations come together, as it did for both Julie and Jim it can be a devastating blow to “suicide survivors” (this term for the purposes of this article refers to those who have lost someone to suicide.)
It is not my intention to outline the many and varied theories of suicidal behaviour, many of which are conflicting. The focus here is on how we help support suicide survivors through their unique process. There are some sobering facts, however:
Every day, throughout the world, over 1000 people complete suicide.
It is estimated that for every suicide there are 15 unsuccessful attempts.
White males over the age of 50 make up approximately 10% of the population but account for 28% of the total suicide deaths.
Men complete suicide three times more than women, but women attempt suicide five times more than men. Most attempts of suicide are made by women in their 20s and 30s.
Suicide tends to run in families, but it is learned not genetic. Often it is unconsciously suggested as a means of coping with overwhelming moments.
People who talk about suicide complete suicide. Suicide rarely happens without warning.
When someone completes suicide, the mourning process for survivors is different in at least 2 ways.
The period of numbness and disbelief will be longer, extending the duration of the grief process;
There is the added burden of understanding the motivation for the death.
For suicide survivors, the grief process is particularly long given the complexity of issues survivors struggle with. This means that one year after the death, the griever may still be in the depths of their grief, long after society expects people to be over their grief. Jim observes:
“I think before the grief really set in, it took over a year. I mean there are times when I still think this is unbelievable. But I think it took a year for me to really believe it. And I think that it was because I surrounded myself with him, looking at pictures, and talking about him to everyone that helped me come to terms with it in such a short period of time. I don’t know if a year is a short period of time or not, but it is very real to me today.”
For this reason, patience on the part of the helper is most important. There is no way to speed up the grief process. One can only go through it! Our task as helpers is to provide a safe and nonjudgmental environment where the griever can begin the telling of “the story” (of the life and of the death) and develop effective tools for dealing with their grief.
Perseverance is also required because, for many survivors, basic trust in relationships with others was broken when the person completed suicide. This means that it is often difficult for them to establish new relationships because they feel cautious about reconnecting or new connections.
One of the differences in the grief process after suicide is that the act involves a conscious choice, which is different than sudden death through accidents or cancer. It is this element of “choice rather than chance” that complicates the grief process.
The following is an example of some of the things survivors might say to themselves that lead to these feelings:
Shame - “What would people think of me if they knew my child completed suicide?”
Blame - “I must have been a lousy parent if my child killed himself!”
Guilt - “I noticed she was depressed. Why didn’t I do something?”
Anger - “How could he do this to me?”
You saw your loved one’s life as viable; they saw it differently and chose to die. That is difficult to understand and impossible to bear. So often, after disbelief, the next reaction is anger and outrage. The survivor may feel the deceased acted with contempt towards them. Or perhaps they perceived themselves as unloved. Either way, we ask why they didn’t see how hurtful this would be, or why they did not seek alternatives.
Fear - “Will my other children kill themselves too?”
Relief - “It’s finally over!” (This feeling is more evident in cases where the person who died was abusive or had a long-standing difficult history of mental illness.)
Rejection - “I guess he didn’t really care about me or he would still be alive.”
Hopelessness - “What’s the point in going on?”
Confusion - “How could this have happened? I just saw her yesterday and she looked fine.”
Isolation - “I feel so ashamed and guilty about Joe’s death that I don’t want to see anyone. I bet they blame me for his death.”
There are four areas of discussion and counsel that are particularly helpful to suicide survivors:
Listening to the story of the death
Expressing and understanding feelings
Anniversaries and special occasions
Stress, coping and using support systems
Listening to the Story
Many survivors feel uncomfortable talking to friends about the details of the suicide as they feel that these details are too horrific for others to absorb. Families sometimes avoid talking about difficult and painful parts of the story, even in discussions with one another. The fear is that these difficult elements may be too overwhelming for family members to bear because of their own grief. As bereavement counsellors it is our job to be able to tolerate the intensity of emotion and detail that the telling of the story can bring about.
The initial goal is to have the family tell the story of the death of their relative or friend. It is through recounting the details that a number of key processes are likely to occur, these being:
Each person will begin to ascribe meaning to the suicide (a beginning for the ever present question “Why?”)
Each person will begin to experience some relief through acknowledging, identifying and working through their feelings of loss.
Each person will begin to create their own understanding about what has happened.
Further relief will occur through the experience of talking in a supportive atmosphere that allows the expression of all the details, feelings and thoughts related to the death.
One of the advantages of dealing with issues related to grief through suicide, in a group context, (familial or otherwise), is that the isolation that this grief can produce will be reduced through people coming together to talk about their experience.
From our experience, families who feel they have had an opportunity to tell the whole story, related to the death, and who feel their story has been validated, are better able to move on to issues in the present. Families who have not had assistance in understanding and making sense of the death are far more likely to get stuck in the repetitive talking about the death without resolution.
Going over the events in detail allows family members to hear each other’s perspective, to appreciate that everyone is in pain and to realize that they may all be at different stages in their grief, with each attributing a different meaning to what has happened.
It is helpful to encourage tolerance for differences by helping members listen to each other’s different explanations and interpretations and to accept that each one’s perspective and rate of acceptance of what is happening is okay. The tendency can be for each person to want to convince the others that his or her version of the “truth” is the only “truth”. Families who are struggling to understand the death, often ask counsellors to answer the question of why did she or he kill themselves. The task is to educate the family through providing information based on other families’ experiences e.g. “Other families have told me but this won’t necessarily fit for you.”
As you listen to the story, it is useful to prepare yourself by having a clear understanding of your own beliefs and values to do with suicide. One way of orienting yourself to these values is to examine and explore some of the popular myths regarding suicide e.g. “A person who completes suicide is mentally ill.” Although this is considered to be more false than true, if the family has decided that their relative was mentally ill and is now free of the pain of that illness, it will be of no comfort to them if you espouse your view that John was not necessarily mentally ill when he hanged himself. It is important that this understanding of one’s own values and beliefs pertaining to suicide are examined prior to working with families so as not to interfere with the process.
There are some important differences for a person grieving a death through suicide versus other types of loss. This is not to minimize the effect of other types of loss but more to raise awareness for the helper of certain processes and feelings which will be more prevalent and harder to come to terms with for family members.
Grief in the Workplace
By Dr Bill Webster
It became obvious in January that Ken was losing his four year battle with cancer. Connie, his wife of over thirty years, took her vacation month from work, and then an additional five week leave of absence to be with him every agonizing day in the hospital. On March 17th, Ken died.
At the request of her employers, Connie returned to work on March 30th. With her Irish determination and “stiff upper lip” approach, she shut down her feelings, masking the pain of a broken heart. Customers and fellow workers alike thought she was strong and “doing fine”.
In fact, she was not fine. Five months later, Connie experienced an emotional explosion. The grief she had bottled up inside her emerged with a rush. She was totally overwhelmed, not only by the intense, uncontrollable feeling of loss, but also by the “shame” of “losing it”.
Depression, fear, confusion, crying and despair swept over her in waves. Connie was unable to handle customers without falling apart. People were shocked, especially “after so long” when it had appeared she was doing so well. Her employers, though caring about Connie, faced a dilemma - not really understanding what was actually going on with her, yet having to concern themselves about the effects the situation was having on her productivity, her co-workers, and her customers.
This is grief at work. It is important to draw attention to the effect on people in the work place of grief through death, divorce or numerous other life changes. Bereavement can be a devastating experience. The grieving person faces an emotionally rocky journey. While it is often affirmed that grief is normal, it is nonetheless troublesome, and often leaves people like Connie unable to function at work within acceptable limits. Long after the funeral is over, the impact of loss can hit home. Months after people think we have it together, the grieving person may feel like they are falling apart.
After a loss, our equilibrium, health and well-being can be severely compromised. This affects us in every area of life, not least of which is in our work. We have not recognized the enormous effect grief has on the workplace. Not only does it affect those who experience bereavement, there are many struggling to cope with and grieving over other significant losses - divorce and separation; relocation; job changes; injury; being passed over for promotion; being laid off; early retirement; and unemployment. At any given time, a significant section of the work force may be coping with a major personal loss.
Much as we would like to subscribe to the concept of a compassionate society, the real world can be cruel. The expectations of the workplace are that the employee will perform and produce, devoid of human emotions and unaffected by personal experiences. In some work environments, the expression of personal feelings is taboo, often interpreted as a weakness. Yet, if bereavement produces a necessary emotional response, a conflict between the needs of the individual and the goals of the workplace seems inevitable.
Most companies recognize death as an acceptable cause for absence from work. Many give three days off to help employees cope with the loss of a loved one, although there is often a hierarchy of loss, with three days for the loss of a spouse, child or parent, ranging down to one day for other relatives. Sometimes there will be an informal policy regarding the death of a co-worker or a “friend” (a term we cannot assume we understand in today’s society without some knowledge of the actual relationship). Most companies respond to a death with meaningful gestures such as sending flowers or memorials, and are supportive around the time of the death.
An understanding of the grief process indicates people are generally in a state of shock and numbness in the days after a loss. Confusing numbness with strength, some people feel support can be withdrawn shortly after the event. We expect or hope people will just “get on with it”. Yet, most manifestations of grief do not appear until weeks or months after the event. Because there is not much understanding of this process, this reaction catches both the individual and the employer by surprise.
Over time, the bereaved employee may experience some of the following symptoms: inability to concentrate; lack of motivation; impaired decision-making; confusion; memory gaps; anxiety; crying; social withdrawal; apathy; decreasing productivity; and other seemingly inappropriate emotional responses. These are all the more bewildering because they are uncharacteristic of the person. As a result of these normal but dysfunctional responses, such employees often have a high absentee, sickness, alcohol and drug use and accident rate in the months after a significant loss.
Because of the effect a troubled employee has on productivity, which is after all the bottom line in business, many companies have responded with employee assistance programmes (EAP).
Such programmes address many issues, such as substance abuse, marital and emotional problems, and play a significant part in helping an employee cope with a personal loss. Unfortunately, often only larger companies are able to offer such help, yet these resources are needed by all. Where there is no programme available through an EAP, arrangements could be made by businesses or other referring agencies to connect people with an ongoing grief support program through a local funeral home.
Every manager or executive will eventually be confronted with a death in the workplace. There is a need to provide them with information enabling them to understand the grief process and so understand the grieving employee. Such understanding will enable the workplace to become more accommodating to the needs of their people. Three days of funeral leave only begins to address the grieving individual’s needs. Healing takes time, often much longer than people expect. The full impact of grief is felt long after the funeral.
Most people do not have the opportunity or the financial luxury of taking an extended leave of absence. Usually they must keep on working while they are putting their lives together. Finding energy to do both can be a challenge. Managers and knowledgeable co-workers can do much to support grieving people through this stressful time, and thus dramatically reduce non-productive behaviours.
The ability to identify employees experiencing grief and loss and refer them to the appropriate resources can be vital to the well-being of the work climate as well as to the individual. Grief is not a mental illness nor aberrant behaviour, though it is sometimes treated as such. Loss is a fact of life. Grief is the reaction to that loss, and must be worked through by the individual in order to heal.
Some ideas for the business manager: organize lunch time seminars for interested staff and employees; access community support groups often available through local funeral homes; offer bereavement counselling resources; and offer training workshops for staff on understanding grief and support for grieving employees.
Connie attended a grief support group for some time, and came to me for grief counselling. It was a long journey, and she had a struggle to come to terms with her loss, but with help, she was eventually able to return to work. But as she herself put it, “I had to take time to be a mess!” The opportunity to do so gave her the message that she was important to her company and to her friends, and that people were willing to support her through the most challenging experiences of her life.
Regardless of the circumstances in which the death occurred it can help to speak about how you are feeling and asking your place of worship if grief counselling or support groups are available through their faith community.