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The path of mourning

(By Alan D. Wolfelt)

The death of a loved one transforms our lives forever. And the transition from “before” to “after” is almost always long and painful. My own experiences and those of the thousands of afflicted people with whom I have worked over the years have taught me that it is not by shyly confronting one’s pain that one is able to overcome it, but rather by confronting it, sometimes obliquely, sometimes head on.

I also learned that grief is an important part of the journey. There is an important distinction to make. Pain is what you think and feel after the death of a loved one. Mourning is the expression of those thoughts and feelings. To mourn someone is an act of active participation. We are all saddened by the death of a loved one, but to overcome our pain we must also mourn.

You will probably encounter six “cue signals” during your time of affliction; I call them the “reconciliation needs” associated with bereavement. For although your pain is an intensely personal, unique experience, all bereaved people must meet this set of essential human needs to overcome their sorrow.

Need # 1. Recognize the reality of death

The first need to be met during bereavement is to gently confront the fact that a loved one will never be a part of your life again.

Whether the death was sudden or expected, you may take weeks or months to fully accept your loss. To survive, you will, at times, try to deny the reality of death. You will tend to rethink the circumstances of death and confront your memories, good and bad. This process is an essential part of grief. You will feel that every time you talk about the event, it becomes more real.

Remember: this first need, like the next five, will require sporadic attention for months. Be patient and compassionate towards yourself and you will be better able to satisfy them.

Need # 2. Accept the pain associated with the loss

It is essential that we accept the pain associated with our loss; that’s something we refuse to do naturally. It is easier to ignore, repress and deny the pain than to confront it, and yet it is by confronting it that we learn to accept it.

Accept the pain associated with your loss. You will probably discover that you have to express your pain “in small doses”. In other words, you cannot (and should not) try to do it all at once. Sometimes you will have to forget about the pain associated with death and, at other times, you will feel the need to create a safe environment that will help you accept it. Unfortunately, our culture encourages us to deny pain. If you express your feelings of pain, uninformed friends will advise you to “go on with life” or “be strong”. On the other hand, if you remain “strong” and “control your emotions”, you will be congratulated for enduring the pain so well. In reality, enduring your pain means becoming familiar with it.

Need # 3. Remember the deceased

Can you have a relationship with a deceased person? Yes, of course. You will have a relationship based on memory. Precious memories, dreams reflecting the importance of the relationship and the objects that bind you to the deceased (including photos, memories, etc.) are some of the things that prove that the relationship can continue, just in a different form. To satisfy this need, you must allow yourself and encourage yourself to continue this relationship.

Some might try to erase your memories. To help you, they will encourage you to remove all the photos of the deceased. They will tell you to keep busy or even move. But I know that memories of the past make it possible to have faith in the future. Your future will open up to new experiences in the extent that you accept the past.

Need # 4. Develop a new identity

Part of your identity comes from relationships you have established with other people. When a person with whom you have a relationship dies, your identity—the concept you have of yourself—evolves naturally.

From “wife” or “husband” you become “widowed”. You were a “parent” and you became a “bereaved parent”. Your definition of yourself and the way society defines you have changed.

A death often requires you to take on the duties that were previously the responsibility of the deceased. After all, someone has to take out the garbage or buy groceries. In fact, you confront your new identity every time you perform a task that was formerly the responsibility of the deceased. This can be a very difficult and exhausting job.

You will sometimes feel like a kid trying to accept their new identity. You may feel an increased dependence on others as well as feelings of distress, frustration, incapacity and fear.

In addition, many people discover the positive aspects of their new identity during their bereavement. For example, you may be safer, become more compassionate, kind and sensitive or develop new confidence that will allow you to continue living despite your sense of loss.

Need # 5. Try to find new meaning

When a loved one dies, we question the meaning and purpose of life. Satisfying this need will probably require you to reconsider your philosophy of life and your religious and spiritual values. By asking yourself, “how?” and “why?”, you will try to give meaning to your life.

“How could God allow this? “Why did it happen now, in this way?” Death reminds you that you do not control your destiny. It can give you a feeling of helplessness.

The deceased person was a part of you. Their death means that you lost something in you and outside of you. At times, you will feel extreme sadness and loneliness. You will feel that the death of that person killed something in you. And now you have to give meaning to your life even if you often have a feeling of emptiness.

Their death also requires that you confront your own spirituality. You will doubt your faith, and you will be confronted with conflicts and spiritual questions. All of this is normal and part of the journey to a new life.

Need # 6. Continue to receive support from others

The quality and amount of support you receive will have a major influence on your ability to overcome your grief. You cannot do it alone nor should you try. The fact that you find inspiration in the experiences and encouragement of friends, of other mourners or of professional counselors is not a sign of weakness but a healthy human need. Since bereavement is a time-consuming process, this support must be available for months and even years after the death of a loved one.

Unfortunately, because our society insists on the ability to “go on with life”, “to be strong” or “to keep busy”, many bereaved people are abandoned shortly after death. “It’s over” or “it’s time to go on living” are the kinds of messages the bereaved receive. It is obvious that these messages encourage someone to deny or repress their pain instead of expressing it.

To be really helpful, members of your support network need to understand the impact this death has had on you. They must recognize that to overcome your grief, you must be allowed, even encouraged, to mourn the death of the deceased long after their death. They should also encourage you to consider grief not as an enemy but as an experience you live because you have been loved.

To reconcile with his grief

You may have heard or believe that your grief will go away when you overcome it. But this is not the case. People do not recover from their grief.

I prefer to use the term reconciliation to describe the gradual acceptance of the need to continue to live without the physical presence of the deceased. Reconciliation brings renewed energy and confidence, an ability to fully accept death, and to start living again.

In the context of reconciliation, the intense and omnipresent pain associated with misfortune gives a new purpose to life. Your sense of loss will never go away entirely, and yet it will fade and the intense bursts of pain will become less prominent. Hope for a future life will be manifested in commitments to the future; you will recognize that the deceased will never be forgotten but that you can and must continue to live.