“The Tasks of Mourning” – A Proactive Way of Dealing with Grief
By Lauri Revilla
No one is immune to experiencing loss in his or her lives. Whether it’s losing a beloved pet as a child, dealing with the death of a loved one, losing a job, the end of a long-term relationship, or discovering an infidelity – loss is one of the most consistent elements in the human life cycle. Although we are all familiar with loss, we never fully learn how we deal with it. Every loss is so different, so life-changing, that it is impossible to predict our response. Although there has been significant research conducted on this subject, most studies conclude that every person experiences grief in their own way and in their own time. There is no right or wrong way to cope with a painful life event, and looking to others’ experiences for reference will only bring on feelings of inadequacy, confusion, and guilt.
Although most people expect to recover from loss in one to two years, grief is really a life-long process. The wounds of losing a loved one will continue hurting many years later. Holidays, family events, old photographs, the person’s belongings, or even just a certain smell can bring back the feelings of pain, nostalgia, yearning, depression, and anger. Moving on from a loss doesn’t mean that those feelings will go away. It is accepting that your life will never be the same without that person and taking the necessary steps to move forward towards a happy and fulfilling life. Unfortunately, there is no blueprint or instruction manual that will help us cope with grief effectively. In his book “Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy,” Harvard Medical School psychology professor, J. William Worden, provides us with concrete ways in which we can be more proactive in coping with our grief.
Task 1: To Accept the Reality of the Loss
Denial is the initial reaction to grief, and it is nature’s way of protecting us from the overwhelming reality that our loved one is gone forever. It can take days, weeks, and even years before reality sinks in after a loved one has died; however, accepting the absoluteness of death is necessary to move forward in the healing process. Funerals, wakes, masses, and other traditions can help us understand that our loved one is no longer with us. Research has shown that even simple symbolic actions, like writing a letter to say goodbye, visiting the person’s grave, or donating some of their belongings, are very helpful when dealing with grief.
Task 2: To Work Through the Pain of Grief
The intensity of the feelings experienced with grief can be scary, confusing, and concerning. These feelings can range from sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, helplessness, yearning, and even relief. Most people will also experience real physical symptoms, like stomach pain, chest pressure, vomiting, dizziness, palpitations, and illnesses that result from an immune system that has been weakened by stress. It is very important that we allow ourselves to experience these feelings. Naming our emotions is a way of acknowledging our pain and sorting through our overwhelming sadness. Journaling, crying, painting, exercising, or even using a punching bag are also great channels for expression. Letting go of our painful emotions will make room for more positive feelings in the future.
Task 3: To Adjust to an Environment in Which the Deceased is Missing
This is often the most difficult task for many people. Adapting our daily routines and roles for a life without our loved one can feel like we are “letting go” of them. On the other hand, these changes are necessary to get back on our two feet. Whether it involves addressing finances, reassigning household chores, moving in with other family members, or having the other children resume their regular activities, taking care of these changes helps us to understand that life will continue and we need to keep on living. It will also help us to avoid the added stress of having to deal with other issues.
Task 4: To Find an Enduring Connection with the Deceased While Embarking on a New Life
To move on with life doesn’t mean that we will forget the other person. A loved one will always exist in our minds and in our hearts. Finding ways to keep their memory alive, such as continuing to celebrate their birthday or frequently talking to others about our fond memories with that person, will make it easier to go back to our old routines and activities. We will never be the same person we were now that the other person is gone, so it is also important to find ways to reinvent ourselves and create a new life where we remain connected to the loving memory of the person we lost.
Worden, J.W. (1991). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner, 2nd edition, New York: Springer.
Psychology Today: Can Rituals Help Us Deal with Grief: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/media-spotlight/201403/can-rituals-help-us-deal-grief