Death is inevitable, yet the loss of a close friend or family member always showers us with a range of emotions. One day we might desperately try to avoid the pain, anxiety and feelings of helplessness we feel when a loved one dies. Other days, we feel like life has returned to normal—at least until we realize that our life has changed irrevocably.
Despite the gamut of emotions we feel, grieving for a loved one helps us cope and heal. The intense, heart-breaking anguish indicates that a deep connection has been severed. Without a doubt, grieving is painful. But it is also necessary.
Going forward doesn’t mean forgetting about the loved one who died. Enjoying life again doesn’t imply that the person is no longer missed. Piecing together your shattered emotions doesn’t mean you, somehow, betray a friend or family member. It simply means that your grief has run its course.
While no single pathway through grief exists, people do share common responses.
In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced what became known as the “five stages of grief,” which represent feelings of those who have faced death and tragedy.
Although these are common responses to loss, there is no structure or timetable for the grieving process. That said, understanding grief and its common symptoms are helpful when grieving. Recognizing the difference between trauma and depression is also beneficial.
Besides understanding how stress can take a toll on us physically, emotionally and spiritually, we need to understand the practical guidelines to ease the process. These include taking care of our bodies, spending time with others and reaching out to the church community.
Finally, there will come a time when someone close to us experiences a significant loss. Knowing how to respond to a grieving friend is a good first step in acting as a reliable companion.
The death of a loved one is a shattering experience with far-reaching implications. As difficult as the loss may be, it is possible to move forward with hope for the future.
"Grief is a journey, often perilous and without clear direction," writes author Molly Fumia. "The experience of grieving cannot be ordered or categorized, hurried or controlled, pushed aside or ignored indefinitely. It is inevitable as breathing, as change, as love. It may be postponed, but it will not be denied." 1
Fumia says it well. When it comes to grieving the death of a loved one, there are no linear patterns, no "normal" reactions, no formulas to follow. The word "grief" is derived from the French word "grève," meaning a heavy burden. Indeed, the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual implications can be overwhelming.
While grief is an expected response to a significant loss, the unfamiliar emotions that arise can lead to feelings of helplessness, fear and isolation.
Following a death, everyone works through these stresses differently. Some are instantly devastated; others feel numb and disconnected. Some withdraw socially, while others reach out for support. What's more, just when the initial shock begins to subside, a deeper sense of reality and despair sets in. Those who grieve may need to learn new skills, adopt different habits and adjust to daily life without the physical presence of the person who died.
Although grieving is an individual experience, there are symptoms many people share after suffering personal loss:
Each person sets his or her own pace when grieving. There will be ups and downs, moments of relief followed by moments of anguish. The first few days after someone dies are generally the most intense, marked by chaos, strong emotions and a "dreamlike" sensation.
Over time, a host of emotions may emerge. From guilt to remorse to anger, reactions vary from person to person. It's not uncommon for grieving loved ones to ask questions like Why did this happen? Where was God? or Why didn't the doctors find the cancer sooner?
Among those mourning a death, some find the pain diminishes within weeks or months. They arrive at a place of acceptance, peace and hope for the future. They reminisce about their deceased loved one instead of feeling consumed by memories.
For others, the healing process persists and it is difficult to enjoy a reasonable quality of life. Everyday events and significant life markers are painful reminders of what could have been.
If debilitating symptoms continue longer than six months, we suggest seeking professional help. A Christian counselor or therapist can help you release the emotions you may have stored up inside. (Call Focus on the Family at 1-800-A-FAMILY and ask for the counseling department. We can refer you to someone in your area who can help you through this difficult time.)
The intensity of grief may relate to the following factors:
The grieving process can be long and isolating, yet it's crucial to accept support rather than grieve alone. Talking about grief is an essential part of healing. Receiving reassurance and feeling understood will help make the recovery process more complete during one of life's most challenging times.
After a loved one dies, those who grieve may find it difficult to function in everyday situations. Lingering emotional turmoil, a sense of shock and social withdrawal are painful but natural reactions.
Despite these expected symptoms, is it possible to become “stuck” in grief? What if the loss prompts thoughts of self-harm or even suicide? And how can trauma affect the healing process?
Symptoms of grief, depression and trauma can resemble one another. In order to respond to these symptoms appropriately and move on with life, it is crucial to understand the differences.
It’s not unusual for those who grieve to feel despondent, empty and anxious. Grief encompasses different emotions for different people, and it takes time to adjust to the loss and any accompanying changes.
Sometimes, though, the depressive state doesn’t diminish over time and continues to disrupt everyday life. This may be an indicator of a depressive disorder.
According to the American Cancer Society, about one in five bereaved people will develop major depression. 1It is difficult to predict whose grief will or won’t turn into depression following the death of a loved one. However, the following risk factors may increase the likelihood:
It is possible to grieve without being depressed. That said, there is a difference between the sadness of grief and the unrelenting numbness of depression. Here are signs indicating that a grieving person may also be depressed:
If symptoms persist—and especially if suicidal thoughts occur—it is imperative to reach out to a family doctor, counselor or pastor. Those with depression will not simply “snap out of it.” However, depression is highly treatable, and with competent care a healthy life can be restored.
Losing a loved one in a sudden or unexpected way—a car accident, heart attack, murder or suicide—may result in a traumatic reaction that hinders the grieving process. This sense of shock can also occur when the death is expected, as in the case of a long illness.
If a person is run down psychologically, suffers from anxiety or depression or has endured previous traumatic experiences, it’s more difficult to handle another setback. As a result, additional grief symptoms can be unbearable. In order to cope, the traumatized individual may attempt to avoid grieving altogether.
The National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder highlights broad types of symptoms that differentiate trauma from grief:
Over time, if symptoms continue to influence life at work and home, counseling is advised. In addition to support groups, treatments that are both comforting and effective are available. Grieving the loss may be painful, but it is necessary to allow healing to occur.
When someone we love is grieving the death of a friend of family member, it's a challenge to know what to do. We want to say the right thing, show support and ultimately help in the healing process.
Yet all too often, we end up awkwardly offering advice, sputtering a spiritual rationalization or avoiding the situation altogether.
Sara Alcoran can relate. She remembers the early morning phone call, the immediate sense of dread, the sorrow in her husband’s voice when he said, "Dad is gone."
She remembers hastily packing up her infant daughter and speeding to the fire station where Linus worked.
"When I saw him, all I could do was hug him and cry," says Sara, a 30-year-old stay-at-home mom. "I had no idea what to say."
Like Sara, all of us try to be effective comforters but may find ourselves coming up short. Still, there are specific ways we can respond when those we love lose someone close to them.
In an instant, the death of a loved one turns life upside-down. Emotions are piqued and responsibilities are overwhelming, making it tough to know when to reach out and when to give space.
"I believe it is more helpful to acknowledge the loss," says Ann Kihara, a licensed marriage and family counselor in Pacific Grove, Cali. "You can even simply say, 'I'm so sorry for your loss.' "
Although the initial contact may feel nerve wracking, take a first step by promptly making a call, writing a letter or paying a visit. Kihara cites other explicit do's and don'ts when standing alongside someone in pain:
"It's unhelpful, even callous, to say things like, 'This is God's will,' 'They would not want you to cry,' or 'They are in a better place.'" Kihara reasons, "We cannot presume to know the will of God nor the emotional state of our loved one who is grieving."
Instead, here's what you can do:
Be there to listen. "It's always tempting to give advice, but don't," Kihara says. True empathy, encouragement and compassion will help those going through a difficult time.
Encourage professional help if necessary. If you feel your loved one is unable to cope alone, gently recommend that he or she seek professional help. Providing a list of area grief counselors may expedite the process.
State specifically how you're able to help. Offer to prepare a meal, provide a ride, or help clean and sort through old items. Be sensitive to your friend's feelings and proactive when it comes to meeting needs.
Remind your loved one to take time out to rest, and to hold off on any major life decisions. It is undoubtedly draining to adjust to a loss and this impairs the ability to think clearly and make decisions.
Reach out when your friend most misses a loved one. "Holidays and anniversaries will often trigger the grief response—even many years later," says Kihara. "Those are good times to be extra supportive and loving."
When it comes to helping a loved one cope with loss, Renee Mahdavi knows what it's like to be on the receiving end. After experiencing several miscarriages, Renee acknowledges the importance of validating the loss itself.
"I think the most valuable support we can possibly offer is to be there—just be there—and be willing to not 'fill the space' with our words," says Renee. "There are few things more powerful than knowing we are loved and supported through the valleys of life."