By Dayna Mason
January could be called the “month of death,” because more deaths occur in this month than any other throughout the year. There are some theories as to why—winter blues, weather, more illness and darker days—but nothing conclusive.
Profound grief changes us forever. How we respond to the loss of a loved one determines whether we become bitter or better.
Dealing with grief
Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering we feel when something or someone we love is taken away. The more significant the loss the more intense the grief. And the death of a child can be especially devastating because not only do we grieve their absence, we are tormented by our unrealized dreams for their future.
The weight of grief can engulf us simultaneously with excruciating pain and surreal detachment. Author Christian Wiman beautifully illustrates the palpable contradiction that is grief in his book, My Bright Abyss:
“And long after the initial shock, I felt a maddening, muffled quality to the world around me—which, paradoxically, went hand in hand with the most acute, interior sensations of pain. It seemed as if the numbness was not mine, but the world’s, as if some energy had drained out of things.”
The key to healthy transformation through grief is allowing our feelings to be whatever they are instead of resisting or denying them.
“Feel all the feelings – the good and the not so good,” Billie Lourd said after the death of her mother, actress Carrie Fisher. “Eat something delish they used to love. Put on one of their favorite songs. Tell a story about them. Cry about them.”
We must be kind and patient with ourselves. There is no time limit on grief. We must allow ourselves to feel whatever we feel for as long as we feel it.
Supporting the grieving
The number one thing to remember when helping someone who is grieving is: No words can minimize the pain they are feeling. We must resist the urge to fill the silence with words. Our primary role is to simply be there, to be a source of calm assurance; someone they can lean on when needed.
“Be present,” says Seattle area chaplain Pastor Wil Mayfield. “Sometimes we say too much. When people are dealing with extreme loss, less is definitely more; it’s better to simply be available than to try to find words to comfort the inconsolable.”
Their loss cannot be fixed. We cannot make their pain go away. So, allow them to feel whatever they’re feeling without trying to make them feel differently.
In my book, Funerals & Memorials: Creating the Perfect Service to Remember a Loved One, are some common phrases that well-intentioned people say when someone dies, which cause pain and should be avoided:
- When an infant dies, “At least you didn’t get attached,” or “You can have other babies.”
- At least she/he didn’t suffer.
- At least you had time to say goodbye.
- I know how you feel.
- You’re strong. You can handle it.
- It’s a blessing.
- You’ll be fine.
- Time heals all wounds.
If we must say something, the safest thing to say is, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Don’t be afraid to talk about their loved one and recognize meaningful milestones. Approximately 8 months after my son died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, on what would’ve been his first birthday, my stepmom showed up at my house with a cake, ice cream, and a card. We blew out the birthday candle, ate, shared memories, and cried. It was a loving experience that I’ll cherish forever.
When we acknowledge the deceased loved one, we’re not reminding the grieving person that their loved one died—they haven’t forgotten; instead, we’re showing them that we remember their loved one lived. And that is a beautiful gift.
Sit quietly with the grieving and their pain. Encourage them to allow their feelings to be whatever they are and share their painful memories. And on milestones, such as a birthday, we can find creative ways to celebrate the memory of their loved one.
Finding our new normal after loss
When we experience the death of a loved one, we may expect or long for life to go back to the way it was before our loss. If we cling to this belief, we can get stuck and become bitter.
We can’t just pick up where we were before the death occurred. There is no pushing through to get to the other side of grief. Instead, there is adjustment, acceptance, and absorption. Grief is not something you complete, but something you endure.
Grief changes us. We have to rebuild our life and discover our “new normal.”
“It’s unrelenting,” says Tracy Contreras, who lost her adult daughter to illness a couple of years ago, “and yet I sense an opposing force at work corralling the pain of loss. I notice my fidgety life, trying to settle around this grief, morphing and constantly adjusting, like some weird little cellular thing, dividing and multiplying under a microscope, working towards becoming something recognizable.”
We slowly shift as we adjust to life without our loved one. Some of us find an inner strength that surprises us or we experience a change in our values and how we want to spend our time going forward.
Grief provides a space in time where we are aware of what truly matters to us and because the worst has already happened, grief provides a rare opportunity for us to fearlessly make new choices for a better future.
Book – Funerals & Memorials: Creating the Perfect Service to Remember a Loved One
A simple, stress-free approach to writing and conducting a memorial service. Readers are given all the information needed to create and officiate a beautifully personalized funeral or memorial service
Book – Grief Country: A New Way of Thinking About Loss
Grief Country is the story of a widow’s quest to become her own grief expert.
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