Coping With Grief

Grief is a natural emotion that comes with loss, yet it can seem like it will never leave.  Here, we offer some insight and guidance into handling this emotional journey.

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. Physical responses are typical, too. 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.

The Healing Process

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.

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 persons 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 at 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, realize 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. 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 Towards Healing
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.

"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 Loss of a Parent

Here are some tips that may help you and the rest of the family recover from the death of your parents.

Resist the temptation to dismiss their death as "timely" or "inevitable".
While this is one way to rationalize the loss, it doesn't touch your emotions. You have experienced a significant loss and you need to take time to grieve. The majority of people whose parents die are employed full time. A three-day bereavement leave isn't enough time to deal with this loss. Be aware of the need to adjust your personal schedule to take time to grieve.

Work at keeping the lines of communication open between you and your siblings.
They understand more than anyone what your loss entails. Remember each member of the family has a personal loss and each will mourn the death of your parent for different reasons and in different ways.

Find one or two close friends with whom you can talk.
People often say, "My friends don't want to hear about this!" All your friends won't, but ask one or two for permission to use them as sounding boards. There are also professionals you may call on: your doctor, your clergy, a counselor or your funeral director.

Do something to memorialize your parent. 
This could be a donation to a favourite charity. It could be a memorial in your family church. If possible you may want to create a permanent memorial at his or her college or university. Perhaps you would like to plant a tree in memory of your parent.

Draw on the resources of your faith to sustain you.
How does your faith or spirituality address the issue of dying? How does it help you make sense of life? Does it help you answer your questions?

Although your parent is physically dead, he or she will continue to live through you. 
The values your parent gave you will affect you — for better, or worse — for the rest of your life. Take what is good from them and incorporate it more fully into your life and be thankful for the good you received.

Helping Children Understand Death

Death can be mystifying and troubling to a young person.

At Cole Funeral Services, we can help children understand the processes of dying, death and bereavement and how it affects their lives.  Our children's program offers interactive discussions of what happens when a person dies, what the children will see, and examination of the caskets help children deal with the situation in an honest and caring setting before seeing their grandparent or other loved one. We encourage children to be part of the funeral by putting pictures, letters or other meaningful items in the casket. Young people may also act as honorary pallbearers during the service.

Should The Children Know?
Learning to accept death is a natural experience in life which must not be ignored. Talking about death is necessary. It is a vital part of every child's development.

How Should I Explain Death?
Death is a subject most of us do not like to talk about but eventually we all have to face it. At Cole Funeral Services we would like to help prepare your family before the need arises. We have designed a program to meet the needs of your family, in respect to the ages of your children, your faith issues and cultural beliefs.

When and How Do We Participate?
Individual appointments will be made for your family or group at a time that is mutually convenient to your family and ours. The program is best conducted at Cole Funeral Services as this gives the children more of a hands on approach to learning. The intention of the program is to give a better understanding and remove the mystery around what happens when a person dies. Depending on the ages of your children, and the size of your family or group, we would like you to allow us 60 minutes for discussion, tour, and questions.

What age should attend?
If the child is old enough to walk let him/her walk with you into the funeral home, if not carry them in with you.

Caring for a Surviving Child
As in all situations, honesty is the best way to deal with children. Talk to the child in a language that they can understand. Remember to listen to the child and try to understand what the child is saying and just as importantly, what they are not saying. Children need to feel that the death is an open subject and that they can express their thoughts or questions as they arise. Below are just a few ways adults can help children face the death of someone close to them.

The child's first concern may be "Who is going to take care of me now?"
Maintain usual routines as much as possible.  Show affection, and assure the child that those who love him or her still do and that they will take of him or her.

The child will probably have many questions and may need to ask them again and again.
Encourage the child to ask questions and give honest, simple answers that can be understood. Repeated questions require patience and continued expression of caring.  Answers should be based on the needs of the child seems to be expressing, not necessarily on the exact words used.

The child will not know appropriate behaviour for the situation.
Encourage the child to talk about their feelings and share with them how you feel. You are a model for how one expresses feelings. It is helpful to cry. It is not helpful to be told how one should or should not feel.  Allow the child to express their caring for you. 

The child may fear that they also may die or that they somehow caused the death.
Reassure the child about the cause of the death and explain that any thoughts they may have had about the person who died did "not" cause the death.  Reassure him or her that this does "not" mean someone else he or she loves is likely to die soon.

The child may wish to be a part of the family rituals.
Explain these to them and include them in deciding how they will participate. Remember that they should be prepared beforehand, told what to expect, and have a supporting adult with them.  Do not force them to do anything they don't feel comfortable doing.

The child may show regressive behaviour.
A common reaction to stress is reverting to an earlier stage of development.  (For example, child may begin thumb sucking, or bed-wetting; or, may need to go back into diapers or have a bottle for a time).  Support the child in this and keep in mind that these regressions are temporary.

Adults can help prepare a child deal with future loses of those who are significant by helping the child handle smaller losses through sharing their feelings when a pet dies or when death is discussed in a story or on television. In helping children understand and cope with death, remember four key concepts:  Be Loving, Be Accepting, Be Truthful and Be Consistent.


EXPLANATIONS THAT MAY NOT HELP

Outlined below are explanations that adults may give to a child to explain why the person they loved his died. Unfortunately, simple, but dishonest answers can only serve to increase the fear and uncertainty that the child is feeling.

Children tend to be very literal — if an adult says that "Grandpa/Grandma died because they were old and tired" the child may wonder when they too will be too old and they certainly get tired — what is tired enough to die?

  • "Grandpa/Grandma will sleep in peace forever."  This explanation may result in child's fear of going to bed or to sleep.
  • "It is God's will".  The child will not understand a God who takes a loved one because He needs that person Himself, or "God took him because he was so good."  The child may decide to be bad so God won't take him too.
  • "Daddy/Mommy went on a long trip and won't be back for a long time."  The child may wonder why the person left without saying goodbye. Eventually they will realize Daddy/Mommy isn't coming back and feel that something they did caused Daddy/Mommy to leave.
  • "John was sick and went to the hospital where he died." The child will need an explanation about "Little" and "Big" sicknesses. Otherwise, they may be extremely fearful if they or someone they love has to go to the hospital in the future.

How to help a child deal with loss

  • As soon as possible after the death, set time aside to talk to the child.
  •  Give the child the facts in a simple manner "be careful not to go into too much detail.  The child will ask more questions as they come up in their mind.
  • If you can't answer his/her questions, it's OK to say, "I don't know how to answer that, but perhaps we can find someone to help us".
  • Use accurate language - say the words "dead" and "die". Do not use phrases such as, "He's sleeping..." or "God took her..." or "He went away..."
  • Ask questions like, "What are you feeling?" "What have you heard from your friends?"  "What do you think has happened?" etc.
  • Explain your feelings to your children, especially if you are crying. Give them permission to cry too. We are their role models: it is good for children to see our sadness and to share our feelings with them.
  • Use the given name of the deceased when speaking of him or her.
  • Understand the age and level of comprehension of your child speak to that level.
  • Talk about feelings, such as angry, sad feeling responsible, scared, tearful, depressed, wishing to die too, etc.
  • Read a book on death to your child. (Please see your local lending resource library)
  • Read a book on childhood grief so you have a better understanding of what they may be experiencing.
  • Talk about the visitation period and funeral. Explain what happens there and find out if your child wants to attend with the rest of your family.
  • Think about ways that a child can say goodbye to the deceased, such as writing a letter, poem, drawing a picture, etc.
  • Talk to your child about your religious beliefs, if appropriate, and what happens to people after they die.
  • Invite your child to come back to you if they have more questions or have heard rumours so that you can help them receive the correct information.
  • Talk about memories, good ones and ones that may not be so good.
  • Watch for behaviour changes in your child - if they are cause for concern, seek professional help.
  • Watch out for "bad dreams" — are they occurring often? Talk about the dreams: they are a way to discharge stress.
  • Friends, family and school mates frequently find solace and comfort in doing something special in the name of the person who has died.
  • Sudden death, violent death and the death of a young person are especially hard to grieve. Disruption of sleep, appetite, and daily activities may be normal responses to an abnormal or unusual event.

Where do children fit in?

  • Many parents never stop to think about what they will do with the children when a loved one dies. Probably most wonder who they will get to baby-sit the children while they attend the funeral. Excluding children from the funeral will delay their grieving and hinder their ability to deal with death and loss later in life. Here are some practical ideas that have worked well.
  • Give children the opportunity to draw a picture of a happy memory they have of the person who has died. This picture can be placed in the casket or with the urn.
  • Have a child write a letter to the person who has died. This gives the child the opportunity to say, "I love you" one more time and to say goodbye. Put the letter in the casket or with the urn.
  • A child can either pick flowers from the garden at home or buy flowers and place them either in or on the casket or by the urn.
  • Older children can act as honorary pallbearers or can read a selection at the funeral. They could also act as ushers at the funeral.
  • You will find it very helpful to spend time explaining to the children what a funeral is about and what will happen. Taking them to the funeral home for the visitation or wake is helpful in making them feel comfortable in those surroundings. The day of the funeral will be much easier for them if this happens.