Loss is an inevitable part of life; grief is a natural part of the healing process. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief is likely to be. Each one of us will experience and express grief differently. One person may withdraw and feel helpless, while another might be angry and needs to take action. No matter what the reaction, the grieving person needs the support of others. A person offering support needs to anticipate the possibility of a wide range of emotions and behaviors, accept the grieving person’s reactions, and respond accordingly.
The process of grieving in response to a significant loss requires time, patience, courage, and support. The grieving person will likely experience many changes throughout the process. Many writers and helpers have described these changes beginning with an experience of shock, followed by a long process of suffering, and finally a process of recovery. These processes are described below.
Shock is often the initial reaction to loss. Shock is the person’s emotional protection from being too suddenly overwhelmed by the loss. The grieving person may feel stunned, numb, or in disbelief concerning the loss. While in shock the person may not be able to make even simple decisions. Friends and family may need to simply sit, listen, and assist with the person’s basic daily needs. Shock may last a matter of minutes, hours, or (in severely traumatic losses) days.
Suffering is the long period of grief during which the person gradually comes to terms with the reality of the loss. The suffering process typically involves a wide range of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, as well as an overall sense of life seeming chaotic and disorganized. The duration of the suffering process differs with each person, partly depending on the nature of the loss experienced. Some common features of suffering include:
Sadness is perhaps the most common feeling found in grief. It is often but not necessarily manifested in crying. Sadness is often triggered by reminders of the loss and its permanence. Sadness may become quite intense and be experienced as emptiness or despair.
Anger can be one of the most confusing feelings for the grieving person. Anger is a frequent response to feeling powerless, frustrated, or even abandoned. Anger is also a common response to feeling threatened; a significant loss can threaten a person’s basic beliefs about self and about life in general. Consequently, anger may be directed at self, at God, at life in general for the injustice of the loss, for others involved, or, in the case of death, at the deceased for dying.
Guilt and less extreme self-reproach are common reactions to things the griever did or failed to do before the loss. For example, a griever may reproach him/herself for hurtful things said, loving things left unsaid, not having been kind enough when the chance was available, actions not taken that might have prevented the loss, etc.
Anxiety can range from mild insecurity to strong panic attacks; it can also be fleeting or persistent. Often, grievers become anxious about their ability to take care of themselves following a loss. Also they may become concerned about the well-being of other loved ones.
Physical and emotional symptoms. Often, grief is accompanied by periods of fatigue, loss of motivation or desire for things that were once enjoyable, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, confusion, preoccupation, and loss of concentration.
Recoverythe goal of grieving, is not the elimination of pain or the memories of the loss. Instead, the goal is to reorganize one’s life so that the loss is one important part of life rather than the center of one’s life. As recovery takes place, the individual is better able to reinvest time, attention, energy and emotion into other parts of his/her life. The loss is still felt, but the loss has become part of the griever’s more typical feelings and experiences.
Those people wanting to help the grieving person are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. The following suggestions might be helpful.
Make contact. Make a phone call, send a card, attend the funeral, bake and deliver cookies. Don’t let discomfort, fear, or uncertainty stand in the way of making contact and being a friend.
Provide practical help. It’s usually not enough to say, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” Decide on a task you can help with and make the offer.
Be available and accepting. Accept the words and feelings expressed, avoid being judgmental or taking their feelings personally, avoid telling them how they should feel or what they should do.
Be a good listener. Many in grief need to talk about their loss; the person, related events, and their reactions. Allow grievers to tell their stories and express their feelings. Be patient and accepting of their expressions.
Exercise patience. Give bereaved people “permission” to grieve for as long or short a time as needed. Make it clear that there is no sense of “urgency” when you visit or talk. Remember, there are no shortcuts.
Encourage self-care. Encourage bereaved people to attend to physical needs, postpone major decisions, and allow themselves to grieve and to recover. At the same time, they may need your support in getting back into activities and making decisions.
To One in Sorrow (Grace Noll Crowell)
Let me come in where you are weeping, friend,
And let me take your hand.
I, who have known a sorrow such as yours, can understand.
Let me come in – I would be very still beside you in your grief;
I would not bid you cease your weeping, friend,
Tears bring relief, Let me come in – and hold your hand,
For I have known a sorrow such as yours,
Children and Grief
Children react differently from adults when confronted with the death of a family member, Preschool children usually see death as temporary and reversible, a belief reinforced by cartoon characters on television who die and come to life again. Children between five and nine begin to think more like adults about death.
Once children accept the death, they are likely to demonstrate their feelings of sadness on and off over a long period of time, and often at unexpected moments. Family members should spend as much time as possible with the child allowing him/her to openly and freely express his/her feelings. When a death occurs children need to be surrounded by feelings of warmth, acceptance and understanding. Here are some questions a child might ask and some suggested answers:
Is death like sleeping? Death is different from sleeping. When you go to sleep your body continues to function. You still breathe, your heart beats and you may dream. When a person dies, his or her body does not work anymore. Remember that if a child is told that death is like sleeping he/she will fear falling asleep.
Why did the person die? If death was the result of illness, explain the person’s body could not fight the sickness any more. It stopped working. Make sure to explain that people do not usually die when they get the flu or a cold, or if mom and dad get sick, their bodies can fight the illness and get better. Their bodies still work. Explain that people do not usually die when they get sick. Most people get better. If the death was the result of an accident, explain that the person was hurt badly and that his or her body stopped working. Explain that when most people get hurt they can get better and live a long time.
Will you die? Will I die? Children look for reassurance. Let your child know that most people live for a very long time. Children also need to know who will take care of them if a parent dies.
Did I do or think something bad to cause the death? Perhaps your child had a disagreement with the person who died or he/she wished that this person was not around to get so much attention from family members. Perhaps the child said, “I wish you’d go away from me,” or even “I wish you were dead.” Reassure your children that saying and wishing things do not cause a death to happen.
Will they come back? “Forever is a hard concept for young children to understand. They see people go away and come back. Cartoon characters die and then jump up again. Young children may need to be told several times that the person will not return.
Is she/he cold? What will he/ she eat? Young children may think the dead body will still have feelings and walks and talks under the ground. You might need to explain that the body does not work anymore. It cannot breathe, walk, talk or eat any longer.
Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, and your faith. The grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it cannot be forced, there is no normal timetable for grieving. It is important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold. What encouragement to know that our loved ones are not lost; for we know where they are. 2 Corinthians 5:8 says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. What joy to know that one day we will be reunited with our loved ones!
Hortencia P. Quiroz Ph.D.
Family Life Educator and Counselor
Colgrove, Bloomfield & McWilliams (1976). How to Survive the Loss of a Love. Leo Press: NY.
Kreis, B. & Patty, A. (1969). Up From Grief: Patterns of Recovery. Harper and Row, San Francisco.
Rando, Therese (1988) How to go on Living when Someone You Love Dies. Lexington Books: Lexington, MA.
Staudacher, Carol. (1987) Beyond Grief: a Guide for Recovering from the Death of a Loved One. New Harbinger Publications: Oakland, CA.
Staudacher, Carol (1995) A Time to Grieve: Meditations for Healing After the Death of a Loved One.. Harper: San Francisco.
Tatelbaum, Judy (1984) The Courage to Grieve. Perennial Books: NY.
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Facts for Families: Children and Grief. http://www.aacap.org.
Hortencia P. Quiroz earned a Ph.D. degree in Counseling and Family Life Education granted by Oxford Graduate School. Her formal education and 25 years experience as a high school teacher and counselor with the Los Angeles Unified School District have served to prepare her to work, together with her husband, in the ministry of counseling and family life education. Her career has always been more than merely a secular profession; it has been a God-given ministry, allowing her to touch the lives of hurting people.