One of the biggest myths about grief is that grief is an emotional reaction or state of being. When people label grief as just “emotional,” they are minimizing grief, how much the mourner is affected by grief and the extent of the struggles the mourner has to endure. Grief affects much more than just the emotional state of the person after a death.
Mourners are more than one-dimensional victims. Grief affects the whole person just as the relationship with the loved one who died affected every aspect of the mourner’s life. We miss the person in the following ways:
Mourners love or have emotional ties to the person who died. Therefore, the love we still have in our heart for the person needs to be expressed–even after their passing. Death doesn’t end our relationship with the person; death changes the relationship from one dependent upon the physical presence of the person to a relationship dependent upon our continuing emotional and spiritual ties to the person. For many mourners there is a feeling that grief and its emotions are the only tie they have with the loved one who is no longer physically present.We mourners can experience and have the need to express shock, disbelief, denial, emotional numbness, sadness, depression, anger, abandonment, regret, guilt, fear, anxiety, and panic within ourselves. Also sometimes mourners can experience relief, joy or peace for the loved one who is not suffering any more in this life. Everyone’s grief is different depending upon the relationship they had with the loved one, the mourner’s personality type, how they got the news, how the death took place, the age of the loved one who died, how others around them reacted to the death, and many other factors around the death.Mourners have the need to express these emotions honestly (to release the emotional tension the death causes within them) and to know that others get and understand what they are experiencing. Emotive mourners get in touch with their grief emotions and openly express them to others in sharing their story or maybe even through obvious mourning behavior. Stoic mourners get in touch with their grief emotions and dispel their inner emotional tension by thinking through their experience and/or physical activity (working on a car, exercising, taking up a hobby or involvement in church or charitable activities). The activity allows the stoic mourner to be busy, to think through their grief and to expend emotional tension building up inside. Most people feel a need to expend emotional tension after a catastrophic event. We feel the need to respond to the occasion….to do something.Those who are with the mourner need to listen and observe what is said or done without judging the mourner. Just be present. Don’t give unsolicited advice. Also you may need to feed back to the person what you hear if they are emotive mourners. Being present and being supportive with stoic mourners will go a long way to help them feel your support and care. Encouraging words help let them know that you are there for them .
Mourners are impaired in their thinking and ability to remember, concentrate or focus on anything but the loss…especially during the first few weeks, months and even up to a year following the death. One member of a grief support group shared than in a two week period she locked herself out of her car three times. She quickly learned to make extra copies of her car keys and to keep them stored in secret places to avoid having to pay $50 or more to have a locksmith open her car! Mourners often need to rely upon detailed calendars, to do lists, messages/notes to themselves and reminder alerts on their computers, phones and other electronic devices to help them with appointments, dates, times to pay bills, and other important activities.Mourners are usually advised to not make any major life-changing decisions during the first year after the death. In cases when decisions have to be made quickly, mourners are well advised to seek the opinions of others they trust and who have their best interest at heart.Those who are with the mourner need to have a lot of patience and to be able to remind the mourner of important dates and activities without embarrassing or shaming the mourner. Again, your being present without being judgmental or dictatorial is most important for the mourner. Understanding that grief impairs the mourner’s thinking and being patient will be extremely helpful. Offer to help organize small things in their life, help with shopping or other chores and show them care and support without invading into their private stuff.
There is a strong tie between the emotional, mental and physical aspects of all people. When you don’t feel good emotionally or mentally, it can affect how you feel physically. When you don’t feel good physically, it can affect how you feel mentally or emotionally.Mourners are the same—only they aren’t just dealing with the usual up’s and down’s of life. They’re also dealing with grief with all of its sharp emotional and mental up’s and down’s. The roller coaster ride of grief can be expressed in physical ways because of the stressful, painful, uncomfortable and often unexpressed emotions experienced by mourners.Headaches, backaches, stomach aches and other physical complaints are common among mourners. During the first year of grief, mourners are at the greatest risks for physical problems, illnesses and accidents. The stressor of grief and its overwhelming emotions and thoughts can compromise the immune system, impair the thought processes (including judgment) and slow down response times (including during conversation, working and driving).Sometimes the results of all this impairment brought on by grief can be minor inconveniences, sometimes the results can be life-threatening. Mourners need to keep this in mind in their daily activities. Allow yourself more time and space for physical activities. Advise others that you may not always be 100% present and capable of performing physical activities as usual. Exercise precaution in everything you do without using it as an excuse for getting special attention. When you feel a pain persistently, go to a physician to check it out. It is a good idea for all mourners to get a full physical within six months to a year of the loss.Grief takes a lot of energy. Whether you are consciously thinking about the loss or not, it can “be on your mind” twenty four hours a day, seven days a week….especially in the overwhelming first part of grief. You are going to tire easily. Don’t think you have to stay at the same schedule you did before the loss. Give yourself at least short breaks, and don’t overextend yourself or your calendar. Explain to others who care about you that you may need their help, support, encouragement, indulgence and patience during your grief journey. You will need their help and support.For those with the mourner, the rule is still be there physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually for the person grieving. Don’t just offer to help. Put yourself in their shoes and ask what you would need from others. Mow their lawn, clean their house, go shopping with them or for them, babysit their children, help them reorganize their garage or storage shed, etc. etc. etc. The worst thing that you could do for a mourner person is nothing at all. Be present and be active in their lives without intruding or crossing personal boundaries in their lives.
When we are in grief or any life crisis, we can have a tendency to isolate when we need people and support the most. When grief takes over the mourner’s life, he or she may not feel very sociable. In fact, the mourner can feel not only tired, but irritable and frustrated with the “normal niceties” expected of them socially. When a loved one dies, the mourner’s priorities have changed and being involved with others socially can seem less important, an unwanted additional task or maybe even anxiety-producing. Mourners can feel they are “under the microscope” being observed and judged by others as to how well or how badly they are handing their grief.Mourners, time spent in solitude and thought can be productive in your grief journey. It is perfectly healthy to go off alone to take care of your emotional wounds. BUT mourners were never meant to deal with the struggles and the work of grief alone. God has put others in your life for you to share good times and bad. Scripture says for a good reason that we are to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:5) and to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). We need people in our lives, but we need people especially during bad times of our lives including grief. Don’t worry what others think or say about your grief. To be safe though, mourn only with people and in places that make you feel safe, cared for and supported.Those with mourners shouldn’t forget how important their physical presence in the mourner’s life is. Be there at the funeral and the few weeks after. And continue to be there in the weeks and months and years to come…again without being intrusive. Don’t judge or give unsolicited advice. Invite the person to take part in activities with you and with groups, especially church activities. Be patient, understanding and lovingly persistent if the person is reluctant. Don’t take their reactions personally if they lash out in their grief emotions. Understand that they aren’t angry with you. They are angry about the loss and their new reality. They need your and others’ support, encouragement and comfort.
When major life events take place (including grief) we human beings can remember, review and sometimes revise our deepest-held beliefs. The death of a loved one brings into focus how we view life, death and what comes after. Sometimes we find out our beliefs, even core beliefs of our faith and religion, don’t seem to work with the new life realities we face after the loss of someone significant in our lives.Reviewing and revising our beliefs doesn’t necessarily mean we are losing our faith. It means that we have the opportunity to confirm our beliefs and make our faith stronger or change our beliefs and make our faith stronger. Faith tested and questioned can become stronger.Many times in Scripture men and women of faith expressed displeasure with God and how He appeared to be working or not working according to their plans for their lives or the lives of others. When most mourners express anger or displeasure with God and what He appears to be doing or not doing, they are not necessarily losing their beliefs in the Almighty. You can’t struggle or be displeased with a Heavenly Father you don’t believe in. Being angry is simply not liking how things are. And when you have lost a loved one to death, you are going to be displeased and possibly express that displeasure in the protest of anger.Mourners angry at God need to speak their minds and their hearts honestly to God within respectful and non-blasphemous boundaries. Keep in mind that if you’re angry with God, He already knows…and He understands why. He made you with all the emotions you experience. He has given you the choice to express those emotions in ways that are healthy or unhealthy, appropriate or inappropriate or constructive or destructive.
Those with mourners are wise not to go immediately to Scripture quotations and other inspirational sayings when trying to comfort them. Many times mourners cannot hear the comfort in what others say simply because it is drowned out by the deafening pain they are experiencing. Their lack of response to inspirational quotes doesn’t mean that they no longer believe the truth in them—they just can’t hear it. Remember to simply be there, listen, and reflect back to the person what you hear, support them and show you care. Often what we immediately say to a grieving person is just meant to fill the uneasy silence between us or to make ourselves feel better. Listen and speak little without giving judgment or unsolicited advice.
Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise” available online at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Love-Never-LPC-S-Larry-Barber/dp/1613796005 ), Barnes & Noble (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/love-never-dies-lpc-s-ct-larry-m-barber-ct-larry-m/1104364890?ean=9781613796016).
The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunca Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa”
Both English and Spanish versions are available for Kindle and Nook. Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX http://grief-works.org.