How we react to loss (a general overview)
Before we look specifically at how we react to the death of a parent, we take a moment to look at a general overview of common reactions persons experience in response to the death of a loved one. These grief reactions are quite normal and common when viewed against the backdrop of the grief experiences of many persons. When one understands that many other persons have also had similar reactions to grief, it brings about an assurance that fosters peace of mind. Getting the right kind of information about grief plays a crucial role in the overall process of recovery and healing.
Common physical reactions: Changes in body chemistry and bodily functions, rapid heartbeat and pulse, elevated blood pressure, difficulty in breathing (sometimes hyperventilation), dizziness (sometimes fainting), difficulty in swallowing and digesting food due to a constricted esophagus, complications with digestive track (nervous stomach, irritation, ulcers, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea), muscle cramps, aches, and spasms, profuse sweating, skin rashes and irritations, headaches, insomnia, fatigue, over-sleeping, diminished or insatiable appetite, migraine headaches, frequent urination, and urinary track infections.One of the typical physical reactions to the shock of loss is that there is an inordinate amount of adrenalin in the bloodstream. This is associated with the “fight or flight” syndrome that is voluntarily activated anytime the body senses threat or danger. When this happens the excessive adrenalin stimulates the heart to beat faster which in turn forces more oxygen into the bloodstream. This added oxygen and adrenalin can cause tingling in the extremities or lips as well as a jerking and shaking of the muscles or hands. One can experience temporary and uncontrollable involuntary shaking of the entire body, and unless one knows what is causing these kinds of bodily reactions, it can be quite alarming.
2. Common emotional reactions: Shock, numbness, disbelief, denial, anger, guilt, fear (panic, losing control, paranoia, and phobias), bargaining, depression, loneliness, emptiness, lethargy, irritability, and withdrawal. We feel that our world has suddenly fallen apart. Our normal feelings of safety, security, and stability are shaken and shattered, and this results in our feeling unsafe, insecure, and unstable. The basic foundations of our life are shaken. Much that helped to provide shape, definition, purpose, and continuity to our life has suddenly vanished. Life is thrown out of balance. We experience isolation and separation-anxiety. Life is suddenly changed and chaotic. That which is familiar and wanted is replaced by that which is unfamiliar and unwanted. We are overwhelmed by the depressing and upsetting thought that life will never be the same again.
3. Common mental reactions: Mental confusion (inability to concentrate, remember and plan), preoccupation with loss and the deceased, obsessions and obsessive-compulsive reactions, depression, replaying certain scenes over and over in our mind, attempting to deny death and resurrect the deceased, visual and auditory hallucinations, attempting to recreate the past, regret, frustration over unfinished business, assigning blame, loss of humor, jealousy, bitterness, cynicism, pessimism, and negative thinking (doom and gloom). In the case of the murder of a love one, it is not uncommon for survivors to think about seeking revenge.
4. Common social reactions: Withdrawal, pulling the shades, attempting to shut out the world, wanting to be left alone, escaping, drawing into a shell (grief cocoon), finding it difficult to be involved with other people, avoiding crowds, finding it difficult to function at work or take care of one’s basic responsibilities.Many bereaved persons have observed that some persons avoid them following a loss or they avoid mentioning the name of the deceased to the bereaved person. They avoid mentioning anything in regard to the death of the deceased. These kinds of reactions can result in only reinforcing the isolation.In contrast to this reaction of withdrawal, many persons become overly outgoing, active, and involved. For example, they may spend a lot of time in shopping malls or in church activities. The idea of being alone at home is intolerable, and they find ways to avoid this.
5. Common spiritual reactions: Being angry with God and blaming Him for the death of a loved one. This often leads to a temporary withdrawal from God, prayer, and religious activities. Many go through a “dark night of the soul.” In contrast to those who react by being angry with God and withdrawing from God, many say that the experience of grief brought them closer to God than they had ever been. They report that their grief opened the door into a deeper relationship with God.Thus, the positive side of this in regard to one’s spiritual experience is that grief can become an opportunity for the bereaved person to thoroughly and honestly examine their values and beliefs and move toward a more realistic, mature, and personal faith. The impact of loss is so profound that it reaches to the very core of our being and affects every aspect of our life--physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually.
Grief is a human experience
As we study information about grief and how it affects us, we realize that certain reactions to grief are quite normal and common. If you are presently going through grief, you are undergoing one of the most upsetting experiences in your life, and you need to give yourself permission to feel whatever emotions that accompany your grief and are pertinent to your particular situation. Do not repress these thoughts and emotions. (Later in this material I will discuss some basic ways in which you can express these thoughts and emotions.)Assure yourself, first of all, that it is common to have certain reactions, and, then, take comfort in the fact that these feelings and thoughts are not going to be permanent. They are temporary and will subside over a period of time as you move through the grief process. Do not be alarmed by your thoughts, feelings, and reactions. They are simply part of your grief experience. In time, with the right kind of help and assistance, and when you have had time to experience and examine your reactions and come to terms with your life, you will begin the process of rebuilding your life.
Sudden And unexpected death
There are times when death occurs suddenly and without warning. It can happen in any number of ways: accidents (car wrecks, explosion, a fall), sudden illness (heart attack, stroke, medical crisis), homicide, suicide, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), and drug/alcohol overdose.The impact of suddenly losing a loved one is traumatic because it happens so quickly. There is no opportunity to say “Good-bye,” express love, resolve conflicts or complete “unfinished business.”Reactions to sudden loss can be intense. Shock and disbelief may last for a long period of time. Survivors often experience a profound sense of guilt, especially if there were unresolved conflicts. There may be a strong need to blame someone for what has happened. God often becomes the target for this anger. It is not uncommon to hear survivors asking: “How could a loving God permit a thing like this to happen? Why couldn’t God have intervened?”One of the things that can complicate grief recovery in the case of sudden death is the legal process. For example, if a case involving homicide is delayed for an extended period of time it can create intense anger and frustration. The survivor’s patience and capacity to endure are stretched to the limit.Many who have undergone the ordeal of suddenly losing a loved one have found grief support groups and grief consultation to be effective and therapeutic in helping them move through their grief.
Suggestions for coping with grief
1. Turn to God. There are many passages in the Bible through which God provides comfort, strength, guidance, and inspiration. Slowly read and absorb the truth from these passages. Pray. Lean on God. Depend on Him to provide help, encouragement, and inner resources during this difficult time. Remember, God is greater than grief!Your minister, priest or rabbi can be very helpful at this time. They can listen as you share your feelings, questions, confusion, ambivalence, anger, and depression. If you have anger toward God, they can assist you in working through this. They can help you find and walk with God through the “valley of the shadows.” They can also assist you in locating resources and materials that will help meet your spiritual needs during this time. They can pray with you and intercede with God for you. It is a tremendous source of strength to know that others are praying for you while you are suffering.
2. Talk out your feelings. Because it is important that we have someone with whom we can honestly share our feelings and the truth about our life, it is important that we find someone with whom you can be totally honest. The opportunity to describe exactly how we feel is one of the keys to coping with grief and getting on with the rest of our life. You may do this with a trusted friend, clergy person, physician or counselor. This needs to be a person who will not judge or criticize you, but who will permit you to describe exactly how you feel. Verbalizing and expressing your feelings helps reduce internal pressure and stress. Repressing your feelings may lead to other complications.Many bereaved persons get bogged down in their grief because they were never able to admit to themselves or anyone else how they really felt. This only frustrates the process of recovery and adds to the possibility of our unresolved grief becoming pathological. The repercussions of unresolved grief can be devastating. Not only can it lead to serious physical, psychological, social, and spiritual problems, but it can also ultimately result in death. Recall the statement by my colleague, “Grief is the number-one killer.” Remember, it is not only normal but also necessary to cry. Tears are normal and therapeutic when we are going through grief. In our culture many men have the mistaken notion that they should not cry, that crying is a sign of weakness, and if they cry they are not “being a man.” This reaction is rooted in the myths and misinformation about grief that circulates throughout society. When men deny themselves, their human need, and right to cry, they are not only repressing grief (which needs to be expressed), but they are also running the risk of creating further complications.Because sharing one’s feelings and thoughts plays an important role in recovery, one of our priorities in SUNRISE has been to offer persons opportunities for private grief consultation. This gives us an opportunity to take a look at the difference between grief and mourning. There is an important difference between grief and mourning. Grief involves our inner reactions to loss. Mourning is the outward expression of these deep inner feelings. Mourning plays a critical role in the process of healing and recovery.
3.Write a letter to your deceased loved one. This provides you with an opportunity to express yourself fully, unreservedly, and completely. Write out all those things you were unable to say to your loved one before they died. This is especially effective in enabling bereaved persons to express anger, guilt, and unresolved feelings. It is, thus, a liberating and healing experience.
4. Talk out your feelings with your deceased loved one. Pull up a chair and imagine that your loved one is sitting across from you. Take your time and say all those things you feel a need to say to them. Image your deceased loved one and have this kind of imaginary conversation anywhere and anytime you choose (in your automobile, while taking a quiet walk, while sitting in your den).
5. Attend a grief support group. In a grief support group you will find yourself in an atmosphere of love, support, understanding, acceptance, and nurture. You will be with persons who understand the pain and heartache of loss and who will grant you permission and freedom to express how you really feel. When you share the story of your grief in a group like this, you discover that the other members are not only sympathetic, but they are also empathetic. In grief support groups there is an air of confidentiality that permits you to be honest and give full expression to what is going on in your life. You can discuss your particular “unfinished business” with your deceased loved one. You are free to not only express your grief, but also experience your feelings and reactions in a loving atmosphere that promotes healing. Thus, you find specific ways to accept grief and work it into the framework of your total life-experience. This is essential if you are to begin the process of rebuilding your life. Many bereaved persons have discovered that belonging to such a group aids in healing and recovery.
6. Give yourself permission to grieve. No two persons will experience grief in exactly the same way because each person is a unique individual and needs to grieve in his/her own particular way. Each person has traveled a different road on his/her journey of life. No two persons react in the exact same way to any given event. It is OK for you to be angry or sad. These are your true feelings, and you do not have to apologize or offer explanations for how you feel. Love and nurture yourself.
7. Take care of yourself. Eat and drink the right kinds of foods and liquids. Get proper exercise and rest. Exercise helps reduce the stress that builds within us due to the shock of loss. Stay in touch with your physician during the crisis. The stress that is created by grief may aggravate pre-existing physical and emotional problems. Be alert to any medical problems, and share this information with your physician.
8. Plan for the holidays. One of the most difficult periods of time for bereaved persons is that span of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. The holiday season is so full of reminders, and many bereaved persons find themselves overwhelmed in trying to deal with the onslaught of emotions and depression.One of the most important roles SUNRISE plays is in providing assistance to bereaved persons during the holidays. We have special programs, literature, an annual memorial service, and an opportunity to sit down for one-on-one private grief consultation. You can take advantage of these offerings.Also, you can talk with a friend who has experienced grief during the holidays. Many of those who have gone through this offer positive and helpful suggestions to those of us who face it for the first time.