Death is an uncomfortable subject for many of us, yet it is a perfectly natural ending to the physical part of our lives. Depending on your beliefs, death is either the last destination or the beginning of another stage in your journey.
The death of a loved one is often a more fearful event than our own demise, the feeling being that when we ourselves die, we don't have to stay behind to feel the loss! Bereavement is a painful process but, as with so many human experiences, there is a gift to be gleaned at the end. There are five established stages which are easily identified, although they might not run in exact order, or even consecutively.
Before I describe these stages, I'd like to first list the symptoms of bereavement. They are not all as obvious as sadness. Some are very subtle and far-reaching. A number of years ago, I counseled a young man who presented with an addiction problem. He was good-looking, fit, with a good job and lovely girl-friend, but he was totally hooked on pornography. It had a terrible hold on him to the point where he was in imminent anger of losing his relationship, job - everything. It transpired that he had lost his father a few months ago. He came from a very religious family and his addiction stemmed from a backlash at the loss of a father he couldn't get close to. Hard to believe? It's a perfect illustration of the way in which grief can permeate other, seemingly unrelated, areas of life.
The Symptoms Of Bereavement
Withdrawal/detachment, even appearing cold or businesslike
Loss of interest in everyday things
Workaholism and other obsessive behaviors
Detachment from partners/friends, especially in areas of love/sexuality
Survivor guilt - how can I be happy when my loved one is dead?
Nihilistic tendencies - if my loved one can die, what's the point of anything?
Specific behaviors uncharacteristic of the sufferer prior to the bereavement, e.g. a loving person may become distant or vice versa
The Stages Of Bereavement
Release, the facing of grief
Acceptance and peace
Each of these stages can take a month or 10 years. I once counseled a woman who came in to see me about her daughter but mentioned that 30 years before, she had lost a baby to SIDS. There were no support groups then and she wasn't allowed to openly grieve, so she had simply moved on. A week later, she came back in and told me that she was driving along the freeway one day after our first session and on the radio came a service announcement for a SIDS meeting. All of a sudden a dam burst and she had to pull over by the side of the road. Talking to me had unleashed 30 years' worth of grief that was sitting just below the surface waiting for a trigger which came that day from a disembodied voice on the radio. She sobbed for over half an hour as if her baby had just died. There is no statute of limitations on grief.
I experienced 6 years of denial myself, after my mother died. I drowned myself in work, blocking out the pain of losing her until I moved to a quieter place and began working part-time. All the grief I'd shored up came crashing down on me like an invisible wall and I went into a deep depression, exhibiting all the symptoms listed above. I saw a bereavement therapist and effected closure which is ultimately the only "cure". This extract from the Bible is a gentle reminder that timing is everything in life - and in death: To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted.
As with so many human problems, denial only prolongs the pain, as does avoidance in dealing with it. Denial is a defense mechanism, used by the psyche to cope with unendurable loss and hurt. There are too many of these to mention but the most common (apart from denial) are anger, blame, addictions of all kinds, bravado and distraction/avoidance. In the case of bereavement, denial provides the hard shell which acts as a buffer after the initial shock wears off.
The next weapon is anger - at God, the medical profession, the one who died and finally, self. There's a lot of guilt attached to a loved one's death. Thoughts like; "I should've been there when they died," "Why didn't I treat them better," "I should've told them I loved them," batter at the bereaved person, even if he or she was the best child, parent, sibling, friend or partner humanly possible. Anger has to run its course and finally, when there's nowhere else to hide, the high tide of emotion has to be faced. The pain then becomes the cure. Crying is healing, as is any other form of immersion into the pain. Before the final stage of acceptance and peace can be reached, closure has to be gained. Here are some ways to achieve this:
Write a letter of goodbye to your loved one who died, especially if it was sudden and you didn't get a chance to take your leave properly. A beloved older friend of mine who died 3 years ago gave up her flat when she knew she was moving towards the end of her life. She gave away all her possessions to the people she loved and then went to live with her daughter and finally into hospital to die. All her goodbyes had been said and it helped those who lost her to let go in a loving way. You can achieve this yourself by saying all the things in your heart in a letter and then symbolically burning or shredding it. As it's a gesture of letting go, it's best not to hold onto the letter after writing.
Visit the graveside of your loved one, sit quietly and think about your personal memories and experiences with that person or speak your feelings aloud if no-one's around. This can also be done whilst gazing at their photograph if you cannot go to the cemetery.
Share your grief with other people who also loved that person. Celebrate and remember their life whilst acknowledging the pain of loss. Hold each other, talk, cry, laugh and reminisce. This is particularly important when a family member dies. The worst thing is to suppress the pain by avoiding the subject or trying not to mention the person's name. Yes, it hurts but it's a bitter-sweet pain.
It's particularly difficult when a child dies, not only for the parents and family, but also the whole community because it seems so wrong for a young person to be ill or die in an accident. Those who are religious will try to accept it as the will of God; the rest rail against the injustice and cruelty of it. All I can say is that only the poets promised us "four score years and ten." We really have no other expectation of a certain length of life which is a daily business and must be embraced as such.
Whenever a life ends, for whatever reason, and no matter the age of the person, death is always going to be incomprehensible. It is one of our last great mysteries. There is literally no answer to the question - "Why?" Whether we accept it or not, life moves relentlessly on and the Grim Reaper visits young and old, villains and saints, the loved and the lonely, the poor and the wealthy. Whether a person lives to be 8 or 80, it's the quality of that time which counts in the end.
Finally, loving never ends, only our physical bodies do. That's what we call death but it need not be dreaded if we face it bravely, remember our loved one fondly and accept that it's going to hurt for a while. Our world will turn dark, no matter how brave we are, but the sun always comes out again. At first, we swing between the desire to hold on and the need to forget. Do neither, just let the pain flow, honour the one you love and think of them as just being in the next room - you can't see them but they're there.
This is my favorite description of death and sums up exactly how I feel about it. I hope it lifts your heart and helps you through any bereavement you may have to endure in your life; "Death is not extinguishing the light, but putting out the lamp because the dawn has come."