Adapting to Loss: Ten Practical Steps
- Take the little losses seriously. By taking time to show your caring for a friend moving away, or to experience the moment of sadness that comes in leaving a home grown too small or large for our present needs, we give ourselves an opportunity to “rehearse” for the larger losses of our lives. Similarly, the death of a pet goldfish can be used as a “teachable moment” to instruct children on the meaning of death and its place in life, preparing them for future losses.
- Take time to feel. Although major losses confront us with practical demands that make private reflection difficult to “sandwich in.” build in quiet time to be alone and undistracted. Privately writing about our experiences and observations at moments of transition can contribute to a sense of release and understanding.
- Find healthy ways to relieve stress. Almost by definition, transitions of any kind are stressful. Seek constructive ways to deal with this stress, whether through activity, exercise, relaxation, training or prayer.
- Make sense of your loss. Rather than trying to push thoughts of your loss from your mind, allow yourself to obsess. Trying to banish painful images only gives them greater power. As you construct a coherent story of your experience, it will fall into greater perspective.
- Confide in someone. Burdens shared are not as heavy. Find people – family members, friends, a pastor or therapist – who can hear what you are going through without introducing their own “agendas”. Accept the caring gestures and listening ears of many others graciously, recognizing that your turn to reciprocate will come.
- Let go of the need to control others. Other people affected by the loss will grieve it in their own way, and in their own time. Don’t force them to conform to your particular pathway through mourning.
- Ritualize the loss in a personally significant way. If the original funeral service for your loved one was unsatisfying, participate in planning a memorial service more in keeping with your needs. Find creative ways to memorialize non-traditional losses that fit the person you are and the transition you have undergone.
- Allow yourself to change. Losses of people and roles central to our lives change us. Embrace these changes, finding those opportunities that exist for growth, however bittersweet it may be. Strive to enlarge yourself in the experience of loss, while also recognizing the senses in which it has reduced you.
- Harvest the legacy of the loss. Re-evaluate your life priorities, and search for opportunities to apply what the loss has taught you in future projects and relationships. Let your constructive reflections find expression in suitable actions, perhaps by reaching out to others in need.
- Center in you spiritual convictions. Use the loss as an opportunity to review and renew your taken-for-granted religious and philosophical beliefs, and seek a deeper and well-tempered spirituality.
The Purpose of Grief and Mourning
Grief responses are natural reactions when you experience loss and separation from those you love. They express three things:
- Your feelings about the loss.
- Your protest at the loss and your wish to undo it and have it not be true.
- The effects you experience from the assault on you caused by the loss.
However, the ultimate goal of grief and mourning is to take you beyond these reactions to the loss. It requires your working actively on adapting to it. If you fail to adapt following a major loss, if you don’t accommodate to the change but persist as if the world is the same when it isn’t, then you are not responding to reality, and this is quite unhealthy. The therapeutic purpose of grief and mourning is to get you to the point where you can live with the loss healthily, after having made the necessary changes to do so.
What must you do to get to this point? You must:
- Change your relationship with your loved one—recognizing he/she now is dead and developing new ways of relating to him/her.
- Develop a new sense of yourself to reflect the many changes that occurred when you lost your loved one.
- Take on healthy new ways of being in the world without your loved one.
Find new people, objects or pursuits in which to put the emotional investment that you once placed in your relationship with the deceased.
The bottom line of this active work of grief and mourning, therefore, is to help you recognize that your loved one is gone and then to make the necessary internal (psychological) and external (social) changes to accommodate this reality.
Taken from Therese A. Rando, How To Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books, 1991, pp 18-19.
The Work of Grief
As a griever, you need to appreciate the fact that grief is work. It requires the expenditure of both physical and emotional energy. It is no less strenuous a task than digging a ditch or any other physical labor. The term “grief work” was coined by psychiatrist Erich Lindemann in 1944 to describe the tasks and processes that you must complete successfully in order to resolve your grief. The term shows that grief is something you must work at actively if you are to resolve it in a healthy fashion. It demands much more than merely passively experiencing your reactions to loss: you must actively do things and undertake specific courses of thought and action to integrate and resolve your grief.
However, grief is not commonly perceived as work. You probably are not prepared for the intensity of your emotional reactions and do not fully understand the importance of accepting and expressing them. You probably do not expect to have to work so hard to accommodate yourself to your loved one’s absence or to build a new identity and world for yourself. Grief can deplete you to such an extent that the slightest tasks become monumental, and what previously was easily achievable now may seem insurmountable.
Since most other people are similarly unaware about grief and how much work it involves, they may not provide you with the social or emotional support you need during your grief. In fact, society’s unrealistic expectations and inappropriate response to your normal grief reactions may make the grief experience much worse than it otherwise would be. For instance, if people did not tell you to “Be brave,” “Put this behind you,” or that “You shouldn’t be feeling that way,” along with other unhealthy suggestions, you probably would have fewer conflicts about expressing your grief. You also would have more realistic expectations about the grief process and in general would have fewer problems in recovering naturally from it. This is why it is so crucial that society be given realistic and appropriate information about grief. It is time that other people become a support to grievers, not a hindrance.
Your work of grieving entails mourning not only the actual person you’ve lost but also the hopes, dreams, wishes, fantasies, unfulfilled expectations, feelings, and needs you had for and with that person These are significant symbolic secondary losses that you must identify and grieve. They include not only what is lost in the present but also what is now lost to the future as well. The widow must grieve not only for the present loss of her beloved husband, but also for the retirement they will not share, their special dreams that will be unfulfilled, his absence at his grandson’s birth, and more. This doesn’t mean you must do this all at once. That would be overwhelming. Instead, you need to do this gradually through the mourning process so you can let go of what is necessary to give up from the past, healthily experience the present, and prepare for the future.
Sometimes the death of a loved one brings up not only grief for what you lost, but also grief for what you never had and now never will have. For example, if you had a very conflicted relationship with your mother, when she dies you may grieve not only for what you have lost, but also for the fact that you never had a better relationship with her, that she never was the kind of mother you wanted her to be, and that now you will never have even the hope that it could change and you could get what you want. In such a case you grieve for the past, present, and future.
Another issue that can complicate your grief work is the fact that major loss always resurrects old issues and unresolved conflicts. The pain, emptiness and sorrow caused by your separation from your loved one frequently reawaken your earliest and most repressed feelings of anxiety and helplessness as a child. The terror and power of these reawakened memories can be overwhelming to any of us. Old conflicts about dependency, ambivalence, parent-child relations, and security, to name but a few, are also stirred by your experience of loss. They, too, can interfere with a successful resolution of grief. Finally, this is a time when your other not-so-old but still unresolved (or perhaps resolved, but nevertheless still sensitive) losses can come back to haunt you. These can make you feel even more deprived, more vulnerable, and more powerless and out of control. It is terribly unfortunate, yet past issues often arise at the precise moment when you are struggling to confront a current loss. They add to the burden of the grief process. Therefore, when you are dealing with the death of a loved one, you frequently are contending not only with the present loss but also with old losses and unfinished emotional business as well.
Tilly’s husband died at age sixty, following a two-year battle with cancer. Tilly was left alone in her home, since her three adult children lived out of state. After the death, Tilly was surprised to find herself not only feeling grief over the death of her husband but also preoccupied with memories and feelings about her adolescence when her beloved father had abandoned the family.
Tilly thought about how she had reacted then, and she experienced in the present her earlier feelings of loss, fear, insecurity, and confusion. She felt like the fourteen-year-old girl for whom it seemed as if the earth had been shaken when her father walked out the door. Although she knew better, she felt like she was as helpless now as she was then, when she had few resources to help her cope and the world was so frightening. She wanted her father back again, even though he was long dead. It seemed like she was in shock again now as she was when her father left, even though she had anticipated her husband’s death. Her present loss had resurrected the long-buried thoughts and emotions from an earlier loss of a significant person in her life.
Taken from Therese A. Rando, How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books, 1991, pp. 16-18
Handling the Holidays
One of the most painful issues for you to deal with is how to survive the holidays after the death of the person you love. Because holidays are supposed to be family times, and because of the extraordinary (although unrealistic) expectation that you should feel close to everyone, this time of year can underscore the absence of your deceased loved one more than any other time. The important thing to remember is that you and your family do have options about how to cope with the holidays. These are a few things to keep in mind:
As much as you’d like to skip from November to January 2nd, this is impossible. Therefore, it will be wise for you to take control of the situation by facing it squarely and planning for what you do and do not want to do to get through this time.
Realize that the anticipation of pain at the holidays is always worse than the actual day.
Recognize that what you decide for this year can be changed next year; you can move to something new or back to the old way. Decide what is right for, you and your family now. Don’t worry about all the other holidays to come in years ahead. You will be at different places in your mourning and in your life then.
Recognize, also, that your distress about the holidays is normal. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Countless other bereaved people have felt, and do feel, as you do right now.
Ask yourself and your loved ones to decide what is important for you to make your holidays meaningful and bearable. Then, through compromise and negotiation, see if everyone can get a little of what he or she wants and needs Give-and-take is important here.
Do something symbolic. Think about including rituals that can appropriately symbolize your memory of your loved one. For example, a candle burning at Thanksgiving dinner, the hanging of a special Christmas ornament, or the planting of a tree on New Year’s Day may help you to mark the continued abstract presence of your deceased loved one while still celebrating the holiday with those you love who still survive. Remembering your deceased loved one in this fashion can make an important statement to yourself and others.
Recognize that the holidays are filled with unrealistic expectations for intimacy, closeness, relaxation, and joy for all people—not just for the bereaved. Try not to buy into this for yourself—you already have enough to contend with.
Be aware of the pressures, demands, depression, increased alcohol intake, and fatigue that come with holidays. As a bereaved person you may feel these more than others. Take time out to take care for yourself during this time. You will need it even more.
Re-evaluate family traditions. Ask yourself and your surviving loved ones whether you need to carry them on this year or whether you should begin to develop some new ones. Perhaps you can alter your traditions slightly so that you can still have them to a certain extent but don’t have to highlight your loved one’s absence more than it already is. For example, you may want to have Thanksgiving dinner at your children’s house instead of yours. Or you might open presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning.
Recognize that your loved one’s absence will cause pain no matter what you do. This is only natural and right. After all, you are mourning because you love and miss this person. Try to mix this with your love for those you still have and your positive memories of the past. “Bittersweet” is a good word to describe this. You can feel the sweetness of the holiday but also the bitterness of your loved one’s absence. Together they can give you a full, rich feeling, marked with love for those present and those gone whom you will never forget.
Plan ahead for your shopping tasks. Make a list ahead of time. Then, if you have a good day, capitalize on it and do the shopping you can. Try to consolidate the stores you want to visit. If you have trouble with shopping right now, do your shopping by catalog or mail order, or ask friends to help you out.
Tears and sadness do not have to ruin the entire holiday for you or for others. In yourself have the cry you need and you will be surprised that you can go on again until the next time you need to release the tears. Facing family holidays in your loved ones absence are normal mourning experiences and part of the healing process. Let your tears and sadness come and go throughout the whole day if necessary. The tears and emotions you do not express will be the ones which are destructive to you.
Ask for what you want or need from others during the holidays. One bereaved mother said that, as appropriate, she wanted to hear her dead daughter mentioned. She knew everyone was thinking of her daughter and wanted them to share their thoughts.
You may find yourself reminiscing about other holidays you shared with your deceased loved one. This is normal. Let the memories come. Talk about them. This is part of mourning and doesn’t stop just because it is a holiday. In fact, the holidays usually intensify it.
Having some fun at the holidays does not mean you don’t miss your loved one. It is not a betrayal. You must give yourself permission to have fun when you can, just like you must give yourself permission to mourn when you have the need.
You may have to let your limits be known to concerned others who are determined not to let you be sad or alone. Let others know what you need and how they can best help you. Don’t be forced into doing things you don’t want to do or don’t feel up to solely to keep others happy. Determine what and how much you need, and then inform others.
Discuss holiday tasks and responsibilities that must be attended to—for example, preparing the meals, doing the shopping, decorating the house. Consider whether they should be continued, reassigned, shared, or eliminated.
Break down your goals into small, manageable pieces that you can accomplish one at a time. Don’t overwhelm or overcommit yourself. The holidays are stressful times for everyone, not just the bereaved, so you will need to take it slow and easy. Look at your plans and ask what they indicate. Are you doing what you want or are you placating others? Are you isolating yourself from support or are you tapping into your resources? Are you doing things that are meaningful or are you just doing things?
Do something for someone else. Although you may feel deprived because of the loss of your loved one, reaching out to another can bring you some measure of fulfillment. For example, give a donation in your loved one’s name. Invite a guest to share your festivities. Give food to a needy family for Thanksgiving dinner.
Taken from Therese A. Rando, How To Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books, 1991, pp 289-292.
Help for the Holidays
Holidays can be hard times for grieving families. The season is filled with family get-togethers and festive events, many of which grievers are accustomed to sharing with the person who died. Surrounded by holiday “cheer,” the pain of loss can seem overwhelming. Sometimes, a simple “Happy Holidays!” from a well-meaning friend can send you into a tailspin. It’s hard to “put on a happy face” when you’re grieving inside. Events during the holidays can renew the loss and what were once familiar and anticipated moments can stir-up intensified feelings of sadness and loss. Writing the holiday greeting cards, hearing a special carol, unpacking the ornaments, eating the holiday meal and so many other events once shared together become at best bittersweet and often daunting tasks to be avoided.
For the bereaved family member, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Years and other traditional holidays may be especially difficult. You might see the perfect gift for a loved one, and then realize he or she is not here to enjoy it. Whether your grief is new or old, there are ways you can make the holidays more bearable and less fatiguing for you and your children. You may also discover ways to honor the memory of the person who died and to begin new meaningful traditions in the family. Here are some suggestions, reminders and activities. Take what is helpful to you.
Helpful Strategies and Reminders:
Accept your limitations. Grief can be all-consuming, no matter what time of year it is. Holidays place additional stresses and demands on our lives. You may not be able to do all the things you’ve always done. Lower your expectations and allow yourself time and space to grieve.
Respect everyone’s individual feelings and wishes for the holidays. Just as grief is unique for each individual, so are the expectations and desires of each family member. Be especially considerate to children. Involve them in the discussions.
Be prepared for holiday well-wishers. Cards from people who do not yet know of the death will be addressed to the entire family. Greetings of Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays ring through the air. Everywhere you go there are tidings of joy. Brace yourself and know that others do wish you well and that their greetings are not intended hurtful reminders.
Be informed before attending events. It can be helpful to know some of the specifics before attending a get-together: who will be there, how long is it expected to last, do you need to do anything to prepare for it? Inform the host/hostess that this may be difficult for you and your family. Make sure to prepare the children as well for the situation, possible questions and avoidance tactics of others.
Ask for help if you need it. There’s a good chance that friends and family are looking for ways they can be helpful to you during the hard times. You may want to continue certain traditions around the holidays, but feel you can’t do it alone. Involve others. People enjoy supporting others in concrete ways, such as cleaning, cooking, baking, shopping and running errands. Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help because we worry about burdening others. But more often than not, they are more than happy to contribute.
Allow for rest. The holidays can be physically and emotionally draining for us all. Grieving is tiring too. Naps, walks and other quiet activities – even for short periods of time – can be revitalizing. Encourage children to have times of rest and quiet play as well. Remember to eat well and drink plenty of fluids as well for good self-care.
Eliminate unnecessary stress. Of course we can’t entirely remove stress from the holidays. But we can set limits. Scale back and try not to do it all. For example, we all know how exhausting shopping can be, especially as we get closer to the holidays. If you plan to buy gifts, consider shopping early, buying from catalogs, or purchasing gift cards. Remember as well, that the anxiety and anticipation prior to holiday events can be particularly stressful, even more so than the event itself.
Plan ahead. Decide ahead of time what you can and cannot do comfortably and let your friends and family know. For example, can you handle making the family dinner or should someone else do it? You may want to make a list of all the things you usually do – greeting cards, baking, shopping, decorations, parties, dinners, etc. – and decide what you most want to do. Talk with your kids about the plans and allow them to be involved in deciding how the family spends the holiday. They will appreciate being included.
Following is a holiday check list that may be helpful.
- Mail as usual
- Shorten list
- Include an update letter
- Skip it!
- Decorate as usual
- Ask for help
- Let others do it
- Have a special decoration for the person who died
- Skip decorating this year
- Shop as usual
- Give cash/gift certificates
- Shop online
- Ask for help
- Shop early
- Make your gifts
- Shop with a friend
- Exchange gifts at a later time during the year
- Shop at off times and go prepared with a list
- Enjoy as usual
- Purchase new music
- Avoid radio
- Shop before the music begins at stores
- Listen to it and allow yourself to have whatever emotional reaction comes up
- Keep all your traditions
- Attend parties
- Don’t attend parties
- Go to a new place/vacation destination
- Bake and buy the usual foods
- Start new food traditions
- Go to your religious service
- Attend a new religious service
- Skip religious services
- Spend quiet time alone
- Visit the cemetery or place that the person’s ashes were scattered
- Pick a time to open gifts
New Year’s Eve and Day
- Spend as usual
- Go out of town
- Avoid parties
- Attend parties
- Have a party
- Spend time with a few friends
- Write your hopes for the new year in a journal
- Go to a movie
- Go to bed early
Acknowledge the life of the person who died. There are many creative ways to honor a person’s memory during the holidays. You may wish to do so by carrying on your family traditions or by creating new ones. Family remembrance activities whether done just once or year after year can create a time and space where loved ones can come together, share memories, say the person’s name, construct memorials and maintain a relationship with the deceased. Particularly at the holiday season it can be difficult to participate in past rituals and celebrations while acutely aware of the deep sense of loss the person’s absence has left. Here are some ideas for remembering your loved one at the holidays.
Light a memorial candle. Consider their favorite color or scent when choosing a candle or decorate vellum to wrap around a votive.
Share a memory or special reading.
Write a card or letter to the person who died. A variation of this activity would be to write a card from the deceased person using the words that are missed and loved.
Make a memory chain. On strips of paper write special memories that family members have of the person who died or cherished gifts that person left with you. Loop the paper strips to create a chain.
Parting gifts from the person who died. Wrap small boxes in holiday wrap. On each gift tag write a gift that person has left you with, i.e. courage, special stuffed animal, piece of jewelry, strength.
Hang a special decoration in memory of the person, such as a wreath or stocking. If a stocking is used, family members can place memories inside the stocking.
Buy a gift that the person would have liked to receive and donate it to a social organization.
Unwrap a special gift of memories. Wrap a big box in holiday wrap. Cut a slit in the top large enough to push paper notes through. Family members can write memories or gifts given and received and place them in the box throughout the season. At a special time the box can be unwrapped and the memories/gifts shared with each other.
Keep a place setting at the table during a special holiday meal. Decorate the place setting with a single flower, poem, card or memento.
Create a memorabilia table or corner. Place photos, stuffed animals, toys, cards, foods, and any other kinds of mementos together in a special location.
Share a meal of favorite foods. Make a few of the favorite foods the person who died enjoyed and share them in a meal with family and friends, along with special memories.
Decorate the gravesite. Use flowers, ornaments and other decorations to adorn the grave.
Observe a moment of silence or prayer before the holiday meal (or at another appropriate time) in honor of the person who died.
Include a toast at the holiday meal in honor of the person who died and share a memory or something that you are thankful for that the person gave you.
Decorate a tree in memory of the person who died. Make personalized ornaments with the picture and name or buy an ornament that reminds you of the person. Create a tradition by placing a memorial ornament on the tree each year or invite loved ones to bring an ornament to a special gathering, trim the tree and share memories.
Make clay memory stones, pins or ornaments. Using an oven-bake clay such as sculpey or fimo, create a shape in memory of the person (an angel, star, fish, basketball, etc.). Place a twisted wire in the clay before baking for an ornament or a pin back on after baking.
Bake your loved ones favorite cookies. Celebrate together with friends and family or donate the cookies to a social agency.
Remember: There is no right or wrong way to “handle” a holiday. Some may wish to keep family traditions while others choose to change them. Everyone grieves differently.
Honor yourself and your grieving. Have a peaceful holiday.