BereavementGriefJonathan BanniganLife Transition Issues

When Grief Comes To Call: How To Cope With A Loss

By December 12th, 2022 No Comments

When Grief Comes to Call: How To Cope with a lossFor many, the holiday season is a time of rejoicing with friends, family, and other loved ones. But while we celebrate for many of us there will be painful reminders of loved ones who have died.  Grief has a particular intensity at this time of year. It is possible, however, to learn how to cope with loss.

What is grief?

In order to define grief, it is helpful to define two related terms: mourning and bereavement. 

Grief is what you feel, physically and emotionally when a loved one has died It comprises thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and physiological changes that vary in nature and intensity with time. These may include disbelief, confusion, preoccupation, sadness, anger, blame, guilt, self-reproach, anxiety, loneliness, helplessness, shock, numbness, yearning, and even relief. Behaviors can include disturbances to sleep and appetite, distractedness, absentmindedness, social withdrawal, avoidance of reminders of the deceased, or in contrast, active attempts to evoke memories of the dead.

It’s important to note that grief can engender feelings other than—or in addition to—sadness. For example, as noted earlier, grief can trigger positive feelings as well as negative ones. Keeping these facts in mind can help to moderate the guilt that can pervade the experience of grief. 

Mourning describes the process of adapting to the death of a loved one. If mourning proceeds in a healthy manner, the survivor comes to comprehend the irreversibility of the loss, and accommodate the consequences of the loss in his or her life.

Bereavement describes the actual loss to which one is trying to adapt or the event or experience of having lost a loved one to death. 

 The origin of the word “bereavement” is the Old English berēafian, (be- + rēafian)  the experience of having been “robbed,” in this case, being robbed of someone close. 

Combining “grief”, “mourning” and “bereavement”, one could say: “Jane recently experienced bereavement, which produced grief, which in turn necessitated mourning.” 

When Grief Comes to Call: How To Cope with a lossUnderstanding the tasks of mourning

Several psychological models have been proposed to describe the mourning process. These include the five-stage model of dying posited by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926–2004) and similar stage-based models, as well as phase-based models. The model that we will examine here is the task-based version developed by J. William Worden in 2018.

Task One

The first task of mourning is to accept the reality of the loss. When a loved one dies, even if the death was anticipated, there is always an immediate sense of unreality. Confronting the reality that a loved one has died and will not return involves accepting the fact that a physical reunion with the deceased is impossible. 

Task Two

The second task of mourning is to process the pain of grief. While no one experiences the same intensity or type of pain, it is almost impossible to lose someone with whom you have been close, without suffering. Those who have experienced the loss of a loved one are often stunned by the fierceness and complexity of the emotions that result. If you can’t process the pain of grief then you may insulate yourself from feeling, and entertain only pleasant thoughts of the deceased. Heroizing the dead, avoiding reminders of the loss, and using alcohol or drugs are ways people try to avoid the pain associated with the second task of mourning.

Task Three

The third task is adjusting to the world without the deceased. Three critical areas of adjustment include external adjustments (adapting the way one functions in the world of everyday affairs) internal adjustments (or adapting one’s sense of self in light of the loss) and existential adjustments (adapting one’s beliefs, values, and assumptions about the world in light of the loss).

Task Four

The fourth task is to find a way to remember the deceased while continuing one’s journey through life. Early psychological formulations of the mourning process emphasized the importance of detaching from the deceased. Contemporary research suggests that the bereaved do not detach from the dead so much as they find ways to memorialize them. The fourth task involves determining a “place,” emotionally or psychologically speaking, for the deceased that will allow the mourner to remember the deceased while also carrying on with life.

It is important to bear in mind that the progression of these tasks is not fixed. Any of the four tasks can be readdressed as time elapses, and multiple tasks can be addressed at the same time. Models tend to be neat and orderly. This helps orient us to experience although real life is somewhat messier. And that’s okay.

The task-based model has several advantages, one of which is its implication that mourners can actually do something about their grief. While “stages” or “phases” of mourning suggest that mourners must endure grief passively, the task-based model suggests that there is something survivors can do—indeed, must do—to make a good adaptation to the death of a loved one. Things will never be the way they were before the loss, but adequate adjustment or adaptation—not recovery or restoration—is the goal.

I hope that a basic understanding of the tasks of mourning will both empower and comfort the reader. These are tasks that can help adapt to a loss. 

Learn how to cope with loss: selected coping strategies for each task of mourning 

When Grief Comes to Call: How To Cope with a lossTask I: Accept the Reality of the Loss

First and foremost, a funeral service will help to reify the fact of the loss. Viewing the body of the deceased reinforces the reality and finality of death. Regional, ethnic, and religious differences stipulate whether one has a wake, an open coffin, or a closed coffin, but it can be argued that there is an advantage in viewing the body. In the case of cremation, the body can still be present at the funeral service in either an open or closed coffin. 

Second, talk about the loss. When did the death occur? How did it happen? Who told you about it? Where were you when you heard? What was the funeral like? What was said at the service? Talk to a kind and patient friend, family member, counselor, or therapist, about the loss.

Third, take care to visit the gravesite or other locations where ashes have been scattered. This can reinforce the reality and finality of the loss.

Task II: Process the Pain of Grief

Anger toward the deceased is among the most bewildering and painful feelings that arise during the mourning process. Unfortunately, given its problematic nature, it is a feeling that many mourners fail to notice or recognize for what it is. 

Many of us have been warned not to speak ill of the dead, but anger toward the deceased is a wholly normal and natural part of grief. To the extent that anger toward the deceased is denied, it will necessarily be channeled elsewhere. In this case, anger may be displaced onto unwitting others. If the anger is not channeled toward the deceased or displaced onto others, it may be turned against the self and experienced as depression, guilt, or diminished self-esteem. Those who recognize and work through their anger toward the deceased generally make better adaptations to loss than those who do not.

Writing a letter that communicates thoughts and feelings to the deceased is one effective way of expressing difficult emotions following a loss. Converting experience into language and formulating a self-consistent narrative of the loss permits thoughts and feelings to be integrated into one’s overarching life story more easily and cohesively. Journaling or composing poetry throughout one’s grief experience can also promote the expression of feelings. Drawing pictures that portray one’s feelings can also be beneficial, for both children and adults.

Finally, processing the pain of grief can be accomplished effectively within the context of a group. Participation in professionally directed group counseling or in member-directed support groups can provide mourners with the requisite safety and implicit understanding to allow for the experiencing of painful feelings.

Task III: Adjust to a World without the Deceased

Many survivors resent having to develop new skills and take on roles formerly performed by the deceased. This is particularly true of bereaved spouses. Although one may develop new skills reluctantly and resentfully, one may eventually come to enjoy having acquired them. Such an achievement may never have occurred but for the necessity occasioned by the loss. Role-playing, skills classes, and skills workshops may prove beneficial to those who find themselves in need of making significant external adjustments in the wake of a loss

While it is important to adjust to a world without the deceased, it is equally important not to  make major life-changing decisions, (such as selling property, changing jobs or careers, or adopting children) too soon after a death. Such decisions should be postponed until the tasks of mourning have been adequately addressed

Task IV: Find a Way to Remember the Deceased while Embarking on the Rest of One’s Journey through Life

One method of remembering or memorializing the deceased is to create a memory book of the lost loved one. The book could include family stories, photographs, drawings, poems, and drawings made by various family members. Ultimately, one wants to move toward deriving comfort from an attachment not to the deceased’s possessions but to memories of the deceased—a healthier type of continuing bond. 

In Conclusion

If you are recently bereaved and in need of professional support—or if you are “stuck” at one or another of the aforementioned tasks of mourning following a previous loss—help is available. Contact us today to schedule a complimentary 15-minute phone consultation or to book an appointment.