Grief Support – Understanding the Mourning Process

For many people, the first week and months following the death of a loved one are more difficult that the funeral service. Friends and supporters have gone home and their lives get back to normal rather quickly. However, you feel alone in the quite of your surroundings and your grief really takes hold. The information below is not intended as therapy. However, it may be beneficial in helping you begin to understand some basics about your mourning.

Mourning is a process. One way to look at the mourning process is to view it in terms of phases. However, phases imply passivity (i.e. a process that mourners must simply pass through). On the other hand, approaching mourning as a task implies that the mourner needs to take action, can do something with their grief, and that mourning can be influenced by intervention. In short, the mourner may see phases as something to be passed through whereas the task approach can give the mourner some sense of leverage and hope that there is something he or she can actively do to adapt to the death of a loved one.

Mourning is a cognitive process of adaptation to loss involving confrontation with and restructuring of thoughts about the deceased, the experience of loss, and the changed world within which the bereaved must now live (Stroebe, 1992). Worden (2005) suggests four tasks of mourning: 1) to accept the reality of the loss, 2) to process the pain of the grief, 3) to adjust to a world without the deceased, and 4) to find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life. When someone dies, even if it is expected, there is always a sense that it hasn’t happened. The first task of grieving is to come full face with the reality that your loved one is gone and will not return. Coming to an acceptance of the reality of the loss takes time since it involves not only an intellectual acceptance but also an emotional one. The reality hits hard when one wants to pick up the phone to share some experience only to remember that the loved one is not at the other end. This reality is painful. Not everyone experiences the same intensity of pain or feels it in the same way. We tend to think of the pain of grief in terms of sadness. Indeed, much pain of bereavement is of this sort. However, there are other effects associated with loss that need to be processed; anxiety, anger, guilt, depression, and loneliness. Additionally, there are adjustments that need to be addressed after the loss of a loved one to death. There are external adjustments or how the death affects ones everyday functioning in the world; internal adjustments or how the death affects one’s sense of self; and spiritual adjustments or how the death affect’s one’s beliefs, values and assumptions about the world. In short, mourners must adjust themselves to a world without their loved one. Finally, mourners need to find a place for the deceased that will enable them to be connected with the deceased in a way that will not preclude them from going on with their life.

Allen Wolfelt (2004) discussed a mourner’s reconciliation needs. Acknowledge the reality of the death. This need involves allowing mourners to gently comfort the reality that someone loved has died and will not return. I encourage you to re-tell the story moving from your head to your heart in embracing the reality of death. Move toward the pain of your loss. This need involves encouraging mourners to embrace all the thoughts and feelings that result from the death of someone loved. Sometimes what we need most from others is an awareness that it is ok to talk about our many thoughts and feelings, positive and negative. Covert the relationship with the person who died from one of presence to one of memory. This need involves allowing and encouraging mourners to pursue a relationship of memory with the person who died. Memories that are precious, dreams reflecting the significance of the relationship, and living legacies are examples of some of the things that give testimony to a different form of a continued relationship. Develop a new self-identity. Part of yourself identity comes from the relationship you have created with others people. When someone you care about dies, your self-identity is also affected. When mourners talk about their thoughts regarding how their self-identity has changed and explore them with others in similar situations it can assist in the development of a new self-identity. Search for meaning. Most people in mourning will ask “Why?” “Why now?” “Why me?” “Why them?” “Why in this way?” With support and understanding, grieving people usually learn that human beings cannot have complete control over themselves or their world. They learn that faith and hope are central to finding meaning in whatever one does in this short life. They learn a true appreciation for life and what it has to offer. Continue to receive support. Grief is an ongoing process that can unfold over many weeks and years. So, you may find yourself needing support from others. This may mean taking part in a grief support group, cultivating lifelong friendships, or relying on other people and systems for support.

Weber (2004) offers some suggestions when you find yourself caught between grief and obligations during the first months after your loss. Forget “normal” for a while. The death of a loved one can bring much additional work to the survivors. Affairs often need to be settled quickly and efficiently. At the same time, your grief is demanding attention and the realization of deep and permanent change is just settling in. Many people put unreasonable pressure on themselves through the expectation that they should be somehow freed from the pain of what has happened. When this does not occur, survivors feel shame as if something is wrong with them. Nothing is wrong with you… just the expectation that life should be normal again so quickly. Acknowledge the many levels of loss. The person you love is gone. There can be an additional loss of how you relate to others in the family and the loss of a certain way of thinking about yourself. Sometimes it is difficult to know what layer of loss you are dealing with. To admit you are experiencing multiple losses frees you to work on them one at a time and in different ways. It also helps you guard from the idea that rapid recovery is the best and only way to deal with your loss. Don’t be fooled by the numbness that often sets in during the first few days and weeks. It is not the same as recovery. Recognize and deal with feelings of guilt and betrayal. In the busy weeks after the funeral, getting back to work, even smiling and laughing again, may feel like a betrayal of the loved one who died. Keep in mind what your loved one would have wanted. Most likely, they would have wanted you to do whatever is necessary to help you deal with the challenges that loss brings. Know what you need from others. When your world has stopped and you see others smiling and laughing as if nothing has happened you may ask yourself, “Don’t others know I am suffering?” It’s not that friends aren’t willing to help you but they often have to be told what you need. So, it is important to tell them. When death certificates arrives, the house is sold, or the headstone is set then often a confusing ball of emotions well up inside. When these emotions well up let others know that you are having a tough day so they can give you the space and support you need. After the funeral of a loved one, it is a time for grieving as well as rebuilding. As you work through your grief and slowly give yourself permission to move forward you will notice that your loved one lives in your memory and in the spirit within you. As you enter this new cycle of your life you will realize that your willingness to recover and rebuild reflects the best of what your loved one has given you.

Stroebe, M.S. (1992). Coping with bereavement: A review of the grief work hypothesis. Omega, 26, 19-42.

Weber, H. (2004). Getting through the first weeks of the funeral. Indiana: Abbey press.

Wolfelt, A.D. (2004). The understanding your grief support group guide. Colorado: Companion Press

Worden, J.W. (2005). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner. New York: Springer Publishing.