Grieving the death of a loved one is an individual process. Some caregivers initially feel numb and disoriented, then endure pangs of yearning for the person who has died. Others feel anxious and have trouble sleeping, perhaps dwelling on old arguments or words they wish they had expressed. Sudden outbursts of tears are common in grief, triggered by memories or reminders of the loved one. Even those who are confident that their loved one is with the Lord struggle with sadness over their loss. Not all people grieve the same way or for the same length of time, but dealing with grief is essential in order to come to terms with the loss of your loved one and move on with your life. To do that, you need to be honest in your grieving and ask God the tough questions that help us mature (Read Lamentations 3).
The circumstances of your elder’s death can affect your grief. If a loved one suffered with a long illness, death is often considered a blessing. For the families of Alzheimer’s patients, mourning begins with the onset of the disease, long before death occurs. Because of the time spent in anticipating death, this kind of bereavement differs from the intense grief over someone who dies following a brief illness, surgery or accident.
Over time, the intensity of your grief will likely subside, but do not try to rush the grieving process. And do not expect your feelings and emotions to be like anyone else’s. God made you unique, and your grieving process will be a personal journey. But keep in mind that the weight of grief is lighter when shared. Support from others can help you to handle the aftermath of your loss. God also offers comfort in times of bereavement. Jesus said, “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:18 KJV).
Coping After the Funeral
When the funeral is a memory and your relatives and friends have returned to their busy lives, you may wonder how you are going to cope. If grief threatens to overwhelm you, try saying with the psalmist, “My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word” (Psalm 119:28 NIV). Cling to God’s promises as you work through your grief. “He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength” (Isaiah 40:29 NKJV).
But how does a person “get over” the death of a loved one? How long after a loss should one still be grieving? It is generally agreed that there are four “tasks of mourning” every bereaved person must accomplish to be able to effectively deal with the death of a loved one:
Accept the reality of the loss. Experience the pain of grief. Adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing. Take the emotional energy you would have spent on the one who died and reinvest it in another relationship. J. William Worden, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner (1991).
Accepting the Loss
The first task, accepting the reality of the loss, involves overcoming the natural denial response and realising that the person is physically dead. This can be facilitated by viewing the body after death, attending funeral and burial services, and visiting the place where the body is laid to rest. In addition, talking about the deceased person or the circumstances surrounding the death can be very helpful.
It is necessary to grieve the physical finality of losing a loved one and come to grips with the fact that you will not see that person again in this life. But the spiritual life goes on. If your loved one was a professing Christian, not only will you see him again in the life to come, but he is now in an immeasurably better place — in the Lord’s presence, with no more pain or fear or sorrow. This is true for all who die in the Lord. “‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.’ Then He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Rev. 21:4-5 NKJV). Therefore, we mourn for ourselves, not for our Christian loved ones. They are where we yearn to be.
Experience the Pain
The second task, experiencing the pain of grief, also confronts the denial that is so common in grieving persons. Many people try to avoid pain by bottling up their emotions or rejecting the feelings they are having. They may avoid places and circumstances that remind them of their loved one. They may try to take shortcuts through the grieving process, not admitting to the feelings of anger or denial that usually exist. However, the only way to move through grief is to move through it. It is impossible to escape the pain associated with mourning. The person who avoids grieving will eventually suffer from some form of depression, or even physical problems. Fully experiencing the pain — most often through tears — provides relief. Jesus wept over the loss of His friend Lazarus, even though He knew He was about to raise him from the dead; we, too, have permission to weep.
We all experience pain in this life, and the only thing worse than the pain of losing a loved one is the pain of never loving or being loved in the first place. In a way, the pain of grief is a gift to us because it is evidence of the presence of love.
The third task, adjusting to an environment in which the deceased is missing, requires the grieving individual to assume some of the social roles performed by the deceased, or to find others who will. For example, a grieving spouse may need help with household chores and cooking. Someone who never learned to drive must either learn how to drive or find other forms of transportation. The alternative is social withdrawal and sitting home alone. A person who dreads coming home to an empty house may find comfort in adopting a friendly pet.
The final task is taking the emotional energy you would have spent on the one who died and reinvesting it in another relationship or relationships. Many people feel disloyal or unfaithful if they withdraw emotionally from their deceased loved one. But the goal is not to forget the person who has died; it is to finally reach the point where you can remember your loved one without experiencing disabling grief.
Some find it impossible to invest in new relationships because they are unwilling to take the risk of feeling another loss. Others were so immersed in caregiving that, now that their loved one has died, they are not sure what to do. Still, investing time in friendships is important for many reasons. Old friends can reminisce about your loved one and also give you encouragement and permission to rebuild your life. New friendships allow you to begin again as a person with a future — not just a widow, widower or survivor. For some, getting involved in a volunteer ministry provides structure, a sense of purpose and built-in companionship. Others swap phone numbers with new friends from grief-recovery groups.
Do not feel like you have to hurry to this stage. If attending a lighthearted party seems incongruous with your current state of mind, perhaps having coffee and conversation with a good friend would be a refreshing change of pace. Many surviving spouses enjoy focusing more time and energy on children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Do not rush into making major decisions or changes that could add stress to your life. Give yourself time and space to grieve. If at all possible, do not move for at least one year. You might benefit from setting aside an hour every day or two to “work” on grieving, especially if your loved one’s death was recent. To do this, turn to caring family members or friends for support. Read a good devotional book, such as Streams in the Desert by L.B. Cowman (Zondervan 1997) or Quiet Moments for Caregivers by Betty Free (Tyndale 2002). You may also want to look in a Bible concordance for words like comfort or hope. As you look up the verses, meditate on each one and record it in a prayer journal. Allow God’s healing words to sink in. Psalm 94:19 says, “In the multitude of my anxieties within me, your comforts delight my soul” (NKJV).