Responding to the Death of Your Loved One

by Pam Foster, Counselor

Sometimes things happen that are hard to understand.  How you respond to the death of your loved one will be as individual and personal as your fingerprint. Oftentimes, even when the death is expected, individuals find themselves taken aback by the emotions they experience. This may sometimes lead to inner turmoil over the normalcy of their reactions. One can never be fully prepared for death, even one that is anticipated. There are, however, common affects grief may have on individuals. The goal of this article is to inform you of some of those affects. It is our hope that this information may lessen the anxiety you may be feeling as you anticipate the death of your loved one.

There are general elements of grief. I specifically avoid using the term “stages” as it implies that moving forward means a previous “stage” has been completed and should not be revisited. A more practical approach is looking at the different elements of grief. You may find yourself bouncing back and forth between elements. Both are completely normal and even to be expected. The important thing to remember as you begin the journey of your grief is to do and feel what comes naturally to you. This means that you walk this path at your own pace with your own reactions.

The first element of grief you are likely to encounter is shock. Immediately following the death of your loved one you may feel numb, robotic, and like you are in a dream world. This is your mind’s way of protecting you from the bombardment of pain. Grief experienced all at once will overwhelm you. During your grief journey you will find yourself grieving in doses. Shock allows you to ease into the process of grieving. Shock is your mind’s way of enabling you to function. 

This is the time to let people help you. You will be overwhelmed by all of the decisions that need to be made. The stress of making funeral arrangements can be frightening. Let your funeral director help you. He or she will not forget the details and will guide you in the decisions that need to be made. Friends can also be a huge help by simply being there or by taking care of household chores for you such as putting out the food and doing the dishes. There may be some friends who want to help but just don’t know how. Do not be afraid to tell them what you need. If you need them to just be quiet and listen, tell them. It is important at some point for the family to spend some time alone. It may mean meeting at the church or the funeral home without friends. It is a wonderful time to share tears and laughter as you retell stories and share memories of your loved one.

A second element of grief is reality. This is when the numbness starts to wear off. Generally, reality of the death and its implications does not occur until the funeral or memorial service is over and family members and friends have gone home. This is probably the toughest element of grief you will work through. You may find yourself dependent on others, feeling very lonely and vulnerable, and you may have difficulty making decisions. There is hope. Each day you will get stronger and more confident until you find that the reality of your loved one’s death does not sting as intensely as before. The sting will never go away completely, but you will learn ways to cope with it.

Another element of grief is reaction. This is an element that easily coincides with another. Like your grief, your reaction will be individual. Some reactions you may experience include guilt, anger, frustration, fear, helplessness, depression, and even relief. Feeling relieved after the death of a loved one can bring about guilty feelings. Know this is a completely natural response to watching someone you love so dearly struggle with pain, loss of independence, physical deterioration, etc. You may find yourself briefly visiting each of these reactions or you may find you have camped at one or more. Reactions are normal and expected. They help facilitate the adjustment process. The best way to cope with your reactions is to acknowledge their presence. (Depression is a normal reaction to grief. However, if feelings of depression seem to linger and interfere in your social life as well as your eating and sleeping habits, you should seek assistance from a professional such as a counselor or medical doctor.)

Finally, there is the element of reconstruction. Some writers use the term recovery. However, a person can never fully recover from the loss of someone who is loved so dearly. Life does not go back to normal. Normal does not exist anymore. However, joy and happiness can be found in an adjusted life. Your adjusted life should not exclude your loved one. It will be important for you to find a friend, family member or support group that will allow you to talk often of your loved one and voice his or her name. Reality, however, is that your life as you once knew it has forever changed. Through this change you have the opportunity to grow as you continue to love the one who died and accept and adjust to the changes brought on by that death.

Remember it is natural for you to feel bad right now and for some time to come. If you find yourself feeling selfish, envious, angry, guilty, or any other reaction, know these feelings are normal and will pass. This will be the hardest journey you will ever take. It can also be one of the most rewarding. Please do not ever feel you are alone on this road. We are willing and always available to walk with you. Please feel free to call on one of our chaplains, social workers, or myself.