This article is dedicated to all of those who have lost a loved one. Grief is devastating to experience, yet it is universal to being human. No matter which religion, culture, or country in which you find yourself a citizen, it is a known that at some point you and someone you know will cease to exist in your current forms. The intellectual “knowing” that at some point we all die, does not make it any less heart wrenching to lose someone you love. While I am specifically speaking to the pain experienced through losing a loved one to death, the principles of grief and loss can also apply to break-ups or other major traumatic changes such as the onset of a chronic illness or the loss of a loved pet companion.
I have chosen to highlight Dr. Nancy Reeve’s Energy Model (1999) below as a way to visualize the stages of grief. When grief is viewed through the lens of energy, it helps us to realize that it is normal to be profoundly affected by the loss of a loved one and that there is hope. While you will never forget the feelings that you have for the person that you loved, the intensity of the grief will be decreased and you will have energy in your life again.
It is important to mention that people do not move through this model in a sequential way. As new feelings or emotions are experienced, people will move back and forth through the circles. Couples, families, and communities who are grieving together may find themselves in a different place with their energy capacities. There is no one “right” or “wrong” way to grieve.*Please note that “physical survival” refers to the basic activities such as eating and sleeping shown in the figures below.
When a loss is first experienced most of our energy is used for feelings of grief, being overwhelmed, or a sense of “numbness”. A small portion of time is spent on our survival needs such as eating or sleeping.
As time passes, we work though some of our grief and are able to use more energy on our basic survival by going to work, cooking, and sleeping. However, people often feel discouraged in this stage, because they feel as though weeks have gone by and they “should” feel better. People are actually moving through their grief, but may feel that it is worsening, as they often sense their pain as being more palpable when life is “supposed” to go on as normal and they do not have their “normal” amount of energy.
At some point, people report waking up and feeling a little bit “lighter”. Instead of wanting to isolate from friends or family, people report feeling able to dedicate a small amount of time to their social lives or having more energy for physical exercise.
The grieving process continues until a small slice of energy is used for grieving. This slice never leaves and is often experienced on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, graduations, weddings, the birth of children, buying your first house – basically times of family celebration and togetherness. Tapping into this grief can provide healing that can be used to produce memories of the person or to honor the spirit of the individual. It is important to mention that some people have reported feeling guilty for enjoying themselves at this stage, please remember that(in many cases) your loved one would have wanted you to continue enjoying life.
Path to Healing
I work with clients from various cultures and countries from around the world and have discovered one commonality that assists people to move through the grief cycle – acknowledgment. Acknowledge the loss that you are feeling when you are feeling it and accept it as a tribute to your loved one. It is healing to honor the memories, legacy, and lives of our ancestors and those that we love. Below I have listed several ways to assist in dealing the overwhelming sadness that may develop from grief and loss derived from William Worden’s theory called “Tasks of Grief”.
1. Participate in Ceremony and Rituals
If you are able, participate in your family or culture’s rituals around death. If your cultural traditions are not clear about how to grieve, seek out rituals that bring you comfort. Ideas of rituals could include as follows: participate in a ceremonial fire (http://www.sacredfirecommunity.org/), plant a tree of remembrance, visit places where you felt a connection with the loved one, get together with people to share stories of your loved one,listen to music that reminds you fondly of them, or keep a “memory journal” full of cherished memories.
2. Experience the Grief
This part of the process may feel overwhelming and exhausting. Grief is experienced at every level of our being – it is felt physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. You may experience a stomachache, headache, inability to concentrate, or irritability. This work can take time and a willingness to explore intense emotions, thoughts, and sensations. In particular, you may feel symptoms of depression, sadness, or anger. Activities that can be done are as follows: keep a daily emotional journal, write a letter to your loved one that appreciates all of the love that they have shared with you, write a letter that expresses why you may feel angry with him or her (if you feel angry), join a support group with others who have lost important people in their lives, or create art that expresses how you feel.
3. Forge a New Type of Relationship
Base this new experience on memory, spirit and love. It can be helpful and important to find ways to celebrate and remember the person who has died in a way that has meaning for you. You do not need to “forget about them” or “move on”. You may write, draw, collage, paint, mould, create an image of your favorite memory of the person or an aspect of them that you miss. Write a letter and include what you wish you could have told them but did not have the chance to do. Create a memory box, photo album, or web page with pictures and stories to share with others.
4. Find Your Community of Support
It is important to find a community of helpers to assist you through times of transition. Who could you call at 3 AM if you were upset and needed to talk? What kinds of activities help you through challenging times? Going to church, meditating, going outside, cooking, and talking with friends, are all activities that could support you in your time of need.***Please note, just as there is no one “right” way to experience grief, each person has a different time for which they feel an intense sense of grief. However, if it has been several years since your loss and your emotions remain so intense or debilitating that you have trouble going about your normal routine, it may be a good idea to talk with a mental health provider in your area. In addition, if a family member died that you never met, was not born, or you feel conflicted about, please know that it is still normal and important to grieve. The activities above may be adjusted to accommodate for feelings of anger or unfulfilled wishes. For more information about “complicated grief” please visit the following URL http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/complicated-grief/DS01023/DSECTION=symptoms.
Reeve, D.(1999). A Path Through Loss. Centennial: CO, Renton’s International Stationery, Inc.Worden, W.(2009). Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy. New York: NY, Springer Publishing Company.