Over the years I have had both the privilege and pleasure of working with many clients and their families who are grieving the loss of a loved one. Many of my client’s will ask, “Will this pain ever go away?” Recognizing the grieving is a unique and challenging process, there is no easy answer to this question. From my experiences, both personally and professionally I understand that the difficult feelings that accompany grief are an essential part of the experience. The grieving process and the associated emotions help us to come to terms with the loss and learn how to integrate the meaning of the loss into our lives.
As part of my training I have had to research the course of the grieving process to learn more about the process and help guide my clients. Although I am cautious about making the grieving process too academic, it can be validating to see elements that mirror our situation in the writing of others.
In his book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, 4th ed., 2008, William Worden suggests Four Tasks of Grieving. These tasks, according to Worden, must be accomplished during the process of mourning. I like this model because it is flexible; meaning that you can adapt it to describe your individual situation, and it encourages the griever to take an active approach to their grieving process. Like any good model, it is possible to move backwards and forwards in the tasks. In other words, these tasks do not necessarily need to occur in the order that they are described here. However, as you will see, there is some natural order in that completion of some tasks presupposes completion of another task. Further, Worden acknowledges that at during the course of a lifetime some tasks may need to be revisited.
As you read, I empower you to use this material in a way that is helpful to you. Remember, there is no one right way to grieve. Everyone’s stages of grief do not occur in the same order, nor does the grieving process take the same amount of time for everyone.
Task #1: To accept the reality of the loss
This task involves coming to terms with the end of the person’s life. It is not uncommon to experience shock or disbelief following a loss, or feel as if you are living in a dream or surreal reality. Your mind can easily pretend that the death didn’t really happen in an attempt to avoid the pain. You might continually expect your loved one to walk through the door, or be on the other end of the phone when it rings. You might keep telling yourself that this has to be a nightmare that you’ll soon wake up from.
To many, “acceptance” often implies agreement or approval. To others, “acceptance” may imply severing ties to the past. Acceptance doesn’t have to mean any of this. Rather, in the case of losing a loved one, acceptance may simply mark the moment we are ready to begin our journey of healing. Engaging in rituals such as funerals or writing a letter to the person who has died, or talking to a therapist or a close friend or family member are helpful ways to start to come to terms with the reality of the situation.
Task #2: To work through the pain and grief
Grief naturally is accompanied by a wide range of intense emotions such as sadness, longing, emptiness, loneliness, anger, numbness, anger, anxiety, and confusion. This part of the grieving process is considered to be adaptive by many specialists in the field of grief and loss. I tell my clients that ironically, the prescription for grief is to grieve. In my experience I have seen that despite best efforts, there is no way to “get around” grief; we have to be willing to go through it in order to get to the other side.
The grieving process can cause complete exhaustion, sore muscles, loss of appetite, and difficulty focusing and making decisions. It is important that you are patient with yourself and allow all of these feelings to wash over you in order to process them. It is during this time especially that we need to focus on good self-care such as eating well, incorporating physical activity into your routine, sleeping and spending time with others who you feel comfortable with.
Task #3: To adjust to a new environment
Gradually, (or in some cases quickly), you will start to resume our normal routine. Students will have to go back to school, and adults will have to either go back to work or continue to engage in community activities. Over time you may come to realize the different roles that your loved one performed – either external or internal. Worden acknowledges that adjusting to an environment without the deceased can mean different things to different people depending on the relationship of the person who has died, as well as the roles that are impacted by the loss. The task of readjustment happens over an extended period of time, and can require internal adjustments, external adjustments and spiritual adjustments.
Accomplishing this task requires learning an array of new skills and tasks, ranging from bill paying, parenting, living alone, being an only child and redefining how you see yourself without the other person. This task also requires learning to ask for help when needed and identifying resources available to us.
Task #4: To find and enduring connection with the deceased while moving forward with life
This task includes finding an appropriate, ongoing connection in our emotional lives with the person who has died, while allowing us to continue living. Like the other tasks, this can mean varying things to each one of us. But, it often means allowing for thoughts and memories, while simultaneously engaging in the activities that are meaningful to us and that bring us pleasure. This may even include new activities, people or new relationships.
For Worden, not accomplishing this task is to not live. It is important to remember that life did not stop when the person died, and that it is important for us to continue to live our lives with a sense of purpose and meaning. In my experience, this task continues to be a goal to strive for – perhaps for the rest of one’s life. For me, the relationship that I have with those who I have lost continues to evolve and change as I do. There are times that I feel closer to my loved ones, and times when I need to remind myself to invite them to be a part of my life. Talking with a therapist or a member of your religious or spiritual community can be a helpful way of learning what it can look like for you to find an ongoing connection with the person who has died.
We can’t change the fact that our loved ones are gone. But, we do have choices in how we respond. We can choose to stay wrapped up in sorrow. Why? Some feel it is the strongest, most palpable connection we have left to our loved one. It may feel as though we would be betraying or diminishing our love for them if we were to ever be happy in a world without them. I have been there myself, and place no judgment on those who are not ready to leave that world.
When you are ready, you can choose to begin to find a new way forward in life while incorporating the deep profound love we still feel – and always will. We can choose to embrace the overwhelming pain and learn from it. We can learn what matters most to us, and then invite more of it into our lives. We can learn to allow joy and happiness back into our lives. We can choose to heal.