Honoring the Person You Have Lost and Finding the Person You Will Become

by Liz Murray

Bereavement is a word that comes from the old English bereven, and dates before 900, according to the dictionary. It means to deprive and make desolate, especially by death. Bereavement is often described as “a choiceless event,” something that happens to us when a loved one dies, over which we have no control.

But grieving, what we do when we are bereaved, is something rich in choices. Here we don’t have to be passive. It is one of those times in life, when we have an opportunity to think about what is important in life, what we really value and even, who we want to be going forward. So grieving IS about both honoring the one who has died but reconnecting with oneself and one’s place in the world.

Early theories of grief and bereavement often cited Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s work with dying patients. Her “stages of grief” model, taken from her work with the dying, was subsequently applied to the bereaved. The five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, were descriptions of what she saw in her patients. Subsequently, scholars have criticized the model as being too static and simplistic to describe what happens in grief.

More recently, people talk about the tasks of bereavement or the challenges of bereavement. I find this approach more helpful, because it emphasizes what you have to work on in grief; not just endure. So I am going to talk about four challenges (or tasks) of grieving, compiled from the work of William Worden, Therese Rando and others.

Challenge 1: Acknowledge the reality of the loss.

“What is required is learning the lessons of loss at a deeply emotional level, through a series of seemingly unending confrontation with the limitations posed by your loved one’s absence….” Niemeyer

Examples: You open a drawer and find an object of your beloved and begin to cry; you walk in the door of your home after an absence and the absence of the beloved hits you again with force; the car breaks down and you have to fix it since he is not here, or you have to go in the kitchen and cook a dinner because she is not here. These events happen over and over in the early days of the loss, each time opening up a seemingly endless reservoir of pain.

Challenge 2: Open yourself to the pain.

In the immediate aftermath of the loss, numbing or distancing from the excruciating pain is to be expected. As Niemeyer says, “…focusing relentlessly on the pain of loss can be a bit like staring unblinking at the sun – it may actually be damaging if our gaze is sustained too long.”

However, attempting to avoid the distressing feelings altogether may delay or perpetuate grieving. Bereaved people need to sort through and identify the feelings. For example, a pang of deep loneliness may indicate a need to reach out and find others to befriend. A wave of anxiety may suggest a need to find solace in prayer or other spiritual support. We have to embrace the pain long enough to learn its lessons. When we develop some awareness of our emotions and what they are telling us, we can gain a sense of direction in the grief work, as well as some personal depth and wisdom.

Mourning involves periodic “grief work” attending to the feelings of sadness, anxiety, and memories of the loved one.. and reorientation to the practical tasks of home and work. (Look at dual model) This “outward” focus may require the development of a host of new skills required to cope with a new environment. So grieving typically goes back and forth between feeling and doing. Grieving only becomes “complicated” if we do one to the exclusion of the other: rumination or prolonged avoidance of the pain. Bereaved people need to give themselves permission to both immerse themselves in their grief AND to distract themselves from it when they need a break.

Challenge 3: Revise your Assumptive World. This is often where our spirituality becomes important.

The death of a loved one often undercuts the unspoken beliefs and assumptions that have been building blocks of our philosophy of life. The suffering of a loved one can seem “Unjust” and can destroy our feelings of invulnerability in the world. We all know we will die and our loved ones will die, but we often live our day-today lives as if this isn’t so. And then it is so for someone we love. The world may seem random, unfair, or even malevolent, and sometimes our spiritual beliefs seem hollow. We can react by self-recrimination; blaming ourselves for not preventing the loss. Or we can become angry at God for not preventing the loss. Or we can view the loss as “a wake up call” to review our sense of priorities, and be sure we are giving our time and attention to who and what is most precious in our lives. We can use the opportunity to realize that we are finite human beings.

Challenge 4: Reinvent Yourself. A part of us dies when we lose someone we love.

We are social beings and we become who we are in relation to the people in our lives. The loss of that loved one creases a void in us as well. We will never be our “old self” again after a major loss. We can rebuild a new identity, which keeps continuity with the one who died. We have to figure out ways to stay connected to the one who dies while “re-visioning” ourselves. As we learn the lessons of loss, we can emerge with renewed priorities, a clearer sense of what is important and who we are.

Niemeyer reports that psychological research suggests that the great majority of widowed persons feel a year after their loss that “a part of them is missing” but also report that their lives “have great richness” and that they “try to get the most out of each day.” “…the frailty of life can provide a necessary reminder of the need to ground one’s living in ultimate concerns.”

About the Author: Liz Murray attended the University of Texas at Austin where she received a Bachelor of Business Administration in Management in the mid-seventies. Since college, she spent 6 years in the Human Resource field and then 15 years doing various volunteer activities in several states. Liz recently retired from coordinating all the volunteer programs at Peterson Hospice. Her responsibilities included the Hospice Thrift Store, patient, floral, children’s bereavement and administrative volunteers. In 2004, she instituted Bridging the Gap, a children’s bereavement program for children in grades K through 12 who have suffered a loss through death. Two years ago, she started a children’s bereavement weekend camp called Camp Rays of Hope. Both are completely volunteer-staffed programs serving any children in the Hill Country area. Liz and her husband, Pat Murray, have been married for 38 years. They have three married daughters and four grandchildren.

Read Liz’s other articles:
Life Experiences Shape Our Future (parent homicide)
Grieving Children ~ How Do We Help Them?