Death and grieving – we all deal differently

Published 5:02 pm Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Throughout our lives, we are faced with losses, albeit at different levels.

As a child, the death of a pet may be our first exposure to loss. As we get older, the reality of losing those closest to us becomes more intense.

In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote one of the first popular books about the subject called, “On Death and Dying.” It has been updated many times and describes the responses to losses related to terminal illnesses through five stages that includes: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance.

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While this cycle of grieving has proven accurate and relevant to many bereaved people, psychologists are now pointing out that the process of grieving is complex and no two people mourn the same way or travel the path subsequent to a loss at the same speed.

Grieving, like growing up, is a process of going through phases, and each of us makes that journey at our own pace.

The process of grieving is typically determined by your relationship to the deceased and the nature of the death.

Death at the end of a very long life, whether caused by illness or from natural causes, has usually allowed us time to prepare and while the date of the loss is seldom anticipated accurately, it comes as no major surprise.

Sudden deaths caused by accidents, homicides or those involving young people still in the prime of life catch us emotionally unprepared and tend to take more time to reach a place of acceptance.

The finality of death is always an emotional shock, even if related to a known terminal illness. And working through the process of dealing with the loss and coping with the symptoms of grief can be a journey lasting from a few months to several years. For caregivers of loved ones, accepting the reality of a death is one thing, but being able to also accept that you did everything you could and the death was not your fault can be difficult. For some, that acceptance comes quickly, but for others, feelings of disbelief can go on for months and years.

Concepts that may help with the grieving process include:

Taking personal charge of the memorial or rituals of death instead of allowing the funeral home or someone outside the family to do it for you.

This is more easily done if open communications had taken place with the patient or between loved ones during which their wishes can be expressed.

Everything from the type of burial or cremation to the music played and the contents of the obituary or release to the media can be established when emotions are under control rather than during a period of high stress. There is help available to handle all these issues. If you have a computer, Google the words “Five Wishes.” Talking about the contents of the five wishes with your family can save a lot of emotional stress at the end of life.

Know there are no shortcuts to grieving. Watching a terminally ill loved one during the caregiving process allows us time to mourn the loss of that person even as we see them slipping away over time. It does not, however, take the place of the grief felt when the actual death occurs. The finality that comes with death increases feelings of loss and grieving cannot end until after the death has occurred.

Stay firmly rooted in your faith traditions. There is research that shows that those who believe in a spiritual life tend to deal with grieving more quickly, are often able to find meaning in the loss and, subsequently, are better able to cope.

Normal physical and emotional reactions include crying or being unable to cry, loss of appetite, inability to sleep, a feeling of numbness, feelings of being unanchored and socially withdrawing. Everyone experiences their feelings and reactions differently.

It’s okay to be angry and even better if you can redirect that anger energy into something constructive. Intense emotions can be a way to “hang on” to the deceased person and letting go of the emotion, or learning to live with it, can feel like letting go of the person who died.

For some, feelings of relief may occur and that too is okay as emotional and physical pain and suffering are no longer daily aspects that have to be dealt with by the deceased.

Don’t allow others to rush you through your grieving process. Ask for help from friends and family, particularly if new duties like handling the checkbook or paying bills is new to you. Seek out bereavement support, and one of the best sources may be your local Hospice where support groups commonly meet.

Don’t rely on medicines to take the pain away. Antidepressants can actually impede the grieving process and cannot take away the feelings of loss. Time is often the best medicine when combined with loving support from friends and family.

Eventually, normal life and living must resume. Your relationship to the person who died doesn’t end with his or her death, but it does change.

Your goal as you go through the grieving process is not to let go of the love and the memories, but to find a way to hold on to them with less pain.

Ron Kauffman is a geriatric care manager and certified senior advisor.

He is the author of Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease, available at, where you can also listen to his weekly Podcasts. He can be reached at 561-818-0039 or by email at