I come from a large family. Not only do I have six siblings, but I have over 40 first cousins. Aunts and uncles and great-aunts and great-uncles and second cousins or first cousins-once-removed – you name it. There’s a lot of life that I am related to. But where there is a lot of life, there is also death and loss.
Because there are so many of us, diseases and cancer and other ailments are likely to hit someone I love. And yet, life keeps moving forward. How do we keep moving forward with it? How do we feel normal after someone integral to Monday dinners or Christmas gatherings is no longer with us?
Who makes Grandma’s stew when Grandma is no longer alive? Even harder sometimes, how do we grieve those who passed so young we barely got to understand who they were or who they could become?
The Tasks of GrievingOne of my favorite books that I read in graduate school was Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy by J. William Worden (2009). The five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) are often the reference for how to move through the grieving process, but Worden instead describes the “Tasks of Grieving”.
His theory is based on the concept of attachment, and that once bonds with someone are formed, they never fully dissolve. We are never truly “over grieving”, as the people we have known have influenced our lives and remain in our memories. The more someone has attached to us or influenced our lives (positively or negatively), the more complicated moving through the tasks will be.
Task 1: Accept the reality of the loss
Shock and disbelief are common after a loved one dies, even if the death was expected. There is a sense of “I can’t believe they are really gone.” Moving through the first task involves precisely that – believing and accepting that they are gone and they are not coming back.
Task 2: Process the pain of grief
Loss is always accompanied by pain. Avoiding it or suppressing it will only extend the grieving process. Psychological pain can even manifest as physical pain sometimes. As a therapist, I often get asked “What does processing even mean? How do you do it?” This can look different for different people. But first and foremost, you want to name what you are feeling.
Is it anger, fear, sadness? Name it and then sit with it and begin to express it. Answer why you are feeling that way. Accept that it is going to be a part of your life for a time. Find new ways to express it – creatively or verbally or written – anything that helps externalize a part of what you are feeling. These are just a few examples of ways to move through it, but when we avoid the emotion and the processing is when we get stuck.
Task 3: Adjust to a world with the deceasedThis is taking task 1 and integrating it into the rest of our lives. It is the application of living without our loved one, both externally or internally. Even spiritual adjustments may occur, as you may question God’s role in this world. For those who lose spouses, this might be figuring out what new roles you might need to take on, like paying bills, cooking, or even finding out what the widowed you will be like.
For those who lose children, this may look more like learning how to fill the time that would have otherwise been preoccupied with care-giving. The adjustment will be different depending on the nature of the relationship to the one who died, but the task remains the same. Your life, your world will be different, and you will learn how to adapt to the changes.
Task 4: Find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life
As already mentioned, those who depart from our lives are never completely detached from us. We continue to maintain memories of them, and our journeys have been influenced by them. So the final task is to find ways to honor that connection while making room for new experiences and new relationships. We can’t stop living. And finding new people to love doesn’t devalue or invalidate the connection and love we had for someone who died.
These tasks do not have to be traveled through sequentially. Some will happen sequentially and some will happen simultaneously. And some will need to be revisited over time. For this, I often use the example of a child who loses a parent.
The grief of a 6-year-old may be processed in age appropriate ways, but will probably arise again in different ways at different points in time, like a graduation or a wedding. When I lost my grandmother at 14, I was devastated and I grieved through that experience as I was at the time.
But the grief took on new forms two years later when my youngest brother was born, and I realized they would never meet. And it came back again differently when I got married and wore the bracelet my grandfather gave to her on their wedding day. It returned when my infant niece died and I imagined my grandmother holding her in heaven.
I expect to feel some of it again when I have my own children or grandchildren. It is different every time it reappears, and I’ve learned to expect it, plan for it, and flow through the tasks as needed so that I can keep living my life.
But, we can know if we aren’t making progress through the tasks – we get stuck. The normal grief process can include feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, self-criticism, anxiety, loneliness, fatigue, helplessness, shock, yearning, numbness, and in some cases, relief or freedom.
We can physically feel emptiness or hollowness in our stomachs, tightness in our chests or throats, detachment, oversensitivity to stimuli, breathlessness, weak limbs, and a lack of energy or physical heaviness.
Our minds might experience disbelief, confusion, preoccupation with or dreams of our lost loved ones, a sense that the loved one is still near us, and sometimes even hallucination-like experiences, feeling like you see your or hear your loved one.
And our behaviors can experience changes as well, such as in sleep, appetite, awareness, or social involvement; as well as restlessness, crying, and avoiding or revisiting reminders of the deceased.
When we get stuck somewhere along the grief journey, some of these experiences may occur in a manner that interrupts daily life for a prolonged period of time. We stop moving through the tasks and we remain stationary in certain feelings, thoughts, or sensations that keep cycling, like a song on repeat.
Or we might suppress the strong emotional pain and keep living, but any small reminder of the loss sends us reeling. If this is the case, some grief therapy might be helpful for you. Finding a professional can help you figure out where you got stuck and how to propel yourself forward.
Grief counseling can be helpful for anyone experiencing loss. An outside perspective can help guide you through the most difficult parts of the grief journey. If you conceptualize life as a long journey with mountains to climb, valleys to descend, and meadows to meander through, it can be helpful to have a guide who knows the paths through the toughest, tallest mountains.
You might be able to eventually find your own path over a mountain, but it could certainly help to have a guide. You still have to do the work, because no one can carry you over the mountain, but the directions are helpful.
A Personal ReflectionTwo specific paths along the grief journey that I find particularly helpful are finding ways to commemorate our loved ones and finding meaning in the loss. For me personally, this has taken on various forms.
My most significant grief journeys so far have been those I’ve taken after my grandmother died when I was 14 and when my infant niece died a year and a half ago. One was expected, and one was very sudden. Both were difficult in their own ways.
My grandmother passed after a long battle with multiple myeloma, which we knew was terminal from the moment of diagnosis. She was a very present and supportive part of our family, even through her illness.
As mentioned before, there have been several stages to grieving her death, but remembering her and finding meaning in her loss have been most helpful for me in acknowledging my ongoing attachment to her while continuing on with my life. Every holiday season, she used to make specific breads that her sister, my great aunt, continues to make and send to us.
Every year, it brings back fond memories. There are several other foods we used to enjoy together that serve as a touching reminder whenever I make them. My grandfather found meaning through raising money and awareness for cancer research.
A more meaningful commemoration for me is remembering her peaceful and joyful spirit and the steady faithfulness with which she bore her suffering. She remains an inspiration to me, and I feel connected to her again both when I try to make some of her recipes and when I try to embody some of her peace and joy, which of course comes from Christ.
In some ways, losing those older than us “makes sense.” The natural order of life is to lose grandparents before parents before we ourselves die. But life can take a particularly cruel turn when this happens out-of-turn. I still remember the day my sister told us she was pregnant.
She and her husband lived in Africa at the time, and there were many unknowns about their future, but we were all excited about a new little life to embrace and love. My sister developed preeclampsia and traveled back to the U.S. in order to be closer to family and her doctors here.
At 27 weeks, she went in for an emergency C-section after an ultrasound revealed a very weakened heartbeat. Our precious Ava had become wrapped in the cord and was without oxygen. Two days in the NICU with fervent prayer and ambitious hope and her life still slipped away from us.
There are certain things in life you never expect to experience, like a funeral with a coffin the size of a shoebox. Part of what has helped keep my faith alive was reading the book, Lord Willing? before any of this happened. I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for God in the midst of suffering.
But learning how to grieve Ava was difficult. It’s still a work in progress, as is all grief. The pain comes and goes, and I’ve learned to take it bit-by-bit. There’s no need to face it all at once, and I’ve found safe spaces to share when I need to. I’ve learned that the pain can be all consuming at times, but it will fade again.
I’ve learned to appreciate the present because you never know what tomorrow may hold. I’ve learned to hug my other nieces and nephews a little longer and give them a little more patience. I’ve learned that it’s okay for even a counselor to seek out counseling. And I’ve learned that my meaning out of this loss will come from being able to empathize more deeply with others who have lost loved ones.
Love is such an amazing gift that we can enjoy and share. Connection and attachment are essential to human wellness. But everything in this present life will eventually come to an end, even those we care deeply about. We cannot live without love, and we cannot love without loss.
Learning how to grieve and say goodbye well is an important task for us all. And if it is one that you find you need help or guidance with, there are numerous resources available to help. Please do not hesitate to reach out to one of our counselors or another in your area if you find yourself lost along your grief journey.
Worden, J. W. (2009). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (4th ed.). New York: Springer Publishing Company
“In Loving Memory”, Courtesy of aitoff, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Longing”, Courtesy of Kristina Tripkovic, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “One Direction”, Courtesy of Jens Johnsson, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Heart Balloon”, Courtesy of Karim MANJRA, Unsplash.com, CC0 License