Shock is usually the first response. Unable to absorb the full impact of the death that has just occurred, the mind and body respond with numbness; life becomes dream-like and foggy. Edges are blurred, feelings dulled as you are eased into the reality of our loss. Shock is the protective transition into the often overwhelming intensity of the next stage. Clients at this stage tell me: "I feel numb...It hasn't sunk in yet that my father has died...Everything feels unreal right now."
As the shock wears off, one descends into a long dark passage of grief. One feels alone, out of control, flooded with waves of intense and often overpowering feelings, that range from anguish and anger to relief and joy. Clients tell me in this stage: "I don't know what is wrong with me. I cry all the time. . .It's been six months and I am still depressed...I feel like an orphan. I've never felt so alone...I don't seem to care about anything anymore."
During this middle stage of grief it is common to feel tense and exhausted, to lose appetite or sleep. The immune system may be compromised. Many people have trouble concentrating and making decisions. All of these are normal reactions to the loss of a parent.
It is understandable that people would feel overwhelmed in this stage—that they might even try to pull themselves prematurely out of their grief. This is a critical time to incorporate daily strategies for grieving as well as to seek out support from therapists, hospice grief groups and friends who have gone through the grief process themselves. The role of the therapist is to educate, support and encourage clients in their grieving—to encourage clients again and again to reach deep inside themselves to find the resources to go on through the loneliness and depression, to face not only the chaos and uncertainty, but also their own mortality and painful questions about the direction and quality of their lives.
There is often a significant shift around the first anniversary of a loved one's death. At this time there can be a sense of renewal, inspiration and emergence into the world after many months of retreat, depression and exhaustion. There can be marked changes in self-concept, priorities and career goals. For example Andrew Scharlach found in his study of those who were grieving the loss of a parent that 88% of those studied reported changes in priorities—toward family and simple pleasures. That same study reported that 70% made changes at work and 25% left a job, returned to school or quit school.
Even as the intensity of the raw middle stage of grief lifts, it is important to remember that grief will continue to surface from time to time through the years. This is not a regression, but an opportunity for healing.
Many people resist grief because they think that what they are experiencing is abnormal. Most of us carry thoughts about grieving that actually prevent real healing from occurring.
That grief will heal in time—in six weeks preferably so we can get on with our lives—and that if we just hunker down and bear it for this time period we will get through it. ? That if I start crying, I will never stop.? That if I really heal and let go I will lose the person forever
It is natural, though uncomfortable, to feel raw, vulnerable, alone. People are afraid of the intensity, of feeling overwhelmed, of not being able to stop crying once they start. They are also concerned about other people's reactions—that other people will feel uncomfortable and withdraw. Friends, co-workers, even family members may not understand what you are going through. Many of these relationships may change as a result. A perceptive author Stephanie Ericcson observes: "Grief rewrites our address books".
For these reasons, many people are afraid of letting down into the grieving process. It is important to understand that these fears and concerns are normal—and that there are strategies for grieving effectively without feeling so overwhelmed.
It's not uncommon to hear those who are grieving express their distress that grief is taking longer than they thought it would: "It's been six weeks...six months. I should be over this now." It takes time to grieve the loss of a loved one. There can be considerable pressure from friends and family to "pull yourself together and get on with your life". As a result, many people try to put this event behind them too quickly.
We don't "get over" grief; we learn to carry it. It demands a long-term response that can't be hurried. The majority of adults in Scharlach's study were still experiencing emotional and somatic reactions one to ten years after the death of a parent.
When you let grief work on you, rather than trying to prematurely get over it, you will discover the tremendous healing and transformative powers within it. Grief is wise; it knows what you need in order to heal. Even though the timing of grief is individual, many people experience a shift around the first anniversary out of the raw, most intense phase of grief.
It is important to actively integrate and resolve your grief, not just passively experience your reactions to it. Grief carries us until we carry it. The first step is to find and establish a sanctuary, whether in your home or in nature, a quiet place to grieve where you will not be interrupted.
You may want to set up an altar where you can place pictures of a loved one, special objects, candles, flowers, etc. In your sanctuary, you have the opportunity to work with the intense forces and emotions aroused in grief. It is the womb in which you are cradled in your grief.
Using your sanctuary, give 100% to your grieving for a period of time each day—starting with 10 minutes and moving up to an hour. There are many possibilities: writing, drawing, crying, listening to music, praying, meditating, or just sitting and being open to whatever comes up.
Find a rhythm of entering the grief for a period of time each day and then letting it go. As you emerge from the sanctuary, take a walk, call a friend, attend to daily tasks. In this way, you can move beneath the surface of grief and even dive deep without feeling overwhelmed.
You can refer to The Infinite Thread and Losing a Parent for more information on the sanctuary, along with guided exercises.
Grief does not just go away in time; it continues to work deep within the psyche, limiting a person's capacity for aliveness. Over time unresolved grief can result in depression, apathy, addictions, overworking, compulsive behavior, chronic physical symptoms, progressive social isolation. Overall, unresolved grief results in a shutting down on life, since a person can't afford to be near anything that might trigger it. Many of my clients discovered that current problems that were rooted in the death of a loved one that was never grieved.
Grief brings you into closer contact with the unconscious. Vivid dreams may occur that stun you with their power. These dreams can be an invaluable source of guidance and healing as your parent is dying or as you are grieving. Your dreams will show you whatever is being repressed in your grieving; they will show you when you are moving into a new stage of grieving. When you dream about your loved one, they can also provide a comforting sense of continuity, reassuring you that your parent is still accessible within you.
It is very common for unresolved feelings toward a loved one to surface after the death. Sometimes memories or insights emerge that were too frightening or disturbing to face when that person was alive. The grieving period is an important time to heal old wounds and to begin to say good-bye. It is also a time to nurture an ongoing inner relationship.
Death ends a life, not a relationship. While the relationship with your loved one as you had known it in your everyday life has ended, there is an unfolding inner relationship that continues to provide many opportunities for healing.
One of my clients expressed: "I miss my father and I miss the relationship I never had with him." Her father had not spent much time with her and was not very demonstrative.
When she did an active imagination exercise in a workshop, she was convinced that nothing would happen. She was shocked when a vivid image of her father appeared in the center of the rose. "I could reach out and touch him. I could hear his voice so clearly." She was moved to tears by the loving interaction and was convinced that she was still connected to him.
It is never too late to heal our regrets. That unfinished business can keep us from being able to fully let go and move on in our lives. The old resentments, unfulfilled wishes and unexpressed love continue to work deep in the unconscious, even years after the death. Over and over again I have witnessed people using the strategies I have discussed in my books to heal their regrets—it doesn't matter how long a time has passed since the death. After an interview on the radio, an eighty year old woman called me, thrilled that she had through dialogs with her father begun to heal her relationship with him—over forty years since his death. She was shocked at the creativity and energy that was suddenly available to her.
The death of a parent is a life-shaking event, shaking the foundation of one's life and undermining familiar supports. It is an important life passage in the life cycle. Clients and workshop participants have made such statements as, "The death of my parent was like nothing I've ever experienced before. It is overwhelming...It rips you wide open...The death of my parent is one of the hardest things I've ever dealt with." Studies over the past ten years (Scharlach, Umberson) reveal that this event is much more stressful than had been assumed by the general public and mental health professionals.
Many people are not prepared for the intensity and power of grief. Suddenly death is one step closer; life seems fragile and unpredictable. The family is fragmented; one feels alone. A person who loses a parent will never be the same as he or she was before this event. This experience can shatter a person, leaving life-time scars, but it can also inaugurate a transformative healing journey.
To be alive is to have losses. However most of us shrink from loss, thinking that if we just keep busy we can close our hearts a little to protect ourselves from loss. It is our ungrieved losses that take a toll on our hearts and deaden us. We pay a price in terms of our happiness, health, well-being. But there are tools or grieving to help us so we can live our lives fully. We succumb to grief so that we can fully live- -grief wakes us up to life, to this precious moment, to love, to joy and to the silence at the core of each being.
Some of these losses will break our hearts — the loss of a partner, a child, a close friend, a parent or sibling or grandparent, a lover, a cherished pet.
The pain of a broken heart is excruciating, both emotionally and physically. Our hearts literally hurt. In response, most people try to avoid that pain by keeping busy or burying the pain in alcohol. The culture offers a lot of distractions for avoiding pain.
Summer has given way to fall, a time of letting go and loss. We are losing the light as the days shorten; trees are losing their leaves, as the sap returns to roots in the dark earth; flowers and vegetables, just a few weeks ago so lush and bountiful, are dying back. This is a natural time every year to feel our losses, but this year we are also faced with the shakeup of our whole financial system and huge losses on Wall Street.
As children pass through their teenage and then their college years, parents must find ways to cope with the feelings of loss as they become independent, and move apart.
Once we realize that we can still have an inner relationship with a deceased loved one, we can begin to heal our unresolved grief. Using our imagination, we can access this special relationship and resolve old hurts and regrets, express love and receive guidance.
There I was at the bedside of my dying father, reflecting on the passage of labor with my son. The two events felt closely related, though at opposite ends of life's continuum. Just as the birth of our children is a rite of passage, so, too is the death of our parents. These events change us; we will never be the same.
Our world changed last September 11. Many Americans lost family, friends, and co-workers. New Yorkers watched their city and community go through a devastating crisis. We all lost the world as we had known it-- we suddenly confronted our vulnerability in an uncertain world. These losses have been many layered, the grief complex.
The holidays, abounding in memories and family traditions, can activate grief, even years later.
"Alexandra Kennedy engages the threshold of dying and death with such gentleness. She offers mythology, narrative, and empirical data as pathways to the embrace of the dying and the retrieval of grief not as a desert but as a slow garden of remembrance, surprise and unexpected novelty."