The Bereavement Process

What is a "normal" grief and bereavement process?
Immediately following the loss (grief)
The first months after a loss- the beginning of mourning
The first year
Finally moving on
The utility of experts

What is a "normal" grief and bereavement process?

"Normal" is always a word to be used with caution when describing individuals and their experiences. What is outlined here should be considered with a recognition that every person who experiences a loss has his or her own personality and set of experiences and has lost a unique person in the context of a distinct relationship. All these factors go into the myriad ways in which a grief and bereavement process unfolds. Despite this, some broad guidelines are provided to describe the general path of grief and recovery from loss that many who have experienced it would likely find familiar.

Immediately following the loss (grief)

The first response to loss is almost inevitably the feeling that it can't be real, that it has not actually happened. Depending on the circumstances of the loss, and the relationship to the loved one, this feeling may last for seconds, days, or, in some cases, years.

These feelings (again depending on the individual and circumstances) may be accompanied by feelings of numbness-- what many commonly call, "shock"-- and a general sense of things being unreal. Some describe this sense of unreality as, "living in a haze" or, "moving in slow motion." This typically protective separation from reality may come with behaviors that those around the bereaved find alarming-- waking in the middle of the night calling out and searching for the lost loved one and/or the experience of auditory or visual hallucinations of the deceased indicating that he or she is not really gone. Such behaviors are not necessarily cause for concern, particularly in the time shortly after the death.

This numbness is often mixed with and followed by the more familiar signs of grief: extreme, painful sadness and fear as well as physical problems such as insomnia and an inability to eat. As these feelings emerge from the initial haze and numbness, more troublesome problems may arise as well. Among these are guilt, anger, preoccupation with or avoidance of things or places that evoke memories of the lost loved one, and a turn to alcohol and or drugs as a means of managing distress. These responses to loss are less common and may be a cue to consider consulting with an expert for assistance.

The first months after a loss- the beginning of mourning

In the first months following a loss, the challenges of grief typically continue, though often with support from friends and family who initially provide protection from some of the realities of his/her new life without the loved one. Things may become more complicated after a few months though as those who provided this help need to return to their own lives and responsibilities. Some of the bereaved are particularly confused at this point as some of those who provided support suggest that it's now time to set grief aside and, "get back to living." In most if not all cases of loss of a close loved-one, several months is not nearly a sufficient period of time to fully acknowledge one's grief and work through the bereavement process. It is consequently not uncommon for the bereaved to take an emotional turn for the worse at this time.

The first year

As the first year progresses, the bereaved faces the challenge of familiar experiences that evoke terribly painful memories. Birthdays, holidays, and other special events like graduations and weddings draw attention to realities that stayed on a useful back burner in a necessary and even comforting return to day-to-day tasks. The empty space left behind is pressed home further as the bereaved person faces tasks alone that once involved the lost loved one. Cooking, shopping, bill-paying, and even management of emotional challenges may be tasks for which a bereaved spouse once had help. Those who lose other significant loved ones, such as a parent or child, may find themselves confronting the challenge of life without a source of wisdom or history, or without a sense of hope for the future- invaluable though less concrete things that we get from our closest relationships with others.

Finally moving on

Some believe that, constructive "moving on" means forgetting the lost loved one or learning to, "disconnect" from them. This is not the case. What those who go on to function again find is that they maintain a very real and strong connection with the deceased, though in a new way. The bereaved may find, for instance, that his/her husband's or parent's or child's interests and beliefs can continue to be incorporated in and contribute to his/her quality of life. One may, "hear the voice" of the lost loved-one participating in and influencing decisions or serving as a model for remembering ways of experiencing life. Ultimately, those who successfully find their way through the grief and bereavement process learn to recognize the extent of what they have lost and to adapt, but to also recognize the reality that they have not lost everything.

The utility of experts

It is important to note the extent to which the descriptions above provide only the briefest sketch of the grief and mourning process. As noted, those who are lost and those who survive them are real and distinct people with a unique connection to one another. It's also important for the survivor to recognize the particular context in which he or she is working through the loss- a context that includes the absence and presence of friends and financial resources and the experiences of loss that came before. When attempting to understand the meaning of one's own loss and how to manage the uphill battle that may follow, it's worthwhile to consider speaking to people who have some knowledge of the process. These people may or may not be professionals. A friend or relative who has experienced loss or the members of a group of persons facing the same challenges can be very useful. Even in this context though, a meeting or two with an individual expert may be a productive and more private way to begin the work of returning to life.

 

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