Moving forward after losing a loved one
After the most devastating loss, support groups can be a lifesaver for survivors struggling to rekindle their lives.
By: Debra Bradley Ruder
Tips for grievers:
Give yourself time to grieve.
Take care of yourself physically: Rest, eat and exercise.
Consider joining a support group or meeting with a counselor.
Jot down thoughts and feelings in a journal.
Remember that it’s OK to cry; tears can be healing.
Seek comfort in your faith, if that feels right.
Work through your “unfinished business” with the deceased person to express your love, gratitude, regrets, anger. You might try an armchair conversation with him or her.
Develop comforting rituals that continue your bond with the person, like looking through photos, preparing familiar meals or marking anniversaries.
It’s OK to cherish belongings of the person who has died, like jewelry, books or furniture.
You may find satisfaction in carrying on your loved one’s work.
Seek comfort in your lifelong sources of joy, such as nature or music.
Pay attention to your kids; they are grieving, too.
Know that pangs of sadness and longing are normal, even years after the death.
Tips for friends and supporters of the bereaved:
Don’t be silent or afraid to talk about the deceased person.
On the anniversary of his/her death, ask how the survivor is doing, or whether there’s anything you can do to help.
Write a note remembering the person who died, for example to his/her children.
Understand that the bereaved person’s life has changed. He or she may be a single parent, or struggling financially, and may not be able to resume activities of the past.
Debra Bradley Ruder is a Boston area-based writer and editor with a longtime interest in end-of-life issues. She currently edits the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s award-winning research magazine, and her freelance stories have appeared in Newsweek, The Boston Globe and Harvard Magazine.
When her husband died at age 44 from nonsmoker’s lung cancer, Christine Cleary of Cambridge, Mass., was shocked, heartbroken and angry. How could Ed be taken away so young, leaving their two daughters fatherless and Christine without her soul mate of 16 years?
Although her friends and relatives were supportive, they soon resumed their normal lives — but Christine couldn’t.
Feeling terribly alone in the months after Ed’s death, she sought refuge in a support group for young widows and widowers hosted by a local hospital. “These people were in the same boat, and we understood one another,” she recalls. “They were my lifeline.”
The bereavement group, which ran for eight sessions, offered a place for Christine to cry, talk about her husband, and pick up useful tips like this one: When you go anywhere with other people, take your own car so you can leave if you’re upset. Slowly, the group — which continued to meet on its own for about two years — helped her begin to redefine herself beyond the wife of a seriously ill man or a widow. Now, seven years later, she finally feels like herself once more; “It took that long to feel my life is rich again.”
Christine’s experience reflects many of the benefits of support groups, according to Mary Lou Hackett, LICSW, a clinical social worker at the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center in Boston. For the past 14 years, Hackett has led bereavement groups for spouses of patients who have died from cancer, helping them come to grips with their lost hopes and dreams and begin, albeit slowly, to find joy and meaning in their lives.
“They feel understood,” notes Hackett. “As one person in the group said, ‘You can’t say anything too stupid here. …To know that you aren’t losing your mind, that grief is hard physically and emotionally, is enormously sustaining for people.”
Grief is a universal experience, but it differs according to the survivor’s personality, cultural and religious beliefs, coping skills and support system, as well as the circumstances of the death. Losing a young child to illness or a friend to suicide is wholly unlike losing one’s aging parent to natural causes. Support groups that focus on a particular kind of loss are most successful, observers say.
The commonly accepted “phases” of grief include disbelief, yearning, anger, sadness and acceptance. However, people often experience the first four as a set of emotions, rather than a distinct series of stages leading up to acceptance, notes Holly Prigerson, PhD, a bereavement authority based at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who studies both normal grief and a severe form called prolonged grief disorder.
Another common reaction after a death is guilt. The survivor might wonder, “Why didn’t I take him to that other doctor?” or, “I promised her that she would die at home, but she didn’t.” Support groups can help you realize that you did the best you could, says Hackett. “The grief process is the first step in going forward.”
Grief takes time, but as a culture we generally don’t encourage mourners to take that time. Some rituals, like the Jewish customs of sitting Shiva (a weeklong period of mourning) and reciting the Kaddish (a mourner’s prayer) for up to a year, give survivors who follow them a comforting structure for their sorrow.
Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that you don’t “recover.” Instead, you learn to incorporate their absence and memories into your life and channel your emotional energy toward others. Eventually, it has been said, your grief walks beside you instead of consuming you.
“In general, bereaved survivors shouldn’t think of ‘getting over’ a loss, but develop ways to get used to it,” says Prigerson. “Even years after someone dies, pangs of grief may come out of the blue, and feelings of heartache and missing the deceased are rekindled. That’s normal.”
In a 2006 interview with The New York Times, Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes described having two children die before they turned 30. “You go on,” he reflected. “You bring the person you love inside you. That is how you cope. You make him or her live within you.”
Christine Cleary has done exactly that with her late husband, Ed, a graphic designer and artist who died in 2000. She loves describing Ed’s upbeat and easygoing manner, visiting with his old friends, and seeing Ed’s traits — like his passion for baseball — in their teenage daughters. She honors his memory by helping organize an ongoing art exhibit at Massachusetts General Hospital, and she marks the anniversary of his death with a quiet, reflective day off from her work as a writer/editor. For several years, Christine has been romantically involved with a man who, similarly, lost his wife to cancer. They’re both comfortable talking about their late spouses.
Death forces you to look back, and acceptance involves slowly turning your body around to look forward, Christine explains. “If you begin a new chapter of life, you carry the person you lost along with you.”
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