OVERCOMING LOSS: Grieving and Mourning
By Daniela Anéis

[En español]



Since the dawn of time, Man has tried to explain the most puzzling phenomenon of our existence: death. Why do we need to die? Where do we go after we’re gone? Modern day medicine has been giving us the false hope that we can defeat death and extend our life on Earth. But as my father used to say, “We’re here on borrowed time.” He died at the age of 37 with lung cancer.

But the hardest part of finding a suitable explanation for death is: how are we going to cope with loss? How can life just go on as usual? Are we erasing the existence of our loved ones by going about with our lives? That’s called survivor’s guilt. It makes no sense we feel that way, but we still do as part of the grieving process.

When death is unnatural or due to untimely illness (such as cancer at a young age for instance), it’s harder to accept the randomness that governs our lives. “Why do bad things happen to good people?”—We ask. But what if we find the answer to be: it just happens for no reason at all? Our analytical minds demand answers and explanations and logical reasoning. And eventually when we do accept the departure of our loved ones and grieve (or if you prefer heal), we do give ourselves an acceptable explanation.

But what is exactly the grieving and mourning process? Investigator and psychologist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has pointed out five stages of the grieving process: 1) Shock; 2) Denial; 3) Anger; 4) Depression; 5) Acceptance. These stages are not always sequential, and someone may experience setbacks and retreats over the period of mourning and grieving.

What can you expect when someone is in mourning? (according to Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' work):


  • Shock — when someone gets the news a loved has died, initially there can be a sense of disbelief, like living a nightmare. The mind can’t process and shuts down to protect itself (one of the reasons why someone faints with shock). And some people actually have small periods of amnesia due to shock. But usually when hearing news like that, a person may freeze for a while and express no emotion—we turn on autopilot. When shock wears off and the mind processes what happened, then comes denial.
  • Denial — “This didn’t happen. It’s not possible. I just spoke to him/her. They were fine. This must be a bad joke you’re trying to play.” Reality is just too overwhelming to be true; the flood of feelings that come tumbling down the mountain destroys everything in its path. But as the mind settles down and accommodates to reality, the harsh truth comes sinking in.
  • Anger — “Why did this happen? We had so little time together! He/She had so much life to live! This isn’t fair! Why didn’t I go instead?” These are some of the most common phrases you’ll hear or even say yourself. And the sense of unfairness about why bad things happen to good people will make you angry. It’s not uncommon to express anger and try to attribute guilt to someone or even an entity (such as God). When the death was on the victim’s fault, one may experience mixed feelings about the person that has died. And those feelings take time to process and heal. It’s sometimes easier to be angry than to let sadness take over. Personally speaking, I have to confess I spent around four years extremely angry at my father. I felt like he should have taken better care of his health and not ignored the signs and maybe he would still be here. I’m going to explain how I got past that in the overcoming loss strategies section of this article.
  • Depression — feeling sad is a part of mourning and an important one. It is expected for someone to feel sad, drained of energy and not feeling well enough to get out of bed or the house; to cry easily when something reminds us of our loved one or when reality comes knocking on the door (like taking care of legal documents and separating clothes to donate for instance). This stage takes a lot of time.
  • Acceptance — the last stage of mourning is when you’re able to accommodate to a loved one’s absence and return to your life without that person. Usually when in mourning, people stop doing things they did with their loved one or going to places they used to go or even hanging out with the same friends. Memories just seem too painful to bear. When our mind finally comes to terms that life must go on without that special someone in it, the feeling that remains is that of missing someone and holding on to good memories. There is a unique word in a language for that kind of feeling, the Portuguese call it “saudade” (it has no direct translation to English).

It’s commonly accepted that a mourning period should take at least two years, but of course that will always depend on the person and the type of bond that united you to the person you’ve lost. Overcoming the loss of a child is one the most painful losses one can go through and the two-year window simply does not apply here.

How can you overcome a deep loss and regain your sense of self and wholeness again?

The people we love and love us back are somehow incorporated into our sense of self. Like the French author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has said: “The ones who pass by us, do not go alone, and do not leave us alone. They leave a bit of themselves, and take a little of us.” But it is the feeling that we have lived a richer life by knowing and loving a person, and that experience alone has made the pain of losing that someone worthwhile, is something quite comforting.

Forgiving. Whether it is forgiving the person directly responsible for the death, an entity (such as God), or even our loved one, forgiving is essential. After four years of being angry at my father, when I was ready to forgive him for leaving me, I wrote him a letter saying that. I left it hidden on his gravestone and left there to be eaten away by the elements. It felt liberating.

Honoring our loved ones. Irvin Yalom in his book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death has said that we don’t really die until the last person we’ve met has died. And even then, the impact we’ve caused in someone’s life can be passed on like a rippling effect. Doing something in memory of your loved one (doesn’t need to be a grand gesture) is a way of letting yourself feel and experience the importance and impact that person has had on you. Some people write books, others defend the causes that person loved, others start doing volunteer work and others become someone our loved one can feel proud of.

Find yourself a new life. It’s important to face life without your loved one and moving out of town may seem like a good idea, but remember your memory is still with you. However, making small changes and trying on new things will give you a sense that life goes on and it’s possible to overcome that sense of void losing someone always leaves us with.

Do we ever reach acceptance in a mourning process?—You might be asking. Maybe not fully, but we can be quite close. Just remember: what’s never lost is the love we’ve received and the love we’ve given someone in this life.

 

Daniela Anéis
About Daniela Anéis
Leiria | Portugal

Daniela Anéis has been a clinical psychologist since 2009, with a Masters degree in Systemic at Lisbon University, Portugal. Her first experience as a clinical psychologist was in a private and Catholic mental hospital, the eldest religious congregation in the country devoted to mental health – and a real school. In 2012, she created a community based project at her hometown called Senior’s University which, through volunteer work, teaches classes to people over their 50’s and most of them retired. There are no homework, no tests and no diplomas, only people learning and enjoying life. Besides the classes, the parties, and the field trips, the main objective is to promote active ageing and enhance people’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

As a therapist in private practice, she often works with families and teenagers. She will read anything and everything that has to do with Existential Psychology and Positive Psychology.

Daniela Anéis is an optimistic and her “glass is always half-full.” Her work with active Seniors has taught her to value life even more and most importantly, life-experience. She teaches an Emotional Intelligence and Positive Psychology class but learns far more than she could ever pass on. She always has an inspiring story to tell about her “students”.

She’s hoping to reach 90 and live life to the fullest. Always working to be the better version of herself. And believing her mission in life is to relieve others from suffering.

Read more about Daniela at her blog. (In Portugese)

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