When a loved one faces the end of life, family members and friends go through a complex process of grief that can last for months or years. Three Oaks Hospice offers assistance to families in bereavement and can help you make the most of those last days spent with your loved one. Learning healthy bereavement strategies makes it easier to work through the various stages of grief.
Understanding the Grieving Process
Grief develops differently for everyone, so there isn’t one correct or proper way to grieve. There is also no specific timeline for grieving, and some people experience grief in waves or intermittent periods of strong emotion instead of as a straightforward process that moves smoothly from one phase to the next.
For family members and friends of people in hospice, grieving often begins before death occurs. Major life changes and the anticipation of the upcoming departure take an emotional toll, and caretakers may begin to grieve the loss of routines and experiences they once shared with the dying family member.
Psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a theory of grieving in the late 1960s that describes many of the phases that typically occur during grief. These phases aren’t set in stone, though, and many people skip over or linger in specific phases instead of progressing through them one by one in order. You might also return to a particular phase of grief months later, even after you thought you had moved past those emotions.
You don’t have to experience grief in a specific way to heal or move forward with your life, but some people find that knowing some typical phases that people go through is comforting when they are also coping with loss. The five stages of grief are:
Denial: During this phase, the bereaved person might try to ignore the loss or pretend it isn’t really happening. Loved ones might fight against the idea that a disease is truly terminal or refuse to believe that the person they care about is truly gone.
Anger: The anger phase of grief may take many forms. A family member might become angry at the person who is dying, which can cause feelings of guilt in addition to the grief. Anger might also be directed at the doctors or other medical staff caring for the dying loved one. Sometimes grieving family members become angry at God or fate. A spiritual counselor, priest or chaplain can help you work through this kind of anger.
Bargaining: During the bargaining phase, a family member might try to make deals to keep their loved one alive or to bring the person back from death. Bargaining might involve prayers that promise good behavior in exchange for a miracle or begging doctors to save the loved one in exchange for money.
Depression: Once mental efforts to save the loved one have failed, depression often sets in. The depression phase of grief can feel overwhelming, and people in this phase typically spend a lot of time crying, feeling sad and reminiscing about the person who has passed away.
Acceptance: The acceptance stage occurs at the end of the grieving process when the person begins to truly understand that their loved one is gone and starts to find ways to remember and celebrate their loved one’s life without being overwhelmed by sadness.
Self-Help Strategies for Coping With Grief
Moving through the grieving process can be a challenge. Some people have specific strategies they’ve developed to work through other difficulties in life, and these might also help during bereavement. Consider some of these ways of dealing with loss:
Sharing your feelings: Talking to friends about how you feel can help ease the burden of loss. Let friends know that you don’t expect advice or answers and simply wish to share your emotions or reminisce about the person you’ve lost.
Keeping a journal: Writing your feelings and thoughts in a journal not only helps you process grief but also keeps a record of your progression through the grieving process. You can look back on how your view of the loss has changed over time, which can help you see that your bereavement is an ongoing process.
Getting creative: Making art, crafting and playing music are all ways to express your creativity and process overwhelming emotions.
Setting aside time to grieve: Scheduling grief might seem counterintuitive, but putting specific time on your daily calendar to grieve can help you fully process intense emotions. Give yourself permission to cry, scream or otherwise display strong feelings during that time, and find a place where you feel free to let yourself grieve without fear of judgment.
Avoid making big changes in your life: A major loss causes a lot of upheaval in your life, so it’s best to keep everything else as normal as possible. Hold off on changing jobs, moving or making other big life decisions until you have worked through the grief process for a while.
Exercising regularly: Add physical activity to your schedule to help you release energy as a form of grief expression. You can use a quiet walk or run to calm your body and emotions or punch and kick at a punching bag to work out anger and frustration about your loss.
Participating in social activities: Being home alone can leave you immersed in your grief, so make a point to go out to lunch with friends or join a social group.
Taking refuge in your religious practices: If you are a regular churchgoer, attending services may help you deal with grief. Private prayer, meditation and listening to religious music are other ways to cope with the spiritual aspects of grieving.
Reminiscing in a healthy way: Your good memories of the person who has passed on can be a comfort during grief. Spend some time looking through old pictures, reading messages from the person who died or watching videos taken during your loved one’s life. You might also find it helpful to talk aloud or write messages to the person who has died, expressing your feelings directly to that person and maintaining a connection that transcends death.
Memorialize your loved one: If the person you are grieving had an affinity for a specific cause or charity, consider volunteering or donating in that person’s memory.
Spending time with pets: Animal companions provide unconditional love and comfort that could help you cope with grief. If you don’t have pets of your own, consider volunteering at a local animal shelter to walk dogs or socialize kittens so they are ready for adoption.
Joining a grief support group: Being around others who have also recently experienced a major loss can help you share the burden of grief. If your loved one died of a specific illness, such as cancer or heart disease, there might be a local support group for people who have lost someone to that specific disease.
Grief Counseling and Professional Bereavement Therapy
In some cases, self-help methods for dealing with bereavement aren’t enough. In general, grief tends to change over time. While life can never return to the way it was before your loved one departed, you should eventually become better at channeling your emotions about the loss into something productive.
Professional bereavement counseling might be useful if you need help working through your grief. Some signs that your grief may be causing issues beyond what you can handle on your own include:
Having trouble sleeping
Loss of appetite over a long period of time
Feelings of worthlessness or helplessness
Neglecting personal care and household tasks
Feeling unable to return to work or do regular activities months or years after the initial loss
Seek out a local licensed mental health professional if you feel you cannot cope with grief on your own. A psychologist or counselor can suggest specific strategies to deal with whatever stage of grief you are experiencing. Bereavement counseling is available in one-on-one and group settings, so you can find an option that suits your needs.