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The Long Winter of Grief

The process of grief is sometimes likened to a cold, dark period of gloom. It affects us physically, psychologically, behaviorally and spiritually.
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Because the ground is frozen, we won't be able to bury your mother until the first thaw. These words crash like an avalanche on Maria's ears. The groundhog has seen his shadow, indicating that winter is going to be even longer than usual, and now they must wait yet another six weeks before laying her mother to rest. Hadn't she been through enough with having to phone family and friends, await the autopsy report, try to make sense of her mother's last wishes, and coordinate the memorial service... all the while feeling numb in a surreal world?

The process of grief is sometimes likened to a cold, dark period of gloom. It affects us physically, psychologically, behaviorally and spiritually. Ceremonial rituals and customs are designed to bring comfort and healing to those who mourn. According to most Western traditions, these funerary rituals take place within a few days to a week after the death. But not always. Maria and her family are not alone in having to postpone the burial of the body of their loved one or the scattering of the ashes. In many cases, due to a variety of circumstances -- including the weather, the need for an autopsy, legal issues, the length of time before the cremated remains are delivered to you -- substantial time may pass before these rituals take place.

The Wait
During this waiting period, people often feel as though they are living in limbo. Can't we just get this over with? they wonder feeling unsettled knowing that they haven't done everything they need to do.

Postponing the burial or scattering can be disconcerting for several reasons:
  • Anticipating the rituals associated with the burial is anxiety provoking
  • People worry about having to identify the body again
  • They may want to go back to work or resume their regular routine, but don't feel right about that since all the official ceremonies have not yet taken place
  • There are fears that people who came to the memorial won't be there again for the upcoming ceremonies
  • There is a yearning for the peace of mind that that they hope will come once the person's body is at its final resting place
On the Other Hand
Despite the challenges presented by the delay of the burial, there may be some advantages as well:
  • The friends and family are able to take their time planning the ceremony
  • They may be less "numb" than in the early days of grief
  • It will provide another formal opportunity to honor the memory of their loved one
  • Reminders of spring may give hope to those who mourn

Giving Support
If you know someone who is in this situation, please be mindful of how emotional this time can be. Ask to be notified when the burial is taking place and plan to either attend the ceremony or offer your support in other ways. Your thoughtfulness and caring may be appreciated even more when the spring thaw arrives, and others have forgotten.

Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.