What Bereavement Can Teach Us About Life

Every night before bed, Mrs. Jacobs* says good night to three important people in her life: her husband who recently died, her first husband of thirty years who died a decade ago, and her son who died as a child. “She never forgets them,” says bereavement counselor Janet King. “She thinks about her first husband more now, in the wake of her second husband’s death. And she never forgets her baby, how old he would be now. It’s all connected. These are all people she still has a relationship with.”

The one constant in bereavement is that people remain in a relationship with the loved one they’ve lost. The relationship is reframed over time, but it never—as Mrs. Jacobs exemplifies—goes away. Counselors like Janet help people who’ve lost loved ones reframe that relationship, keeping memories alive but often making new meaning out of them following the death. An adult daughter who spent a childhood frustrated that her father was rarely home might come to realize after his death that his hard work and long hours were the way he expressed love and support for his family. These memories allow her to take on a new understanding of her father that she carries forward as she lives with her loss.

Through bereavement work—and it is hard work—Janet and her colleagues aim to normalize grief. It is, after all, one of life’s most universal experiences, even as it can, paradoxically, feel quite isolating. My company, VNSNY Hospice and Palliative Care, offers bereavement services to family members and loved ones for one year plus one month after a death, to accommodate all of that first year’s anniversaries and milestones, including the anniversary of the death itself. Grief support is entirely voluntary; many people thank us and then opt out, while others relish talking to an expert about their departed loved one and their day-to-day struggles with the loss. Through one-on-one visits and bereavement support groups, they develop the perspective and coping skills to grieve and live at the same time.

Here are a few insights about bereavement that those of us who practice in the field have seen time and again—perhaps they’ll be helpful for you or someone you love:

Grief knows no timetable

Like so many complex human experiences, grief follows an unpredictable trajectory. Some people may feel a little stronger each day, while many find they take two steps forward, one step back (or, for a while, one step forward and two steps back). For many, the full force of grief does not hit until well after their loved one’s death. At first, there are tasks and visitors to consume one’s time and energy, services and travel arrangements to be planned, financial and other logistics to take care of. It’s often months later when we hear from family members seeking bereavement services. “That’s when the people who were there in force right after the death have gotten back to their own lives, while the person who lost a spouse is left alone day after day, cooking for one,” explains another bereavement counselor, Pamela Yew Schwartz.

Loss is something to get “through”—not “over”

Grief and loss is not something to get over. It is something to get through. In the hospice field, we call the aftermath of loss “grief work” for a reason, nodding to the day-after-day emotional and often physical challenges (such as lack of sleep, loss of appetite and feelings of breathlessness) that one goes through after the death of a loved one.

Bereavement’s objective, then, is not to get over the loss but rather to get to a place that, as Janet says, “feels okay—not healed, not all better, but bearable. It is in fact a place of gratitude, where someone can make sense of the relationship with the person they lost and feel thankful for it.”

Don’t be afraid to embrace growth

By necessity, many who have lost a spouse learn new skills that the other spouse had handled, such as cooking or managing the family budget. We encourage loved ones to embrace these new skills, known as posttraumatic growth, which may ultimately lead them to feel stronger and more independent.

Many years ago, Janet worked with a client who was so devastated by her husband’s death that she rarely left her darkened apartment—until she made her way to a ceramics class and discovered a new passion, a new talent and a new circle of friends. And Pam’s client, Mrs. Ng, is sure to discover new skills as she embarks on a family trip abroad with her children and grandchildren—the first one they are taking since the family patriarch, Mr. Ng, died several months ago. Her husband used to do all the packing, a task she is not yet ready to undertake, so her son will come over to help. But she is immersing herself in the travel planning, something that used to be the sole task of Mr. Ng.

Rituals can provide a rudder

I recently spoke with a father marking the first anniversary of his teenaged son’s death. He told me he had said the mourner’s kaddish, a Jewish prayer, every morning since the death, as a way to be with his son at the start of the day. Now he was seeking another morning ritual—recitation of a poem, of some of his son’s writing, or another meditation—to extend this time with his son beyond the one-year mourning period.

Pam and Janet encourage the people they work with to write a letter or journal entry each morning, or on whatever time schedule feels right. Capturing words on paper helps one hold onto thoughts and memories—and can help assuage guilt. Often, loved ones feel guilty when they find themselves carrying on with life, getting back to work, having enjoyable conversations, even laughing. By setting aside time each day or each week to think about the deceased, loved ones can shed their guilt and move forward.

Pam has worked with several clients who have gotten pets following the death of a parent. The ritual of daily walks and feeding, the sense of fulfillment that comes with caring for another being, and the companionship can help some people through grief and mourning (though this is only for those who are prepared for the commitment, I would emphasize).

Metaphor helps

Bereavement is at once universal and intensely personal, which can make it difficult to talk about. A metaphor, like a piece or art or literature, can illuminate a common human experience and reveal it anew. Bereavement counselors often share metaphors to give the bereaved a language and framework through which to communicate to other people what they are going through.

The ragged complexity of grief and loss is often compared to an ocean, which ebbs and flows in its intensity and can crash upon you suddenly and powerfully. “The language helps someone frame what they’re experiencing,” says Janet. “They can think, ‘Okay, here comes that wave again.’” She also gives her clients the metaphor of a messy desk: Grief is something that may seem overwhelming and utterly unnavigable, but, through grief work, they learn to put “the stuff of grief” into piles that can help them navigate day to day. C.S. Lewis, in his iconic A Grief Observed, says that in his grief everything repeats and he feels like he is going around in a circle. “Or,” he adds, “dare I hope I am on a spiral?”

* Name changed for privacy

I’d love to hear from readers about the metaphors or rituals that have helped them understand, express or explain their own grief more clearly.

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