Questions Around Grief

Q: Since my wife of 52 years passed away, my adult children have been treating me like a child. They won’t even let me make my own decisions. What can I do to convince them that I can still live my own life?

A: Your adult children are aware of your pain and loss while they, too, are grieving their own loss. You are their only parent now and they intend to make sure (in their minds) that you’re going to be okay.

They may be mistaking your emotions of grief as a sign that you’re “losing it.” After all, they are probably used to seeing their father as a strong and unbeatable figure in their lives! Not too many people feel strong and unbeatable following the death of a loved one, though.

And for some, focusing on the minds of others in bereavement shifts the needs to focus on their own loss. This, of course, doesn’t usually work very long. It helps when family members give each other permission to share their thoughts and feelings. Open conversations will clear the air of misconceptions. Let them know that any major decisions are on hold for awhile … that you are taking this time to work through your grief, and that each of you must do this in his or her own way.

Also, let them know you appreciate their willingness to participate in your life, but that there are some things only you can do. Don’t ever minimize the importance of family, though, because, for most, great strength and comfort can be found there.

Q: Two of my friends lost their husbands after illnesses last year. One of them goes to the funeral home all the time, for apparently no reason. The other won’t go at all, even to visit friends. Can you help me understand this?

A: Your two friends are responding to their grief, each in their own way. No two people grieve exactly alike … not family, not friends. Personalities, relationships and circumstances all differ. This often leads both grievers and bystanders to wonder what is right and what is wrong.

Actually, we are our own best therapists. We seem to instinctively know what helps. The one friend may find comfort in going to the funeral home because it was the last place she had any physical contact with her husband. Also, she may want to be there for others who have losses because she remembers how much it meant to her.

Your other friend, though, may still be finding it too painful to enter the funeral home because of her own personal memories of a difficult time. Taking that first step may be next to impossible for her now, but one day she will find it necessary. We hope she will, through encouragement and support, not wait too long. For her it will be a process of desensitizing, bit by bit.

Be a true friend (one who is non-judgmental) and accept each friend for where she is … not for where you think she should be. The grief journey is long, painful and lonely. A true friend is greatly appreciated and remembered.

Q: Our pet cat recently became very ill and we had to put her to sleep. We all are having a hard time with this. What can we do?

A: Your pet was an important member of your family whose companionship, love, and loyalty touched each person. Now, the balance in your family has changed. Perhaps each family member is reacting a little differently. Since no two people grieve exactly alike, there may be confusing reactions.

Encourage everyone to share their feelings and to accept each other's way of grieving as valid. Children in the family may want to create a memory book. Many people talk about a great sense of sadness following pets' deaths. It's especially hard when euthanasia becomes a decision. Give yourselves ample time to work through your grief before deciding on another pet. Remember, your loss is very real. Don't deny yourselves the healing right to grieve.

Q: I feel guilty laughing and even enjoying myself so soon after the death of my friend. Is it wrong for me to laugh even while I am sad?

A: It may be confusing for you to laugh while you are sad, but not wrong. It is important to know that laughing is as normal as crying. Please note that we aren't trying to alleviate your guilt or dismiss your questions about yourself when it comes to laughing while in grief. Feelings of guilt actually serve a purpose, as well, when they allow you to focus attention and put parts of your life into perspective. Still, don't allow your guilt to stop you from healthy and normal activity, such as laughter. When you laugh, your body's chemistry actually changes. A laugh that comes from your seeing and feeling humor is good for you. Go ahead and laugh!

Q: My husband's death has left me alone and feeling lonely. We had no children and my closest relative is several hundred miles away. What can I do?

A: It sounds simple, but pick up the phone and call someone. Don't be afraid of "bothering" another person by allowing them the opportunity to help a friend in need.

Many support groups have a "buddy" system and a list of people to call anytime during the day or night. If you don't already have someone you can call, this may be a good resource for you. If you don't know of support groups by calling a crisis information center or funeral home and ask for a contact person.

Gather a number of telephone numbers of people whom you like to talk to and make a "lonely list." Include next to each person's name a little description of what you enjoy about him or her. For instance, "Michael doesn't talk to much, really listens. Kim usually has good advice." With this list, you won't spend as much time wondering whom to call. And, you won't give yourself as much time to talk yourself out of calling someone.

We hope you will find comfort in this way.

Q: Sometimes I have dreams that are so real that when I wake up, I can sense my loved one's presence. Is this normal?

A: People very often do their grief work through their dreams. It is very normal to dream about your loved one because you are longing to be close to them again. That longing and yearning are very often handled through our dream process. As we return to our "normal" schedules --work, taking care of the children or parents and grandparents -- we get so busy with life that we very often do not have time during the course of the day to deal with our thoughts and feelings about our loved one. Therefore, when we sleep, we often dream about our loved one. Because our senses are so powerful, when we do awaken, we can still sense the presence we had in the dream and what was a dream becomes almost real.

On the other hand, many people want to dream about their loved one and they can't, or at least they think they can't. We do not always remember our dreams, particularly if we are exhausted mentally or physically. When this happens, our sleep is so deep that our recall the next morning is limited. When we are able to restore our bodies to a more rested state, our dreams will come back into our conscious memory.

Q: Since my sister died nearly six months ago, people in my family don’t want to talk about her. They think they will upset me. But I miss her and want to talk about her. Will you tell me something that I can tell them so they can better understand what I want and need?

A: It’s been six months, but to you it may seem like only yesterday. Grief is still relatively fresh, and the rest of the journey ahead looks gloomy and lonely. Of course you would like to be able to talk about your sister with family! They may be walking a different path through their grief, though, and are dealing with it differently. They may not realize how important it is to you that you reminisce with them. And for many, someone between five and 10 months, the grieving seems worse and endless. People who are close to you may be afraid to bring up your sister in conversation for fear of upsetting you. If you sense this is happening, then I encourage you to introduce your sister into the conversation with some light, happy memory. When others realize you can talk about her, they will feel more comfortable in talking about her with you. This may take a little time to accomplish, but it will eventually make things so much more comfortable and satisfying for all. It may not seem fair, but you as the griever have to become the teacher to those around you. It’s the only way others will know what it is you want and need.

Q: My youngest child is graduating from high school this spring and will be heading for college. I am so happy for her, but so sad about her leaving. I am having feelings that remind me of feelings I had when my friend died. Is what I am feeling about my daughter some kind of grief? Or am I being silly?

A: Part of you perceives your daughter’s departure for college as a personal loss, and yet it seems you are recognizing this as a positive step in her life. It’s confusing because part of you is happy and part of you is sad. As I have mentioned, when dealing with a loss in our lives, we will also be dealing with the element of grief. If this situation should mean you would become an “empty nester,” this constitutes a series of changes in your life. You aren’t alone! Many people have these feelings when the last one leaves the nest. It doesn’t mean your life is over…but it does mean the beginning of a new chapter in your life. It can mean freedom to do things you’ve always wanted to do but never had the time or energy. It is also a time to develop other aspects of your personality…to learn more about yourself. And trust me, your daughter will always continue to be a part of your life…just in a different way. It can be a very exciting and satisfying time for both of you. You obviously have been a great mom! In time, you and your daughter will also become great friends, too!

Q: This may sound silly, but my pet gerbil died last week and I am devastated. I am so embarrassed; I can’t talk to my friends about my feelings because they think I was so silly about that pet to begin with. Am I crazy for feeling this way? Is there anything I can do to handle this better?

A: I don’t know your age, but my guess is that you are younger rather than older. But at any age, a pet’s death has a definite impact on us. No matter how small the pet may be, they have become a big part of our lives. There is a normalcy about coming home to familiar things, and a pet is a living, breathing being that responds to our voice and touch. When we find ourselves no longer having that in our lives, we mourn that loss. There is nothing silly or embarrassing about those honest feelings. Unfortunately, some of our pets’ life spans are sadly short…long enough to become emotionally attached, but too short a time to feel fulfilled. Allow yourself to feel the loss while taking the time to recognize the fun and happy memories your gerbil brought to you. Eventually, you may want to restore those happy times with another pet…but only when you are ready to move on. In the meantime, you can teach your friend a little bit about loss and feelings that accompany it.

Q: A friend of mine took his own life three years ago this summer. I’d like to do something to observe his death and remember his life, but am at a loss. Do you have some suggestions?

A: What a wonderful friend you are! Your wish to not only observe his death, but to remember his life, is most commendable. So that the life may have more meaning than the death, think about the things that he most enjoyed. Was he involved with sports? Did he love the outdoors? What were his hobbies? Did he have a spiritual nature? Was there a special charity or organization he was drawn to? As his friend, you may think of something special about him that most needs remembering. You may want to do something on your own, or you may want to include his family and/or other friends. Don’t be afraid to include them, if you wish, as they would most likely respond favorably. Depending on what you consider, if you need to raise some funds to cover the cost, do so in his memory. You can plant a living, growing thing as a perpetual memorial. You can donate something special in his name and memory. You can arrange a gathering to celebrate his life, sharing pictures and memories. Consider helium balloons for everyone, giving them an opportunity to write a message on them before releasing them in a group ceremony. If others are involved, encourage them to come up with ideas. Sharing this time together will have all of you relive his life and the meaning it had for all of you. Have a wonderful celebration!

Q: My friend’s husband was a police officer who was killed in the line of duty. There was a very public funeral and a lot of media coverage. I know she is feeling overwhelmed with attention but I want to do something to help. I am afraid I will be getting in the way if I try to do something now. Can you give me some suggestions so I can help her when all of the hoop-la has settled down?

A: It’s true…in the beginning there is so much attention (even without media coverage), and it can prove comforting to some for a time. But all too soon everyone gets on with their lives, leaving the bereaved alone…wondering how to cope. In this case it was a sudden death, which usually extends the period of shock. It’s something like being frozen in time. But when “defrosting” begins (and the cushion of shock wears off), reality then sets in and the real grieving begins. That’s when a good, non-judgmental friend can really help. Accept your friend’s moods and behavior. We actually are our own best therapists. And since each of us will grieve differently, being listened to instead of lectured is very helpful. It would also be helpful for you to become familiarized with some of the grief aids available in order to better help your friend. Books, brochures, magazines, videos and cassettes are offered for friends to the one who is grieving. Your presence, though, and your willingness to support and be a companion to the one who is taking the difficult journey of grief is the best gift you can offer. The grief journey takes time…there is no hurrying it along. Be there for the long haul, and you will enjoy a lifetime of meaningful friendship.

Q: When my mother's birthday or the anniversary date of her death come around, I find myself really missing her. Is this normal and how long will it go on?

A: It is very normal to long for and miss your mother even if it has been sixteen years. Over time, the intensity of these feelings will become less difficult and overwhelming. Your mother was a very important part of your life and she will always be a part of your memories. She is also a very important part of you, who you are and who you are becoming.

As individuals, we are particularly drawn to our memories around special dates or occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc. These times are times that are typically filled with memories and we miss the person who has helped us make them. It is good to honor those feelings and realize that they are normal, if you don't let them paralyze you or keep you from moving forward or performing the activities of daily living. Over time these feelings will become less intense but there will still be days that these feelings might spring up. If you have someone you wish to share these feelings with or think of something special you would like to do to honor those feelings like lighting a candle, or buying yourself a rose , do it!

As time moves forward and it does and always will, the memories you have will be filled with smiles and you will feel great joy as you remember. The pain will lessen. Trust your feelings and trust your emotions. They can really help you.

Q: My mom keeps thinking that she is hearing and seeing my dad, who died after a long illness seven months ago, Is this normal?

A: This is not only normal, but seeing and hearing a loved one who has died is a common experience for many people. A life shared for many years creates bonds that go beyond death. The body dies, but not the love and memories. They are ours to keep forever. Wanting to maintain a connection is a human reaction. And with the many studies and published articles now available to the public, we are learning that what was once considered a rare phenomenon is now being openly investigated and reported. Whether your mom is actually hearing and seeing your dad is something only she knows. Encourage her to talk about this. She needs permission from you to do this. Since people who are deeply grieving often think they "are going," it is important that you reassure her that what she is experiencing is normal for anyone who is struggling with a significant loss.

Q: My friends' infant died almost a year ago, and I want to give my friend and her husband some kind of memorial on the anniversary of the baby's death. What is appropriate?

A: How thoughtful of you...and what a good friend! Just knowing that you remember will mean so much to them. The first anniversary is always so hard, and hopefully they have planned something for that day. It might be a good idea for you to check with your friends to see what they are planning. If they are just staying home, then you might offer to come spend some time with them, and perhaps plant a small bush or tree in memory of their little one. If the baby was buried and they are going to visit the cemetery, you could offer to create a little memorial tribute and include a candle-lighting with some soft music. If they prefer to be alone, send over some lunch or dinner along with a note of remembrance. You will know what feels right. Whatever you do will be very much appreciated and remembered.

Q: Our pastor has been called to another church. He has been with us for 20 years and I can't imagine our church without him. Our congregation is devastated. People aren't talking about it, and we still seem to be going our own ways. What is going on with us? Are we grieving? He hasn't even left yet and we are all so sad. What can we do for our church members?

A: First of all, you need to begin to communicate with each other. Your pastor has been part of your family for 20 years. My guess is that the congregation would want to show their appreciation for his dedication and achievements. The initial shock of learning that he would be leaving does send you into a feeling of loss (and we know that loss generates a feeling of grief). One way to work through this time is to begin plans for the congregation to have a going -away party to express their gratitude and best wishes. Planning for the type of celebration, when and where to have it, arranging for committees and coordinating all the efforts would be a wonderful way of expressing the profound feelings of the congregation. And it would give so many of the members an opportunity to do something personal and meaningful.

Remember, while all of you are experiencing the feelings of change, so too is your pastor. Reminding him of all his good works, what he has meant to his congregation, and the warm wishes that will be going with him will ease his path also. This all takes time and a good deal of effort, but I believe it will serve everyone well to accomplish something so special and personal. It will help sooth the soul and nourish the saddened heart. God bless!

Q: Our lives have changed completely since the death of our child. Life feels like it's lost all meaning and direction. Our family seems to be falling apart. The pain is overwhelming. How can we find some help?

A: It is every parent's nightmare, yet no one wants to talk about it. You feel so isolated. No one seems to understand.

What helps is to be able to share that pain with someone who has "been there." What helps is to be able to say all you need to say, and to feel all you need to feel without being judged or shushed.

Needless to say, what you and your family are experiencing is extremely complex. You and your spouse each have your own "grief agenda," as do any siblings or grandparents. If you try to protect each other, you may leave many unspoken issues hidden. In reality, it is much better to recognize, acknowledge, and work through these issues.

Hope and help often are found if you attend a support group specifically for those grieving the death of a child. This gives you a safe place in which to share with others who are having similar experience, and to learn a way of coping.

In addition, special resources like books, videos, and articles with particular attention to family relationships can help.

The grieving process takes a long time, and somewhere between five and 10 months after the death, many people experience a serious setback. If you have not already done so, please contact a support group if this occurs.

Q: My mom passed away five years ago, but every year her birthday is such a sad day for us. Her birthday is next month. Do you have suggestions for us?

A: Very special events such as birthdays invariably trigger memories. Especially when that special person is no longer with us. We're reminded of those times of sharing the joy and excitement of being together. Sending birthday cards gave us the chance to share thoughts and feelings not always expressed. We miss those opportunities. To help, we can still shop for a card. We can read the verses to find just the right message, or we can choose to trust our hand to reach out and find just the right greeting. We don't have to buy the card, of course, but just having the message in our minds and hearts somehow seems to reach out to the one we love and miss.

Another way of recognizing and honoring the day is to buy a gift in your mom's memory and present it to someone special. You could consider planting a tree or a flowering bush. Establishing a bird feeder station and maintaining it would be a wonderful tribute. Or you could set the day aside to create a photo album of your mom's life. These are but a few of the many ideas that are positive and beneficial. Turn what seems to be a sad time of missing and lonely reminiscing into a time of meaningful action. Gather the family together and encourage each to participate in a way that suits each individual. Let your mom's personality, her many contributions, shine forth through your efforts. Remember...when sorrow is shared, it divides; when happiness is shared, it multiplies!

I hope you and your family will manage to create a new way to honor and share the memory of your mother on her special day.

Q: I seem to be in a season of loss. I am experiencing changes in my life that I do not want, including the possible demise of my marriage. I don’t believe I will ever feel better again. Is there any hope?

A: The seasons of our lives can be just as changeable as the seasons of the year. Some of the consequences of can be anticipated and some are unexpected, but they all bring change. For most of us, change means challenge and sometimes hardship. Whenever we have to let go of something, we feel a loss. And all losses generate the feeling of grief…some more heartbreaking than others. You are experiencing anticipatory grief as you contemplate the possible demise of your marriage. This is not an easy time for you, your feelings or your future. One of the first decisions you want to be making is, “Do I want to get better…or bitter?” Talking about your feelings with a close, dependable friend, a clergy person or a professional counselor/therapist can help you work through these difficult times. Don’t rush into snap decisions based on emotions. The mind and the heart need to work in tandem. And remember…there is always hope! “When we change the way, we look at things, the things we look at change.”

Q Although I've believed in God most of my life, I want to be angry with him since the death of my wife. This just seems wrong but I can't help how I feel. What can I do?

A: Anger is a natural reaction to loss and it is also very normal to be angry with God. When someone we love dies, we question our very core beliefs and values in an attempt to understand what and why this has happened. We ask ourselves what life is all about and why, if we are doing what God wants us to do, why he took our loved one. God doesn't kill or take our loved ones. Disease, illness, age, humankind, disaster or accidents take our loved ones from us. But he is there to help us survive the pain of loss and discouragement. He is there to comfort and love us.

There are many people who might take issue with that, but if we look at the way God created us, we see that he built in the bodies' ability to cope. He created us with a natural physical reaction to loss called grief that helps the body guide us through our grief journey by a series of chemical changes that are designed to help us through the process and help us move toward a new normal. This reaction is the "fight or flight" syndrome that prepares us to face all of the changes and adjustments we have to face when someone we love dies. Don't be afraid to talk with your clergy, priest, or rabbi; he or she will help you understand that God loves you and that He understands and receives your anger. You see, it is in question our faith that it grows stronger.

Q: Should my grief be less intense because my grandmother was 84? My friends seem to imply that it shouldn't hurt as much because she lived a long life.

A: Many people think grief should be easier because a person is older. Friends and loved ones often do what they think will make us feel better and never realize their words can sting. Their intentions are pure. They want us to feel better, so focus on their intent. They love you and don't want you to hurt, but they really do not have control over that.

With regard to your grandmother being 84, it makes no difference how old someone is when they die, we still miss them and long for their presence and we still grieve. In fact, many times when a person lives a long life, we begin to take for granted that they will always be around. When that person dies, we are shocked and find ourselves not able to believe they are gone. Grief is very different for us based on a lot of different variables; the age of the person who died does have an impact on our grieving process. It does not, however, make the grief any easier. It just changes the life issues we have to face as we move toward developing a new normal.

Q: My husband died nearly six months ago, but I just can't take off my wedding ring. When should I take my wedding ring off?

A: There is no right or wrong answer to this question. This is a very personal decision. Many people struggle with removing their wedding ring because they fear losing the connection with their loved one. Wedding vows are something that are sacred between a man and wife. They are very personal and just as your vows and your relationship are very personal and private, so is your decision to remove your ring. You have to do it in your own time and in your own way.

Removing your wedding band can trigger feelings of betrayal. Some people may feel as if they are being disloyal to a covenant between their loved one and God. Others may just want to keep their rings on because they feel close to their loved one by doing so. Some people decide to wear their rings around their neck on a chain and others have put them on charm bracelets or have made shadow boxes with both wedding bands and other special memories. You may never want to remove your ring and that is okay too. Do what is right for you.

Q: My aunt always wants to talk about my cousin, who died in an accident. I'm afraid it's going to upset her to talk about him. What should I do?

A: People who are grieving usually want very much to talk about their loved one. They need to have someone who will listen with their heart, and allow them to share their thoughts and feelings. This is very healing. When death is by accident, the very nature of the unbelievable makes it so difficult to accept as real. Each time someone tells their "story", it helps them relieve some of the pain, and at the same time it serves to reinforce that the event actually happened. Since we must grieve in order to heal, having someone close and willing to share this time is truly a blessing. Someone who can listen without being judgmental...someone who is willing to walk this lonely, difficult path as a companion...becomes the answer to a prayer. It would be wonderful if you were that companion.

Q: My closest friend died a little more than a year ago, and I feel guilty about developing a close relationship with a new acquaintance. I feel like I am replacing my friend who died. Am I wrong to enjoy this new friend?

A: A year has passed, and you probably have experienced many of the "firsts"...the first birthday without your friend, the first holiday, and finally the first anniversary of the death. Perhaps this new friend is also a "first" for you since your loss. Each new experience only emphasizes the process of change we must accept as we move on with our lives. I'm sure your friend would want you to be happy. Giving yourself permission to move on doesn't mean you need to forget the past. Friends help make us who we are. So, with fond memories, be grateful for the time you had, and allow yourself to further your healing in the company of a good, new friend. You will soon overcome your doubts as you allow life to lead you down a new path.

Q: My wife of 47 years passed away suddenly three months ago, and I am overwhelmed at the thought of going through her clothing and things. Do I have to?

A: A sudden death just three months ago, probably means that you are just emerging from the cushion of shock that enveloped you at the time of her death. Now, as reality re-establishes itself in your life, so does the full impact of this devastating loss. It is at this time that the grieving process really begins. It is important that you do what feels right for you. (Sometimes that is not necessarily what other people believe is to be right.) There is no need to rush into dealing with her clothes. For some, having the personal affects of a loved one around can bring them comfort and solace. For others, having these things nearby serves only as a reminder of the loss. Only you will know when it is time to take care of this. And though it is a difficult job at best, having a family member or friend helping you will make a difference. Plan on keeping certain special things for yourself, and encourage family members or friends to select an item or two as a remembrance.