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The Forgotten Factor in Coping with the Death of Your Loved One
No one is immune from the sad experience of grieving the death of a loved one. However, until death comes into our lives and a significant person is no longer with us, our culture teaches us to deny death and minimize the impact it has on the quality of life. So if we’re lucky, we have a crash course in grief from a counselor, clergy, or social worker.
No matter what we learned at the time, we have long been saddled with the burdens of half-truths and false beliefs perpetuated by well-meaning adults. Those assumptions and beliefs make it difficult to reach the ultimate goal of all grief: to accept the reality of the loss. Acceptance means saying an intellectual, but more importantly, an emotional “yes” to this major change in our lives.
Acceptance comes only through the concerted efforts of the person who is grieving. Contrary to an old piece of misinformation, time does not heal all wounds unless grief does its job of pain. Or, as a mother once told me after her 17-year-old son died in a car accident, “Time doesn’t help unless you work in between the minutes.”
The key insight is that you must take daily action towards acceptance and reinvestment in life. All this is easy to say, but difficult to do. So what form should action take? Here are five principles.
1. Talk to yourself every day and night that you are going through this dark soul searching experience. What you say to yourself not only affects every cell in your body for better or worse, but it will greatly affect the much needed action that only you can initiate.
2. Although essential, positive self-talk alone is not a panacea. You must start engineering small successes to realize that you can adapt to this big life change. This is the key factor. Make a plan to get through this particular day (even the next hour) or one that you believe will be difficult for you. Maybe part-time work would be a success for you or to pass your tax return on your own for the first time. Find something and go for it that enhances your inner life.
3. Recognize how far you’ve come. When you review your day, give yourself credit for where you are on your journey. If it has only been a month or several months, notice that you are still gone and will continue to persist. Every day, tell yourself that you will follow through and know that things will change for the better. Your consistent action to adapt will make the difference. Celebrate your progress with a friend you trust and who knows your pain.
4. Examine why you are where you are in your painful work. What skills did you use? Or what hidden talent have you discovered that you didn’t realize you had? Something has brought you this far. Your ability to organize? Your commitment? A belief? Your faith? Knowing that you are not alone or how to relate to caregivers? Keep using what is and work to develop it even more. In short, recognize and use your strengths.
5. Begin and end each day with reminders of gratitude. This will be especially helpful when you feel the downward spiral and anxiety about your loss starting to creep up. Review your day for the good things that happened – an old friend called, you found the key you missed, you got a raise, your computer works well, etc. – and immerse yourself completely in the good feelings. This is healthy mental health in the making. Also, review your life with the deceased, and choose some memories of gratitude. Focus on everything you have received and again immerse yourself in the feeling of being loved by him/her and a higher power.
In the final analysis, your action that results in small successes, will be the determining factor to eliminate unnecessary suffering from your time of mourning. In the process of adaptation, get rid of the notion that you cannot have some moments of joy and inner peace. We all need to balance the sadness and negative thoughts that constantly filter into our thinking. It’s good to smile, feel good, or laugh without feeling guilty – this is part of the action you can take and another small success. It will recharge you as you return to continue adjusting to your great loss.
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