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  • Thanatology Today

4 Musts In Coping With Grief

Active Mourning

When we suffer a loss, we grieve. Grief is something that happens to us in a sense – a reactive experience. In grief and mourning, there is no resolution or once-and-for-all closure. Instead, we can accommodate for our losses in active and effective ways over time.

Mourning is a day-by-day, fluid process. Because grief is mitigated by several factors, the intensity and length of mourning vary from person-to-person. Human responses to loss are complex, personal, and culturally influenced.

Mourning generally encompasses a series of firsts or elicitors of sudden temporary upsurges of grief (STUGS). For example, the first year after a loss is often the most difficult in terms of celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and other special events and occasions. Acute feelings of grief can resurface especially during these times.

The purpose of grief work or active mourning is to assist us in recognizing that our loved one is truly gone and in making the necessary internal and external changes to accommodate for this reality.

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Source: Wix Media

There are four nonlinear tasks of grief necessary in adequately adapting to loss:

1. Accept the reality of the loss.

Even when the death of a loved is expected, it is common and normal to initially feel as though the loss hasn’t actually happened. However, we can’t effectively cope with our grief until we acknowledge and accept that our loved one is gone, will not return to us, and our lives are forever changed as a result. This can be particularly difficult to face if the loss is sudden. Nonacceptance can range from the slight distortion of facts to full-blown denial. The passage of time, seeking social support, and participating in traditional rituals such as funerals or wakes can help with cementing the reality of the loss.

2. Experience the pain of the loss.

Productive mourning presumes that the anguish experienced during bereavement is essential and appropriate, and we can’t adequately process our grief without experiencing the physical and emotional pain that loss brings. Of course, the intensity of pain varies from person to person. We can avoid or suppress our pain (i.e., idealizing, using alcohol or drugs, engaging in compulsive behaviors, vagabonding, etc.), but this will only prolong mourning. Eventually, it must be experienced in order not to face the struggles associated with complicated grief.

3. Learn to adjust to an altered world without the lost person.

There are three areas of adjustment that we must address after the loss of a loved one.

External adjustments – everyday functioning in the world such as raising children alone, developing new skills, take on new roles, etc.

Internal adjustments – altering one’s sense of self, regaining control

Spiritual adjustment – beliefs, values, and assumptions about the world (i.e., how to handle holidays, our relationship with God, etc.)

Loss can test our fundamental values and philosophical beliefs. It’s not unusual to feel as though we’ve lost direction in life. The loss of a loved one often challenges three of our basic assumptions: the world is a benevolent place, the world makes sense, and we are worthy. Again, the intensity and extent to which these assumptions are challenged depends upon various mitigating factors.

Adjusting to a world without the lost person, usually involves actively revising one’s assumptive world. Those with a more external locus of control tend to have a more difficult time with adjustment. Failure to adapt to loss can be seen in those who work against themselves by promoting their own helplessness, by not developing the skills needed to cope, or withdrawing from the world.

4. Reinvest in life and living.

In mourning, the challenge lies in finding an enduring connection with the lost person while embarking on a new life. This typically involves remembering the life and not the death or the loss and finding an appropriate place for this person in our emotional life. Continuing bonds often means making meaning of the circumstances and even finding some benefit in the loss.

We must reconceive our personal identity, restructure our relationship with the one(s) we’ve lost, and remain open to new attachments and relationships. This fourth task can last a lifetime.

Like it or not, grief is a life-long experience and one way or another, we must grieve. Fortunately, we have it within our power to do something with our grief. The tasks of mourning can be revisited and worked through again and again as needed. Tasks can also be worked on simultaneously. We can combat the feelings of helplessness and actively work towards adapting to our losses for the betterment of our lives and the lives of those around us.

grandpa and grandson playing together
Source: Wix Media

Corr, C.A., Corr, D.M., & Doka, K.J. (2018). Death & dying, life & living (8th ed.). Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Worden, J.W. (2018). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner (5th ed.). Springer Publishing Company.

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