Death is a topic no one really wants to talk about nor is anyone ever really prepared enough for the death of a loved one. All too many times in my therapy practice I have been asked about what is supposedly "normal" to feel when faced with death and whether the pain will ever go away. Here are five things that might be helpful in answering those questions and that might help keep perspective when going through a loss.
1. It is normal to feel a horrible aching pain and it comes in waves
That painful feeling of “I can’t believe it hurts so badly” and “I don’t think I can survive this pain” comes in waves. The feeling will hit you at random times. In the very beginning when the loss just happened, the waves will come often and might feel unrelenting. But as time passes, the waves do lessen.
2. Walking around in a fog is normal
Walking around unable to concentrate and hardly able to remember stuff does happens in the beginning. That foggy, “you’re not yourself” feeling can last awhile but does diminish with time.
3. You might be stuck "bargaining"
Oftentimes people get stuck in what Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has termed the third stage of grieving—"bargaining." (Kubler-Ross, 1969.)
"Bargaining" is the feeling that there was something that could have been done that would have changed the outcome. For example, it is when we think and verbalize things such as “if only I had done this or that she or he would still be alive” or “if only they had had a different or better doctor or better hospital, they’d still be alive” and “things would have been different if this or that had happened.” It is important to know that feeling that way is “bargaining”—a part of the normal progression of the grieving process. Knowing that it is a normal part of grieving can help you understand that this is how we humans think when faced with death. We try to exert some control over something that we have no control over. Knowing that this is a normal part of the process might help keep it in perspective.
4. Become familiar with the “stages of grieving.”
Knowing that there are stages of grief that everyone goes through might help to normalize and validate what you’re feeling and going through at the time. Kubler-Ross delineates the five stages of grieving as the following:
Stage 1: Denial and Isolation. It’s normal to feel like you can’t believe it’s true.
Stage 2: Anger. To feel ridiculously angry about the loss.
Stage 3: Bargaining. Again, the feeling that there was something that could have been done that might have prevented the outcome.
Stage 4: Depression. Expect to feel down and sad. That’s normal when someone dies. Allow yourself to grieve and feel sad.
Stage 5: Acceptance. Finally, there will come a point when you will have learned to live with and accept the loss.
5. It does get better with time
What does happen eventually is that you adjust to the loss and learn how to manage a new normal. We build emotional scar tissue and we learn to function under the new circumstances.
It is particularly important to take really good care of yourself during this time. That means make sure you’re eating well, sleeping, and reaching out for help and support.
Oftentimes, well intentioned family and friends can say or behave in really irrelevant or irritating ways in their expressions of support and condolence. Understand that their intentions might be good but the reality is that there are no words or actions that can change how you feel about what you are going through. Probably the biggest support you can receive from others is their presence and love. We humans are resilient and will return to our baselines with the passage of some time.
(Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth, M.D. On Death and Dying, Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York 1969)