By Dr. Perry, PhD
“The whole world can become the enemy when you lose what you love.” ~Kristina McMorris
The cycle of life is both beautiful and heartbreaking. From the moment of our birth, we share a common destiny with the rest of the world. The mortality that connects us makes life that much more remarkable. Knowing that death awaits us and our loved ones may be a haunting and difficult thought to bear. Truly, one of the most difficult and painful moments of a person’s life will be the death of a loved one. At these moments, grief is a normal and healthy response to loss. For some, the death of a loved one will result in overwhelming and devastating emotions that cannot be fully processed alone.
The loss may affect the ability to function in everyday life and may lead to depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. With the help of a mental health professional, a person can learn to cope and accept the death of a loved one more easily. The ideal goal of therapy should be to help a person return to their daily life with renewed hope and appreciation for life. The widely and universally accepted approach to the acceptance of death was introduced by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross and later was adapted to the stages of grief. These 5 stages serve as a framework to help a person process what they are experiencing and is not meant to dictate how one reacts to the death of a loved one.
The 5 Stages of Grief are:
A person will feel shock, denial, and life will cease to make sense. They will simply try to make it through the day. The feelings of numbness allow a person to slow down time in order to process the loss at their own pace. Once a person finds acceptance of death they can begin the healing process.
At this stage, a person feels angry. They might be angry at God, family doctors, friends, themselves, and perhaps even toward the loved one who died. Under this anger is the pain of loss. Anger is an easier emotion to feel and express than pain. It is important to feel the anger completely in order to let it dissipate and begin to heal.
Prior to death, a person might attempt to bargain with God to have their loved one healed. They will be willing to do anything. Upon the death, they might continue bargaining in order to be awoken from their bad dream. They may desperately want their old life to return. They may even be living in the past, desperately wanting their loved one back. They might experience guilty thinking about what they could have done differently. They will continue to bargain to have their unbearable pain lifted from them.
At this stage, a person is painfully in the present and fully aware of their loss. They may withdraw from life and experience intense sadness. Depression is a natural and appropriate response to the loss of a loved one. It is important to note that the deep depression experienced at this stage is not a sign of a mental illness. It is a reaction to the realization that their loved one is really gone and not coming back.
At this stage, a person is able to come to terms with the reality of their loss. It does not mean they are okay with the loss, it simply means that they accept the reality that life must go on without their loved one. They will start to have more good days than bad and begin to re-engage with life. There may be feelings of guilt associated with living life without their loved one. They must not let guilt keep them from moving forward and finding new meaning in life.
The above stages are meant to serve as a framework. It is important to acknowledge that a person is not expected to go through the stages in a linear fashion or to experience a stage the same way as someone else. Everyone experiences death in a personal way and there must be flexibility in the approach to healing.
It is my belief that there is no “right” way to grieve. The complexity of human emotion means that no two people can grieve in the same way. There is no allotted amount of time for grief. The role of a therapist is to accompany a grieving person through this difficult journey. They can help by gently and patiently guiding them towards processing the death of their loved one and re-engaging with life.
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