I’ve been asked to advise on the best way to process the death of a loved one. I should begin this post with a caution: as a counselor, I am quite opposed to the popular forms of “grieving” that are commonly promoted as good, healthy ways of dealing with loss. I’m referring to taking regular trips to the cemetery to talk to a grave marker while you imagine that the corpse lying beneath it is actually engaging with you in conversation. Or leaving your loved one’s things lying about the house as if they never left and routinely talking to their “spirit” as if it is still present with you. Or preserving your loved one’s social media sites: keeping them running, and turning them into shrines where you and your friends invent fantasies about the glorious things your loved one would have accomplished if they hadn’t died. Or continuing to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries long after your person has died. And then there is the version where you turn your loved one into a substitute for God in your life, pretending that they have gained supernatural powers in the next realm and are now functioning as your guardian angel.
While I certainly understand the appeal of these methods, they are anything but “healthy.” These and other popular forms of “dealing with death” are really attempts to not deal with it by not allowing yourself to face the fact that your connection to someone you love has been completely severed and there is nothing you can do to get them back.
If you’re currently in a delicate place and not honestly interested in doing what is best for yourself in the longterm, this post is not going to be a pleasant read. I won’t promote harmful coping methods, regardless of how popular they are and despite the fact that I know how popular I’d become if I always said what people want to hear. To me, a counselor who can’t be counted on to give people quality advice is worse than useless. If I’m not going to consider the longterm health of my clients to be more important than how many “likes” I receive, then clearly I’m in the wrong line of work. When you advise people on the sorts of topics that I do, you have a moral responsibility to do right by them, even when that means telling them what they don’t want to hear.
With all of that said, I am now going to explain why the popular responses to losing a loved one are actually quite harmful to your well-being.
Identifying the Goal
Until you choose your destination, you can’t work out the best way to get there. The same is true when it comes to choosing healthy grieving methods. In order to tell good methods from bad ones, you first need to understand what the right goal is. To do that, we have to step back and look at the big picture. We also have to bring God into it because He is the the One who controls when human lives start and stop and where humans end up when they die.
By God’s design, your life is set up to be a series of seasons. Sometimes a new season will feel shockingly different than the one that came before, with very little remaining the same. Other times many elements of one season will carry over into the next, like the way the trunks and branches of trees remain even after their leaves have dropped away. For many trees, their leafing stage is only temporary. Leaves appear in the spring, thrive in summer, then fall away in autumn, dying before they can ever experience winter. When the next spring comes, a whole new batch of leaves sprouts, with the old ones permanently lost.
Most of the humans God brings into your life are only intended to be in your life for a season or two before they will drift away forever. Others will last through many seasons with you, such as siblings and parents and perhaps a few close friends. This is the natural order of things, and to fight against it is futile. God has many positive reasons for forcing your life to be a series of seasons and for making it impossible for you to freeze time and stay forever in the same life chapter. Things will change whether you want them to or not, but this doesn’t have to be viewed as a bad thing.
Every season has its own joys and challenges. If you live where it snows, yet you stubbornly keep using your summer wardrobe as autumn rolls in and the temperature drops significantly, you’ll only make yourself miserable. You won’t stop the changing of seasons, but by refusing to adjust to autumn, and then again to winter, you’ll miss out on enjoying what those seasons have to offer.
If a child remains in nursery school well after he is ready to move on to higher education, what happens to his relationships with his other playmates? He becomes the misfit in the group: too big to play with the others, and restless with the lack of mental stimulation. To be happy, the child must keep moving on to new challenges that are adjusted to match his growing abilities. If he refuses to move on, he can’t continue healthy relations with children who he no longer fits in with. By refusing to move forward in his own development, the child becomes miserable where he is at. The same is true when you do not fully accept the loss of your loved one.
When humans die in this world, they no longer have the ability to interact with those who are still here. You might think of death like your friend getting into an elevator and riding away to another floor of a tall building while you remain on the floor she left. As soon as those elevator doors close, your ability to communicate with your friend and her ability to hear you is lost. You have no idea where she rode off to, nor is there any way to find out. If you remain in the hallway, talking to the air, and imagining in your mind that she is still there with you, how will that affect your ability to relate to the other people who live on your floor of the building? When people see you talking to someone who isn’t there, they are going to give you a wide berth, uncomfortable with your bizarre behavior. And as long as you’re wrapped up in your fantasy world, you’re not going to be willing to invest in new relationship opportunities.
When we refuse to accept loss, we only end up hurting ourselves. A new season of life rolls in, filled with opportunities, yet we miss them all as we remain suspended in a permanent state of grief. We push potential new friends away from us by always going on about our memories from a season that they weren’t around for. As times passes, our obsession with the past often twists what was into a perfect fantasy that no real person could ever hope to compete with. We start saying things like “I could never find happiness with another man now that I’ve lost my husband,” or “I could never love another child the way that I did my son.” Well, yes, we really could. In fact, if we were willing to move forward, we would probably have even better experiences than we did in the past, because we’d be able to apply what we’ve learned from previous relationships.
God designed humans with a capacity to keep growing and learning, and to reap continuous benefits from the past. Young newlyweds often have terrible conflict resolution skills. But with time and practice, they learn how to resolve problems at their cores. A person who has been married 20 years has 20 years of experience that he can carry into a new relationship–experience that would help him avoid so many of the mistakes that he made in his first marriage.
Who would you rather have operate on your heart: a fellow just out of grad school or a surgeon with 5,000 operations under his belt? The past is your toolbox for dealing with the present and future. The longer you live, the more tools you acquire, and this is why it is such a tragic waste when someone takes a well stuffed toolbox and sets it on a shelf, refusing to use it again after they’ve lost a loved one. Death is both an end and a new beginning. The goal of healthy grief processing is to accept the end as quickly as you can so that you can fully embrace the new beginning. Harmful grieving methods are ones which hamper your ability to move on and encourage you to focus on what you’ve lost instead of looking ahead to what the new season will bring. When you use these methods, you end up trying to live in a season that no longer exists–it’s like you’re walking in the snow while you’re dressed for the beach. You end up miserable in your current season and unable to see the blessings that are right in front of you.
The Mechanics of Death
I like to use an analogy of aquariums in explaining how death works. Suppose that you are the owner of three large aquariums. Each aquarium is in a separate room of your large home. There are many fish in each tank, swimming, spawning, and socializing in fishy ways. One day you decide it is time to transfer Goldie the goldfish to a different tank. Goldie is going about her day, business as usual, completely unaware that you have made this decision about her. To Goldie , it comes as a complete shock when a soft net appears out of nowhere and scoops her out of the world she was born in. There are a few moments of utter confusion, then Goldie suddenly finds herself in a whole new world that she never new existed. There are other fish in this world, and several swim over to introduce themselves to the very shocked Goldie. It turns out that every fish in this new tank went through the same sort of shocking transition that she did. They also came from the same world that she did, although they say that soon she’ll forget about that world and won’t care about it anymore. In this new world, there is plenty to do and plenty to learn. The past is quickly forgotten as Goldie finds herself making new friends, getting involved in new tasks, and exploring her new world. At first she thought she’d be terribly lonely and miss what she left, but instead the memories of her past life fade away very fast and she is too happy with her new situation to sit around to try to remember her old life.
Now for Angie the angel fish, things work out quite differently. She also gets the same shocking net treatment that Goldie did: one moment swimming along merrily, and the next flailing about in some strange apparatus before suddenly finding herself plunked down in a strange new world. There are many fish in Angie’s new world, but they all dart away nervously when she appears. No one introduces themselves. Instead, everyone seems scared. This new world is dark and strange and Angie immediately feels on edge in it. She soon discovers that her fears are justified when terrifying monsters dart out from cracks in dark rocks and attack her. She escapes without too much injury, but doesn’t understand what has happened. Unfortunately, things only go downhill after that. Angie’s new world is filled with troubles and traps and she finds there is no time to relax. She has no time to dwell on her old life, nor does she give her old friends and family any thought. For Angie, the focus is on surviving in this terrible new place that she now finds herself trapped in.
In this analogy, the owner of the aquariums represents God, the fish represent humans, and the first fish tank represents the world we currently live in, while the other two tanks represent places we could end up once we die here. It is God who starts us all off in this first world, and it is God who decides when He will pluck our souls out of this place and plunk them down in a very different sort of world. God says there are two basic options for where we might end up: a pleasant one and a scary one. Throughout human history, different religions have tried to come up with names for these two options, as well as provide more detailed descriptions of what life might be like. Today, Christianity’s labels of Heaven and Hell are used worldwide, but it’s useful to note that no one can give you an accurate description of what lies beyond. God is intentionally secretive about the details of what the nice and nasty worlds will be like. Christianity’s descriptions of Hell being a burning lake of sulfur while Heaven has glittering mansions and gold paved streets should not be taken literally. These are metaphorical images at best, and were intended to convey certain concepts to the folks who they were originally given to. All you can know for certain is that God is the One who controls these transfers, and that you will really, really want to end up in the nicer of the two options that He has made available.
Now in my fish analogy, notice how once the fish were transferred, they did not sit around dwelling on their lives in the first tank. They were too caught up in their new worlds to care about what they’d left behind. This is how it works in real life. When your best friend in this world dies, she ceases to be your best friend. She forgets about you entirely as she gets engrossed in the next phase of existence. You are also supposed to forget about her.
People often find it alarming how quickly their ability to remember a loved one’s face begins to fade after that person dies. In the early stages of grief processing, it’s natural to think about your loved one frequently. But as time progresses, your subconscious will begin to bury the memories of that person deeper into your memory archives as it feels they are no longer relevant to your day to day activities. If you are using healthy grief processing techniques, this refiling of memories will begin to happen rather quickly. If you use unhealthy methods, you can interfere with this natural cycle by inventing phony reasons why your subconscious should keep your loved one’s memories easily accessible.
Because unhealthy grieving methods are so popular, many people are taught to feel like it is immoral of them to allow the memories of loved ones to fade, especially in cases where the person who died greatly impacted their own life journeys. Over time, there are many people who walk in and out of your life without making much of a ripple. But then there are those who you feel play a key role in inspiring you to change course or pursue new goals. Is it true that you owe the “special people” some kind of debt after they are gone? Is it true that you have some moral duty to “keep their memory alive,” and publicly credit them for causing you to think or act in certain ways? No, these theories are complete guff. You don’t owe the dead anything, regardless of what kind of guilt trip they might have laid on you in their dying moment.
Humans are designed to be extremely forgettable creatures. We don’t like this about ourselves, yet it is an inescapable fact. No matter how big of a splash you make in this world during your own life time, you will be swiftly forgotten when you leave. If your name is one of the few that makes it into the history books, the truth about who you really were will not.
To keep new generations interested in historical figures that seem totally irrelevant to them, we keep revising the stories of who those figures were. America’s famous “founding fathers” are a good example here. Those poor men have been reinvented so many times to align with social trends that accounts about their personal interests and beliefs have become completely unreliable. The point is that you cannot be remembered, no matter what you do. God wants past generations to be forgotten, and He ensures that this happens by the way that He has designed human minds to manage memories. Once you understand this, you can see why there’s no reason to feel bad about the fact that you don’t think of your dead husband, father, or brother as often as you used to. Instead of seeing your lack of focus on them as a sign that you’re an uncaring or ungrateful person, you should see it as a good indication that you are leaving that season behind you and accepting that it is gone forever.
False Perceptions About Death
My earlier fish analogy demonstrated two aspects of how death works that are very important for you to understand. The first is that when people die, they lose all contact with this world. The second important point is that death is not the end of existence, but rather a transition from one phase to another.
Once you understand these two key principles, you can see what a fat lie it is when people tell you that there is some way for you to stay in contact with your dead loved one. You can also see why you are lying to yourself when you pretend that your loved one is still interested in your affairs here on earth. The dead have no contact with this world whatsoever. Folks who claim to be in touch with “the other side” are just conning you. Contacting the dead is literally impossible to do because God makes it impossible, and there’s just no way to work around Him.
In my analogy, the fish in the first tank couldn’t even see where the other two tanks were, let alone make contact with their inhabitants. Once they were whisked off to other tanks, Goldie and Angie had no ability to make their way back to the tank they were born in. The point is that folks who tell you that they are able to contact the dead are lying. Some of them think they really are contacting the dead, because they are having very real experiences in which they know some third supernatural party is communicating with them. The problem is that they are misidentifying who those third parties are and mistaking malicious supernatural entities for wandering human spirits.
While ghosts are very real things, ghosts are never who they appear to be. Ghosts who look, sound, and act like your dead loved one are actually demons putting on clever acts. Demons are malicious supernatural creatures who have all of the information they need to put on a convincing impersonation of your dead loved ones and to pass any test questions that you can come up with. Just because the ghost of your dead sister has information that only your sister could have does not prove that the ghost really is your sister. Ghosts are never who they appear to be. If you are currently dealing with ghosts, I strongly recommend that you read my book on demons in which I provide an in-depth explanation of why demons use ghost cons, and how you should respond to apparitions. You can quickly get yourself into quite an ugly mess by following the popular advice on this subject.
Now once you understand some basic death mechanics, what is really happening when you pay regular visits to a cemetery to put fresh flowers on a grave and update your dead loved one about your life? Your loved one is off in another dimension, not giving you a second thought, and they certainly can’t hear a word you are saying or thinking. In these graveside visits, you are merely playing a game with yourself which is having a negative effect on your overall well-being.
Humans are very affected by their own behavior. When you act as though your loved one can hear you, you encourage yourself to believe that they really can. And once you tell yourself that you can still communicate with your loved one, what happens to you moving on and embracing the new season of life that you are currently in? Instead of embracing anything new, you are hanging on to what is gone, refusing to let it go, and dragging it like an anchor into your current situation.
The Power of Beliefs
If you think there’s no harm in telling yourself that your loved one is watching over you like some kind of supernatural protector, you need to think again. What you believe has an enormous impact on the well-being of your mind, body and soul. When you turn your loved one into a god figure in your life, using your fantasy version of them to be your moral guide and turning to them in your hour of need, what’s happening to your relationship with the real God? The same Being who brought you into existence is intimately involved in all areas of your life. It is His guidance that you need to be paying attention to, because He is the One who will be deciding where you end up when you die. While your soul is busy praying to a being who only exists in your imagination, it is snubbing the real God and refusing to credit Him for the help and wisdom He is giving you on a daily basis. Once you understand the critical role God plays in your quality of life, you can see why it actually does matter that you stop being so casual about who you pray to.
Supernatural beings fall into two categories: created and uncreated. The real God is an uncreated Being who created everything else that is. Just as the titles of Elizabeth, Lizzie, Beth, Honey, and Sweetheart can all be used to refer to your best friend, the real God encourages different humans to use different titles when speaking to Him. It’s ridiculous to get into huge fights just because you happen to call God by a different title than someone else does, yet humans do this all the time, losing sight of the far more important issue. You’re either talking to the real God when you pray, or you’re trying to get the attention of a supernatural entity who is not the real God. Regardless of whether you imagine that other entity to be a demon, angel, or a human who has died, the fact that your soul is trying to talk to created beings instead of the Creator is going to lead you into all kinds of spiritual problems down the line. This is why it really is important that you stop entertaining fantasies about Mummy looking after you from the other side. In real life, Mummy is either caught up in pleasantries or frazzled by anguish. Either way, she isn’t thinking of you, and she most certainly isn’t “resting in peace.” No human rests in peace when they die, which is why it’s so absurd that we chisel RIP on gravestones, as if that’s even a possibility. Death is not the start of a long nap, it’s the beginning of a whole new chapter of life in which you’ll find yourself much too busy to spend hours staring off into middle space.
Popular death grieving methods are fraught with dangerous deceptions which can actually lead you into some very negative situations. It is very harmful for your soul to embrace a bunch of lies about how dead humans interact with you. It’s harmful for your mind to try to function as the pawn of a dead person, feeling like you must make choices that they would approve of and strive to be the person they would have wanted you to be.
It is extremely stressful to see death barrelling down the tracks at you. Humans in such a position go through all kinds of emotions, and some try to manage their fear and anxieties by making last minute requests from the living. Here’s where you find Uncle Charlie insisting that you promise to do such-and-such after he dies. Sometimes these final requests are reasonable, other times they are manipulative and obnoxious. But in any case, there is immense pressure to agree to whatever the person wants because, after all, they’re dying.
Deathbed promises should be put in the same category as the grandiose promises you would make to a distraught child for the purpose of getting him through a stressful moment. Promising the moon to a dying person can be the appropriate and compassionate thing to do as you keep them company in their final hours. But once the crisis is over and they have passed on, you need to use your own judgment to review their requests and not hesitate to ignore the ones that sound inappropriate.
The dead have no rights over the living. When you’re gone, you’re gone, and you no longer have any say over what happens in this world. Certainly some people make one final stab at controlling the living by constructing wills that are filled with snarky language and obnoxious demands. But the simple fact is that Uncle Charlie’s real power over you vanishes when he dies. After he is gone, you are the one persecuting yourself when you pursue a career that is completely unappealing to you just to make Uncle Charlie proud. Uncle Charlie isn’t going to feel pride, disappointment, anger, or any other emotion regarding you because he no longer has any access to you. Trying to impress a non-existent audience is not just a waste of time, it is also harmful to your well-being, as you will undoubtedly start ignoring your own needs and issues in your pursuit of what you think Uncle Charlie would want.
Trying to please the dead is a mission that is doomed to fail right from the start, because the dead are totally unaffected by what you do. Remember that God is the One responsible for creating this division between the living and the dead. When God wants to keep His own creatures completely separate from each other, no one is going to be able to find some clever loophole for getting around His agenda. The sooner you understand how death actually works, the sooner you can stop wasting time in deceptive fantasies that will either make you very easy prey for demons, or cause you no end of psychological grief as you do a bunch of things that you don’t want to do for the sake of pleasing someone who isn’t even watching.
Some religions teach that those who die before you can put in a good word for you with God, and thereby increase your chances of landing on the happy side of eternity. Other religions teach that you can help transfer certain souls out of the bad place by going through certain prayers and rituals.
So is there any truth to this intercession business? No, it’s all a bunch of guff. I know this will come as a shock to some of you, but there it is. God simply does not operate like human judges do. He doesn’t rely on third parties to present the facts to Him, nor can He be manipulated by biased presentations of those facts. Instead, He already knows all of the facts of any situation and He decides on a verdict without allowing anyone else’s input to influence His decision making process. What all of this means for you is that it is an epic waste of time to pray for the dead, and you can be certain that the dead aren’t praying for you. Instead of focusing on trying to control how God interacts with other humans, you need to keep your focus on your own relationship with Him.
I’m well aware of how immensely popular it is to pray for other humans across many religions and to imagine that our prayers have great sway over what God does. But the fact remains that they really don’t. Your own relationship with God is the only one that you have any hope of influencing with your soul’s choices and requests. God simply does not allow you to influence His relationships with any of His other creatures. If you give this idea some thought, you’ll realize that it’s actually a very good thing that God doesn’t let other humans have a say in His relationship with you.
Since post-death rituals can only impact those who are still living, they should be planned with the living in mind. Going into debt to buy your father’s corpse an elegant wooden box to decay in is only going to put you under unnecessary stress. Ceremonies in which people come together to acknowledge the passing of someone can have very positive psychological benefits. Acknowledging what has happened is the first step in processing the event well. The problem is that during these sorts of ceremonies, many people express views of the dead that simply aren’t true, and this often sparks a lot of anger in others. Post-death emotions are messy, and yet the turbulent mix of emotions that gets brought to the surface by someone passing is important to face and work through. I will discuss emotional and psychological reactions to death in a separate post (see “I’m Glad She’s Gone”: The Right Way to Respond to Your Own “Wrong” Reactions to Death). The point I want to make here is that there are many ways to acknowledge someone’s passing that don’t involve going to a lot of expense and trouble.
When family members are spread all over the globe, it’s often impractical for them all to gather together in one spot. Laying a bunch of guilt on those who can’t afford to come or simply don’t want to be bothered isn’t appropriate. Many people find public ceremonies to be very awkward, especially when there are likely to be dramatic displays of emotion.
When planning a ceremony to mark the passing of a loved one, structure is the key to minimizing awkwardness. People do much better when they are guided through these experiences by someone who isn’t falling apart emotionally. Choosing a member of the family who is comfortable with public speaking and not feeling personally devastated by the loss can really help keep things moving along. While it can be very therapeutic to have an “open mic” section where people are invited to come and share their feelings about the person who died, be prepared to move on to another activity as soon as you run out of volunteers. Don’t pressure people to speak; wait for them to volunteer. Have tissues easily accessible to the speakers. Make it easy for them to access a microphone so that everyone can hear what is being said. Be sensitive about the religious backgrounds of your audience. If you’re hosting a diverse crowd, don’t insist that people participate in religious rituals that might make them uncomfortable. If you’re going to be performing rituals, make that clear on the invitations you put out so that people can be prepared.
The purpose of these ceremonies is to help everyone begin their own healing process by acknowledging what has happened. A loved one has been lost and those left behind are now struggling to adjust to that loss. Unless you need to run long for religious reasons, try to keep things short. One hour leaves time for a short speech, a few thoughts, and song or video to be shared. Dragging things on for many hours just makes everyone feel drained.
Beliefs vary widely about what happens to the body after death. If you’re wondering what is actually true, here it is in a nutshell: your body will stay on this earth and end up recycled back into nature. God has a brilliant recycling program set up in this world which decay is an essential part of. The point is that how your body is treated after you die will not affect your afterlife experience one bit. Whether you end up burned, dissected, or pumped full of preservation chemicals, it simply will not have any affect on your transition to the next stage or on which side of eternity you end up on. So it really doesn’t matter one jot what happens to your corpse after you die. But in real life, many people feel very strongly that it does matter quite a bit how their body is handled after they die. In these cases, the dying often make very specific requests for how they want their corpses processed. When practical, respecting these requests is usually what is best for the living. Remember, the dead are not impacted by anything in this world after they leave. But you can do a lot of harm to those left behind by disregarding burial wishes that are linked to religious beliefs that many friends and family agree with.
I once worked in the pathology department of a hospital in which we processed many body parts and pieces that had been removed during various medical procedures. One time a woman came in to collect her own body tissue that had been removed during an operation. The woman’s religious beliefs dictated that she could be negatively affected in the afterlife if she was not buried completely. To avoid this sort of trouble, she went through the hassle of collecting tissues that she could do nothing with but bury in her backyard. Now did this woman really need to go through all of this trouble? It depends how you look at it. Her understanding of death was incorrect, but it was still a part of her beliefs at the time, and humans are greatly affected by what they believe. What would have been the result of the hospital staff refusing to release the tissue? We could have easily done so, especially since the tissue had been processed in chemicals that were very dangerous to touch or breathe. And yet to block this woman from reclaiming tissue that we were going to eventually incinerate would have only resulted in causing her soul all kinds of angst.
Suppose your grandmother believes that a terrible thing will happen to her soul if her body is cremated. She’s wrong, and now she’s dead, so she won’t be affected at all by what you do to her corpse. And yet many of your grandmother’s friends, her spouse, and her children share her views of cremation. If you ignore your grandmother’s request to be buried in a coffin, you’ll only end up causing a bunch of people a ton of grief. In such a situation, you should respect your grandmother’s burial wishes for the sake of the living, not for the sake of the dead.
Now suppose your grandmother’s main concern was that she be buried, not burned. But she then got a bit carried away and demanded to be buried in a gold tipped mahogany box that costs an obscene amount of money. Your grandmother isn’t leaving the money to pay for this extravagance–instead, she expects those left behind to somehow scrape up the funds out of respect for her. Well, respect needs to be a two way street. In this scenario, you should respect the main concern–which is that cremation be avoided to protect the soul–but feel free to dial down the box to a more reasonably priced model. Putting people under financial strain just for a ceremony isn’t appropriate or necessary. While soul concerns should be taken seriously, sometimes the dying person just wants their funeral to be a flashy affair for the sake of showing off. If they leave the funds for it, fine, but you shouldn’t demand that the living put themselves through hardships to please a brat just because the brat died. Remember that these ceremonies are for the benefit of the living, and they need to be structured in a way that the living can actually get some benefit from them. If that’s not possible to do, then skip it.
Public ceremonies are not necessary steps to grieving well, nor do they help every personality type move forward in their own grieving process. You can do just fine on your own without attending any formal ceremonies by keeping your focus on the correct goals.
Helpful Grieving Strategies
Acknowledging that a season of your life has come to a permanent end, processing the feelings that that realization stirs up for you, and then turning your attention towards making the most out of your new season are the three main goals of healthy grieving. Here are some practical ways to help yourself through these stages.
Early Days: Minimize Contact & Make Drastic Changes to Your Environment
Accepting the finality of death can be a lot harder than it sounds. When the person who died was intimately involved in your daily routine, at first your mind will struggle to accept that they aren’t going to just suddenly reappear. A common reaction is for your mind to recall the longest period of separation you ever had with that person while they were alive. You will then not feel like their death is real until they remain absent for significantly longer than that previous experience. For example, a friend who you only saw once a year won’t really feel gone until a couple of years pass without contact. A husband who frequently goes on month long business trips won’t really feel gone until several months pass. At first, your mind will naturally reach for logical explanations of the sudden absence, while it struggles to accept what has really occurred. What kinds of coping methods you use during this period can significantly impact how long it takes you to accept the reality of your loss.
To help you move towards acceptance quicker, it can be very helpful to make drastic visual changes to your environment. First, pack up or give away any possessions that you associate with your loved one. The goal here is to get all of the usual reminders of them out of your face. Here you are trying to encourage your mind to begin the natural cycle of shuffling your memories of your loved one into its deeper archives. By removing all visual reminders of your loved one, you minimize how often your mind is prompted to think of them. Often it’s not practical to remove all reminders–especially when you shared a home together. But getting photographs, clothing, and bric-a-brac out of your face can be very therapeutic, whereas leaving these things lying about in the early stages can increase your emotional anguish.
After removing the daily reminders, take steps to change the look of your home. If it’s not practical for you to move to a new location, then rearrange your furniture, paint, and change the colors of towels and curtains so that when you first walk into your house, it will look and feel very different. Here you are helping your mind build a new association that this environment does not include your loved one. It can also be helpful to change your own look–different clothes, different hairstyle, etc.. Again, the purpose of these visual cues is to help your mind recognize that a new season of life has begun–one which does not include your loved one.
After the Emotions Settle: Pairing Down Mementos
Early days is often the wrong time to do a thorough cleaning out of your loved one’s things, so it’s best to quickly pack them away just to get them out of your face. If you have the stamina to get rid of some stuff, great. But other stuff will likely end up in boxes which you should leave closed until you’re feeling a lot more emotionally stable. Once the initial shock has worn off and you feel ready to move on, go through the boxes you packed and do a brutal pairing down. Keeping some mementos can be nice, but less is more in these situations. Allowing yourself to sprinkle too many mementos around your home can have the effect of turning the place into a shrine and signal guests that you are not at all ready to move on with your life.
The goal of this second phase is to reduce the amount of clutter you’re going to carry with you from this point. Remember that photographs take up a lot less space than things, so consider taking some pictures of treasured items and then ditching the items themselves. You don’t want to pretend that your previous season of life never happened–you simply want to put a limit on how many material reminders you lug on with you. The most important impact humans have on each other is an internal impact which can’t be set on a shelf. Your loved one has already made an impact on you, and keeping their stuff around simply isn’t needed.
When deciding what to keep, pay attention to the emotional impact the items have on you. Things that make you feel sad aren’t good choices. Things that cause positive memories to surface and help you see value in the previous season are far better choices. But once you decide what you want to display in your home, mix those displays up with new mementos from your current season of life. The goal here is to help yourself maintain a balanced perspective. Yes, the past matters, but the present is even more important and it needs to be your primary focus.
Pursuing New Goals
Life without your loved one is a life full of new possibilities. Once you get some emotional resources, start to explore this new season. Choose new goals for yourself to focus on. Look for new social opportunities. Practice having conversations in which you don’t even mention your loved one so that you can help yourself live in the present as a full person who is not defined by your past relationships.
When kids are in the picture, you will need to guide them in their grief processes as well. Instead of encouraging your kids to pray to daddy or to imagine that daddy is always with them, it’s better to encourage them to talk with you and other available adults about their grief. Don’t make the dead person a taboo subject–that only causes unhealthy suppression to occur. Some temperaments will want to frequently talk about the person who died, others will want to avoid talking about them at first until their own internal storm settles. You can help your kids grieve well by making room for their different styles. If your son wants to talk about daddy, but your daughter finds it too painful, let her leave the room. Make it okay for a range of emotions to be expressed: anger, guilt, sorrow, and joy. Don’t outlaw tears. Tears are a very healthy way of releasing emotional tension through the body for both males and females.
After your kids work through the shock period, help them embrace their new chapters of life by finding new activities for them to get involved in. If a parent is the one who died, and another adult of that parent’s gender is available and wanting to help, let them. Kids do best when they have both male and female role models to guide them. The family system always goes through a reshuffling of roles when someone dies. Be open to receiving support from new sources.
Sometimes trying to handle your own grief and help your kids is just too much. In these cases, it can be helpful to have your kids see a counselor who works with children. Talking about emotions is an important part of processing in the early stages, but it’s often too much for a newly widowed parent to deal with their own emotions as well as everyone else’s. Don’t rule out the option of professional help. Often just being able to talk to an empathetic party who is not a member of your family can be very helpful.
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