It is devastating to learn that a loved one has an advanced cancer that will take her or his life. The diagnosis may give you time to have important conversations or to share special times. But this doesn’t necessarily mean you will be prepared for any or all of the emotions you feel when your loved one dies, or that your grief will be any less raw or painful.
You may have heard that there are five stages to the grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It is true that you are likely to experience all of these feelings and emotions. But these stages are not like steps on a ladder that you easily climb in an orderly fashion. Not only is it unlikely that you will spend the same amount of time in each stage, you may find yourself moving forward and backward between different stages, skipping some and returning to them later, or repeating others.
There is no “right” way to grieve. Some people move through grief slowly; others move quickly. Your culture, experience and faith are likely to shape your experience. In addition, your process is likely to be different than that of the friends or family members who are also grieving. Learning about the normal aspects of grief can help prepare you for what you will experience. It can also make you aware of how and when to get help, if you need it.
When looking for information about facing a loss, the words you will see used most frequently are grief, mourning and bereavement.
Grief encompasses the sorrow, sadness and distress you experience after a loss. Numbness, anxiety, despair, loneliness and relief are some of the emotions commonly felt by those who are grieving.
Mourning is a period of time in which these emotions are addressed outwardly. This is frequently done in ways that are determined by your personal, cultural or religious beliefs and customs. This can include wearing black, covering mirrors, lowering flags to half-mast or releasing balloons.
Bereavement refers to the period of mourning after a loved one’s death. A person who has lost a loved one is bereaved.
The Grieving Process
Grieving is the process of expressing the sorrow, sadness and distress you experience after a loss. Grief is emotional. It also can affect you on physical, cognitive, behavioral and spiritual levels. You may find that you experience some or all of the following:
An Array of Feelings and Emotions
Most people who grieve experience feelings and emotions like sadness, anger, disbelief, numbness, relief and guilt. Over time, they move on to acceptance. These emotions may come and go. They may appear unexpectedly in response to a memory, a song, a smell or an experience that reminds you of the person who has died. It may be confusing to experience such a wide range of emotions or to feel them with such intensity. This is a normal part of the grief experience. Gradually, you will find that you have more insight into the feelings you experience and that you feel them with less intensity.
You may be someone for whom emotions like regret and guilt are major parts of the grief experience. These emotions are normal both before and after the death of a loved one. Although sometimes there really is something worth feeling guilty about, more often guilt results from being too hard on yourself. You may have thoughts like, “I didn’t say or do enough,” “I made a wrong decision,” “I am a bad person.” It is normal to have some regret. Still, it’s important to try to be gentle with yourself and accept that you did what you thought was right and what was possible for you and your loved one at the time. If you can only think about regret and guilt, it may be helpful to speak with a grief counselor. Being stuck in and with these feelings can stand in the way of healing.
Unusual Physical Sensations
After a loved one dies, people often describe feeling a “hollowness” in their chest, increased sensitivity to noise or touch, weakness, loss of energy or a sense of distance. These sensations may be particularly strong in the early days and weeks after your loved one’s death. They can also add to the sense of being overwhelmed during grief. It is important to remember that these, too, are normal experiences, and that they will gradually become less intense over time.
You may find that you experience unusual or unfamiliar thoughts during the grieving process. This may include disbelief, confusion, disorientation or a sense of your loved one’s presence. You may also find that you are preoccupied with thoughts about the person’s death. Being lost in thought can lead to distraction, and you may want to take time away from driving. You may also need to be especially cautious when crossing the street, walking down stairs or taking part in other routine aspects of day-to-day life. These feelings will pass. But if you find you are more often preoccupied than not, try to remember that to move successfully through grief it helps to take an active role in the healing process. This can include gently reminding yourself to stay in the present when you are taking part in other activities.
Following a loss, it is common to experience changes in sleep or appetite patterns. You may find yourself sleeping all the time, or unable to sleep at all. You might lose weight because you can’t eat. Or you may find that you can’t stop eating. You may find that you don’t want to be around anyone at all, because interacting with others feels too taxing.
It is normal to feel disoriented, exhausted and as if no one else understands what you are going through. You may have vivid dreams or cry constantly. Or you may find you can’t cry at all. There may be times you think you see your loved one in a crowd, or find yourself picking up your phone to call, text or send them an email. Doing these things may make you feel a loss of control or lead you to wonder if life will ever again have stability or meaning. Remember: Although these experiences may not be normal for your “normal” life, they are a normal part of the grieving process, and they will pass.
Grief can shake your faith—and faith doesn’t just refer to religion. We have faith in lots of things: in ourselves, in others, in the future. When someone dies, our faith in these things can be shaken. You may feel like your world will never be the same because your loved one is no longer in it. You may even wonder if you will be the same.
Death challenges our spiritual beliefs and perspectives. You may find yourself asking, “How could this happen to such a good person?” or “How can the world be so unfair?” Although it is natural to question the fairness of losing someone you love, it is important to remember that your loved one died of a medical cause, and that at some point, death is an unfortunate reality for everyone.
Your loved one’s death may leave a huge void in your life. You may wonder “Who am I without my loved one?” We tend to define ourselves by the roles we play: spouse, child, parent, sibling or friend. When someone dies, we may lose one or more of these important roles. In this situation, it is natural to feel upset, confused, sad or even angry. Grief takes time because it involves accepting the loss of certain roles and redefining yourself. During this time, it is important to remind yourself of what hasn’t changed. Although much has shifted, there are some constants in your life. Your remaining family and friends are a good start. Take comfort in what is stable.
Take Time to Grieve
Grief is a process that eventually leads to a sense of acceptance or at least reconciliation. For these to happen, you need to give yourself the time to remember, reflect on, and feel your loss as well as opportunities to distract yourself and regroup.
You can remember and grieve for your loved one in many ways. There is no “right” way. Well-meaning people will give you estimates on how long grief will last. Grief is very personal, and you are entitled to your own schedule. While people continue to experience moments of sadness even several years after losing a loved one, most peoples’ strong feelings of grief lessen substantially within a few months.
There are certain activities that may be especially helpful during the grieving process. Taking part in them may bring up a variety of emotions. Try not to run from what you are feeling, but also recognize when you need to take a break or stop doing something altogether. There may be some things you can’t do right now, but that you will find yourself able to do in a few weeks or months, or even longer. Listen—and don’t judge–your own grieving process.
To help with the grieving process you may want to:
- Write about your loved one in a journal.
- Create a scrapbook of photos.
- Tell stories about your loved one to friends and family.
- Say a prayer for your loved one.
- Light a candle in his or her memory.
- Visit his or her favorite place.
- Plant a tree in your loved ones memory.
- Hold a gathering to celebrate your loved one’s life.
Although you will always miss your loved one, the painful emotions that you feel shortly after the death will almost certainly become less intense and less frequent over time. It is important to keep this in mind, especially when things feel most difficult. Take time to recover and to grieve. You will never stop missing your loved one, and things will never be entirely the same again. As you grieve, however, don’t ignore ways that you might be growing or becoming stronger. People who experience loss sometimes become closer to family or friends, become more spiritual, have a new appreciation for life, or gain new perspectives. You may be surprised by what comes out of or follows your grieving process.
Taking Care of Yourself
Whether you are anticipating the loss of a loved one or are bereaved, there are specific things you can do to take care of yourself. You may want to:
- Think about what you can do physically to take care of yourself. Taking a walk, getting rest, minimizing alcohol and eating well can help you find the physical strength you need to manage the emotions you are feeling.
- Give yourself permission to take a break from your sadness. It is okay to laugh or have fun in order to relieve the stress and tension that accompanies grief.
- Consider ways to deal with your fears and emotions by talking with a professional counselor, faith leader or by joining a caregivers support group or a bereavement support group.
- Know that you may experience a range of emotions including sorrow, anger, relief, confusion and a deep sense of longing.
- Relax your expectations of yourself. You may not be able to accomplish and manage all the things you are used to doing, and that is okay.
- Remember that everyone goes through this process in their own way and at their own pace. There is no “right” way to grieve.
The loss of a loved one can be a roller coaster of emotions and profound sadness is a normal reaction. If you are experiencing intense, pervasive sense of guilt, thoughts of suicide or a preoccupation with dying or an inability to function in your daily life, please seek the help of a professional counselor.
How to Find Support
Finding people to support you is perhaps the most important thing you can do following the loss of someone you love. People with greater social support tend to do better while grieving. This isn’t to say you need to always be with people. It means finding “safe” places where you can receive support for feeling the many emotions that you will experience during grief. Friends and family members may be able to buoy you up emotionally, provide distraction or help you with practical matters. Most importantly they can listen. Although you won’t always feel like talking, knowing that there is someone who will listen is important.
Support groups are a great way to meet others who share the experience of loss, especially when and if you don’t want to rely exclusively on family or friends. If your grief lasts for an extended period of time or interferes significantly with your life, you may want to consider seeking support from a professional counselor. Most local hospitals or hospices can help you find support groups or can refer you to professional counselors experienced in working with grief.