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Grieving is hard work especially when we are trying to live without the person who died

Grieving is hard work. It takes a lot of physical and mental energy. I bet no one has ever told you that before, but I will. Author, hospice nurse and grief counselor Patricia Kelley explains that “Grieving is a journey toward healing the pain that is caused by our loss.” If you ever have taken any type of journey, you know there is time and physical effort as well as mental energy that needs to be put into it, before, during and after. So why would the journey of grieving be any different?

Researchers such as Erich Lindemann, Parkes and Weiss as well as many authors have described the tasks of grieving in many ways, but essentially, they encompass:

1. To believe that the death really happened (Denial and acceptance are stages of grief that one does go through)

2. To experience the pain of the grief. (Avoidance of this task would be preferred, but going on with life is easier if we take the time to grieve.)

3. To learn to live without the person who died. (Healing)

This blog will focus on the third task of grieving, which at first glance seems so obvious. Perhaps obvious, but it is not a simple nor an easy task. As a death doula, it is the core of our work, as it can lead to complicated grief.

Have you ever gone to an interview/first date and been asked the question, “tell me a bit about yourself” or versions of this question like “who are you?”. There are so many ways to define myself. In no particular order, I am a friend, a mother, a daughter, a sister, an aunt, an ex-wife, a cousin, a mentor, an instructor, a former teacher, a death doula, a co-worker, a work colleague, a first aid team member, etc. These are “roles and relationship” answers.

Roles and relationships have a big influence on how we navigate the third task of grieving.

I, like others, vary in number and type of roles that I play. Some of these roles and relationships were defined at birth, others developed as I grew older, and some are very recent. My reaction to the death of someone will depend on the role/relationship I had with them. The longer and the deeper the relationship with this person who died, reflects the amount of work that it will take in learning to live without the person who died.

Gaps will now appear in your life after the death a person because that person is no longer in a familiar role. For example, a male widow might not know how to cook, clean, shop, or do laundry as it was always done by his wife. (An example of this scenario what my former elderly father-in-law experienced after the death of his wife.) Managing this new reality is often difficult.

Some roles can never be filled. That’s the harsh reality. We miss both the presence of the one who died as well as the roles that they played in our lives. It is very important that we identify those roles and determine their significance (both positive and negative aspects- no sugar coating here.) Adjusting to these new roles can be difficult. It is also important to recognize that people can help us to determine different ways to manage.

When someone dies, it is a common reaction to feel that a part of you has also died. Learning to live without the relationship that you shared, especially if it was close, loving and supportive in nature, will be the most difficult. Please remember that it is not possible to replace the person who died nor the relationship you shared. This relationship was a source of emotional nurturing. They have died, but you still need emotional nurturing.

Your relationship has just moved from “presence to memory” and does not imply that you are forgetting them. You are simply grieving the relationship that you have lost. The emotions experienced during this time are very strong- intense anger, sadness, loneliness are quite common and can be expressed physically too. Eventually this intensity and the frequency of the pain will diminish.

In conclusion, understanding the tasks of grieving can help us to understand our reactions and our needs. Grief hurts. Well-meaning people can make you feel worse, so spend some time around people who respect your feelings and reactions. Seek professional help to deal with your complicated grief.


Companion to Grief Finding Consolation When Someone You Love Has Died by Patricia Kelley

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