Lesson 5: What is Mourning?

 

“Tears are the silent language of grief.”    – Voltaire

Grief is a personal, internal experience resulting from the loss of a loved one, unique to each individual, although there are, in general, similarities.  It is a holistic experience, affecting the griever physically, mentally, behaviorally and spiritually.  One’s life is in chaos, turned upside down, and will never be the same, as that person is now physically absent from one’s life, permanently.  As one bereaved mother said, “I will always have a hole in my life.”

Mourning is the external expression of grief and the adaptation to the loss, to living life without the physical presence of the deceased.  You learn to “make room” for grief, knowing that it will be with you in some manner the rest of your life — from a tornado of feelings to a light breeze.  You learn to live with the “hole in your life”.  The relationship with your loved one never ends; it changes — from the physical presence to the remembered (spiritual) presence.

“Death ends a life, not a relationship.”    – Robert Benchley

 

Mourning is a process, which means it is something one must “work” at.  There are tasks that need to be performed, things that need to be done.  This implies that the mourner can do something and see movement and change over time, which can itself be healing.  It also means that others can help and support the work.

There are many external activities we do to express grief: crying, funerals, visiting the grave site, scattering the ashes, releasing balloons, creating a memorial, to give just a very few examples.  Any action that expresses the emotion of grief is a “mourning ritual”.  Society, cultures and religious/spiritual rituals, as well as personal expressions, assist us in this process of transmuting our trauma of grief toward reconciling and adapting to our new life.  Grief becomes the “fuel” for this transformation.  It is sometimes called “grief work”, and it is arduous work indeed.

Reconciliation is “the process of making consistent or compatible”; “to make (two apparently conflicting things) compatible or consistent with each other”; from Latin reconciliāre “to bring together again”.  (Dictionary.com)  Some synonyms are: harmonize, balance, integrate.

 


 

Six Reconciliation Needs of Mourners (6)

 

1.  To acknowledge the reality of the death

2.  To feel (embrace) the pain of the loss

3.  To remember the person who died

4.  To develop a new self-identity

5.  To search for meaning

6.  To receive ongoing support from others

 

These are called “needs” as they are things that need to be done in order to craft the “new normal” of life for the mourner.  “Needs” are not “stages”, which implies a sequential or linear progression from one to the next.  But there is some ordering suggested in the needs.  For example, you cannot fully reconcile the emotional impact of a loss until you come to terms to some real way with the fact the loss has occurred.  You cannot reconcile the emotional impact or develop your new identity until you feel and embrace the pain.

 

 1.  To acknowledge the reality of the death

This seems obvious.  My son died, we donated his organs, tissue and eyes, we had the funeral, we cremated or buried his body.  The head can acknowledge this but it takes the heart some time to get around to realizing it.  It can take many months or years for this statement to become reconciled — to “sink in”, to be “known” in the new reality.

 2.  To feel (embrace) the pain of the loss

It is vitally important to feel the sharp, deep and pervasive pain of the loss of a loved one.  It hurts so much that it can be frightening; it can feel as if one might get lost in the pain.  If not done, however, that pain can fester inside and lead to complications in or take over one’s life.  With the allowing of (making room for) the pain one can come to embrace that pain as the embodiment of the commensurate love that coexists in a yin/yang way.  Until you embrace the pain you cannot possess it, transform it.  A widowed wife once said that she was afraid that the pain in her heart might gradually fade — afraid because the pain is the abode of her love for her husband — their love — which she never wants to lose.

 3.  To remember the person who died

This is the act (and the art) of shifting from a relationship of physical presence to one of memorial, or spiritual, presence.  It is finding ways to keep the loved one in not only one’s personal memory, but in the memory of others as well; and to keep a meaningful connection with that person in one’s life.  It is important to speak the loved one’s name, and to hear others say it.  Some examples of remembering can be events for causes associated with the loved one or the way he or she died, scrapbooks, video tributes, web or Facebook pages, signs placed along highways where accidents occurred, memorial gardens, benches, and other creative examples.  A simple example can be a special place in one’s home for photos, personal memorabilia, etc.  Social media can be very useful in remembering and sharing the person who died with family and friends.

Often the bereaved will experience a “presence” of their loved one in various ways: a feeling, scents, dreams; unusual visits by birds, butterflies or other animals; electronic devices acting strangely, and many more.  They feel and believe these are “messages” or visits from their departed loved ones telling them “I am fine”, “I am with you”, etc.

 4.  To develop a new self-identity

We often identify ourselves as parents, spouses, significant others, children, etc.  It becomes a significant aspect of who we are, how we relate to ourselves and others (and how they relate to us).  With the loss of a loved one we are forced to re-evaluate our identity. “Who am I now?”  The fact that this person took care of us in some important way(s) may add additional stress on the loss (and revision) of our self-identity, such as a wife losing her husband of many years, who paid the bills, mowed the lawn, took care of things around the house; or the opposite, a husband who doesn’t know how to feed himself or do the laundry or take care of the kids; parents who lose an only child.  In any case, we are different now than we were.  We need to adapt our identity of self to the new reality.  It can be an daunting task.

5.  To search for meaning

One of the first questions one asks after the death of a loved one is “Why?”, especially if the death was sudden and/or unexpected.  This question is repeated often and for some time.  We need to find some meaning in the death of our loved one, in the meaning of his or her life, and in the meaning of our own.  Certainly the ability of a deceased loved one to donate organs, tissue and eyes helps to provide some meaning, as their loved one has helped others and to some very real extent “lives on” in them.  Death occurring close to us compels us toward an evaluation, or re-evaluation, of our “worldview” — our beliefs about how we view the world: dangerous/safe, fair/unfair, taken for granted, capricious, what is life all about, etc.  Sometimes our religious faith/beliefs is shaken, re-evaluated or restored.

6.  To receive ongoing support from others

From the time of the death of a loved one, the bereaved person and family usually have support from many sources: extended family, friends, church members, etc.  This support, which is crucial and appreciated, often wanes after a period of time as others “move on” with their lives, leaving the grieving person and family who are not “moving on” feeling alone, especially in the long term.  It is important for the bereaved to sustain or develop a group of people to support them in the long term, people who understand that grieving continues for a lifetime. These days this can be facilitated by social media and online support groups.

 

“Needs” vs “Stages”

There is a common assumption that there are “stages” of grief that one goes through as if graduating from one to the next, and often that each should be accomplished within a certain period of time.

The reality is that the mourner revisits these Needs cyclically throughout the grief journey (which continues for the remainder of our lives).  Think of it graphically as a spiral rather than a circle.  We revisit these areas at a new “vertical” level, a new perspective, as we proceed through the reconciliation process, as we transform.

The experiences and manifestations of mourning are as unique and personal as the grief that spawns them.  Each person will mourn in his or her own way, at his or her own pace and style.  The only “right” way to mourn is the one that works for you.  The experience of grief and mourning can be transformational and people often find they have become a better, more compassionate, understanding, and caring person as a result of their experience.

(6) Wolfelt, A.  Companioning the Bereaved.  Fort Collins, CO:  Companion Press; 2006.  P 165-180.

 

Reflection:

  1. Which of these Needs has been the most challenging for you? The easiest? And Why?
  2. Did you notice that you were different each time you “performed” that “need”? How so?
  3. What benefits have resulted by accomplishing and meeting these “needs” for you?  What gain(s) have you experienced from your loss?