Working Through Your Grief

By: 

Sheila Graham

flowers at a gravestoneA slight breeze stirred the morning air as the military honor guard removed the Stars and Stripes flag from the blue and silver casket, folded it and presented the flag to the widow. Surrounded by her children and grandchildren, she quietly accepted the flag and words of appreciation for her late husband's service to his country.

It was the second funeral for me in the space of only a few weeks. Both of my friends, one now a widower and the other a widow, lost their mates prematurely. Neither of the deceased had reached the biblical "threescore and ten."

a folded American flag being passedA fact of life

Death is a fact of life — for all of us. We are startled into that reality when someone we know and love dies. Why do we never seem to be quite ready to lose a friend or loved one to death? We know death is inevitable, yet we live as if we're never going to die.

Suddenly faced with our loss, and our own vulnerability, we still have to go on. In too short a time we are expected to act as we always have — to be the same person — when all the time we know we will never be quite the same.

What is needed is time, time to work through the grief — the hurt, the anger, the guilt. We need time to heal. The traditional year may be enough time for some; for others it may not be long enough. Studies show that major decisions about relocating, getting a different job or remarrying shouldn't be made during this period. The newly widowed should wait until they feel settled again mentally, physically and emotionally, before making major decisions about their lives.

Grief can be overwhelming, agonizing, numbing. But no matter how terrible, the bereaved have to go through it. Those who try to bottle up and avoid their feelings only prolong the experience. Grief is part of the process we must go through to get to the other side — to fully recover from our bereavement. What should we expect during this time?

Relationships will change

The death of a mate changes a couple into a single. A widow or a widower has a major social adjustment to make. Your married friends will still be your friends, but the relationship will not be the same. Widows and widowers need to add to their circle of friends at least one or two others in the same circumstances. Only another person who has suffered the same can truly understand and share the burden of grief and loss.

The greatest need for most widows and widowers is human contact. Talking to another who knows and understands what you are going through can be tremendously encouraging. And, when the opportunity arises, you can pass along the same consolation and encouragement to other people who need it.

Also, though it won't be easy for some, there comes the time when we must psychologically let go of our former mate. Sooner or later, we must not "feel married." The wedding vows are "till death do us part." If we need to remarry to be able to fulfill the goals and objectives of our lives, then we should feel free to do so.

Our lives and our work must go on. We were put here in this world and given a single lifetime to develop the character we need for eternity. Yes, we should grieve, and not cut that grief too short, but our physical years on this planet are relatively few. We must eventually go beyond the present distress — we must begin to work and to serve and to live life to the full once again.

Responding to loneliness and guilt

You will feel a deep loneliness for your mate for quite a while. Any little thing that reminds you of him or her will often bring tears to your eyes. And you may not be able to stay in control when those tears come. That's to be expected. Don't be ashamed or embarrassed about expressing your feelings. Those who know your circumstances will understand and appreciate your deep love for your mate and your sense of loss.

During those hours by yourself, not only will you feel lonely, you may also find yourself feeling guilty. It's only natural to look back and say to yourself, What if...? Or, Why didn't I...? Or, Why did I...? It would be wonderful if we were all perfect, but we aren't. We could all find something to feel guilty about if one of our loved ones died.

Learn from this experience, but don't let it overcome you. If you didn't show enough love and appreciation for your mate, determine to become a more loving, appreciative person. You can't relive the past, but you can certainly do something about the future.

Older widows

Widows, especially older widows, tend to continue to suffer the pangs of loneliness and grief longer. The stresses of a lower economic condition, plus the couple-oriented society we live in, combined with the pressures of aging, are often debilitating to them. But you widows must accept that you have a new role in life now. You have much to give and to share with others, no matter what your age.

If you did not develop some of your talents because of responsibilities to husband and family, now would be an ideal time to remedy that. If further education is necessary, community colleges and workshops are usually available. You might be surprised to see how many gray heads are in classrooms today. And you'll likely find you will have little trouble staying up academically with your younger counterparts. It's amazing what a little serious dedication to study can do.

It's time to set some goals for yourself. If formal education is not for you, analyze your skills and abilities. What do you really enjoy doing? Go to a library and check out some books and become an expert on the subject. If you like to have people over, do so. Learn how to be a great host or hostess. If you can't afford the food necessary for a dinner or luncheon, have everyone contribute by bringing a dish. Get more involved with life. Become an interesting person and you will see other people drawn to you.

Don't overlook good health

One extremely important aspect of life that many people neglect is good health. Bereavement can devastate you physically as well as mentally. This can be especially true of men. Now is not the time to be careless about your health. Schedule a physical checkup. Watch your diet, your weight and cholesterol level. Did you know that depression can be controlled by adding more physical activity to your daily routine?

According to your ability, get some good, comfortable, well-supported shoes and start walking. Make a walking schedule. For some the early morning hours might be best. Others might prefer later in the day. Also, walking is a good activity to get your friends involved in. If walking is impossible for you, find another intelligent way to exercise. But whatever you do, start moving.

Avoid alcohol as a crutch

Be extremely cautious about the use of alcohol or any other drugs. Many have been tempted to try to blot out their suffering by abusing their bodies with an excess of alcohol or by the unwise use of tranquilizers. Alcohol is not a cure for depression. It is a depressant. And it is addictive, just as other drugs are. Some widows and widowers have become alcoholics.

A wiser course is to avoid such crutches. That doesn't mean that you must refuse even one drink at a social occasion, but always be extremely moderate. Never drink alone. Drinking glass after glass of wine or other alcohol to help you sleep at night doesn't work either. Alcohol disrupts sleep patterns and can make you more tired. A glass of warm milk works much better.

Don't isolate yourself

Maintain your family contacts. More often than not, it is the woman who writes or calls or in other ways maintains contact with the family. A widower may tend to ignore these duties and thus feel even more isolated. As time goes along, you may want to consider moving closer to your family. In our mobile society, families often become scattered. Widows or widowers may find themselves left alone hundreds or thousands of miles away from their closest relatives.

But, again, don't be hasty. Your longtime home, surrounded by familiar neighbors, may be your haven. Plan family get-togethers and reunions, research your family tree, start a book of your family's history. Be an asset, not a liability. As in all situations in life, you shouldn't wait for opportunities to serve to come to you. Instead, go out and find them.

Serve!

Look for opportunities to serve others. Associate with all age groups. Younger singles need to be able to talk to older people. Children need contact with people who have time to pay attention to them. New mothers need help. The sick need encouragement. Volunteer to help whenever help is needed and you are able to do so. Don't just sit around waiting for someone to ask you to do something or to go somewhere.

Be the most concerned, best neighbor on the block or in your apartment complex. Some days it will take more effort than others, but it will be well worth it.

Don't neglect your children

Children handle death in various ways, depending on their ages and personalities. If you have children still at home, remember, they are as traumatized by the death of your mate as you are. Those who seem to need the least attention may be the ones who need your help the most. Include your children in your bereavement. If you express it together among yourselves, it will bring you closer as a family.

Try to get your household back on a schedule as soon as possible. Your children need the stability that only you can give, and you need it, too. If you have to list what you are going to do every hour of the day and check it off as you go, then do it.

Many hospitals have chaplains who are experienced in dealing with grief. They may be able to put you in touch with grief counselors or trauma recovery groups.

Most pastors are also familiar with grief. If you would like to contact a pastor of Grace Communion International, see www.gci.org/participate/find to find the phone number of a pastor near you.

Questions about death

The points in this article are physical things you can do to help you through this most difficult time in your life. But the death of one dear to you can also cause you to seriously question the meaning of life itself. The friends I mentioned at the start of this article are feeling the loss of their mates, but they're not despairing or hopeless in that loss. They understand that life here and now is temporary, and that God has much more in store for them and their loved ones than the difficulties and trials found in this fleeting physical life.

Even though death is the natural cessation of this life, God is much concerned about the life and death of every one of his people. Physical death is not the end. God has a master plan for humans. Our Creator, aware of every sparrow that falls, is certainly not going to overlook the death of even one of his human creations. God is aware and he is concerned about you and your loved ones.

Sheila Graham

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