Your experience of grief and the healing journey is unique to you and will be affected by the relationship you had with your loved one. Additionally, your own previous experiences of loss will impact the experience of this loss. The range of physical, emotional and behavioral reactions you may experience may be surprising to you. Each person, even within the same family, will be affected in his or her own unique way. Grief also takes time. There are no right and wrong ways of expressing your grief. And there is no way around the pain and the disequilibrium of grief. The way is through.
Grief comes in waves. Early in the grief process, the waves are strong. Over time the intensity and frequency of the waves diminish. You may not notice it at first, but the waves get smaller and less intense, and have more space between them. Sometimes the waves are triggered in unexpected ways, like a smell or a song that reminds you of a memory. Other times, the trigger is predictable like on a birthday or anniversary date. The challenge is to recognize this sensation as a grief wave and remember that it will not last forever. No matter how much it hurts, the pain, like a wave, will recede.
The road through the grief process is uniquely yours to navigate. Leaning on friends and family, reaching out, and asking for and accepting support can make a difference and are, for many, an essential aspect of the grieving process. Identify who is in your circle of support, including friends, neighbors, co-workers, synagogue members, and family. Each support within your circle can offer something different: Some people may be available to cry with you, others to walk with you, and still others with whom you can share a meal or a cup of tea. For those who are isolated, without a personal circle of support, a pet can offer unconditional love and companionship. A therapist and/or grief support groups can offer additional support, either in person or online.
You may wonder how you will live life without your loved one. The death of someone close to you leaves a hole in you and your life. The loss changes an important part of your identity as spouse, parent, sibling, child, other relative or friend, depending on your relationship to the deceased. Over time, you will grapple with reorganizing your life and your sense of self. You will reflect on what remains, and how to continue to live life with loss. Jewish wisdom can be instructive: Every 7th year we enter a year of shmita, a year when the Bible instructs us to allow the fields to lie fallow, to rest, recover, and regenerate to support growth once again. Each autumn, the trees must lose their leaves to support life in the spring. Like the bare tree, those who are grieving will eventually find ways to re-engage with life and establish a new relationship with their loved one.
This is a time for self-care and self-compassion. Loss and sadness can leave you exhausted. Get in the habit of asking yourself, “What do I need right now?” Sometimes the answer will surprise you. Sometimes you may have to push yourself to eat, drink a glass of water, step outdoors for fresh air and a change of perspective, or call someone. Other times, you may need to give yourself permission to do less, make a cup of tea, lie down to rest, say “no” or “I can’t” or “can you help me?” The care you invest in healing your broken heart will help you to carry your loved one’s memory and legacy forward in meaningful ways.
Give yourself permission to feel. The feelings may be so painful that the impulse may be to avoid these feelings. You may be tempted to cover up your feelings or seek distractions. It is fine to take a break from your feelings at times, but experience teaches us that always avoiding these feelings will be more painful in the long run. Many people find it helpful to write in a journal or notebook, reflecting on memories, experiences, and emotions. Consider setting aside just 10 minutes a day to write and reflect. At the end of six months or a year, you’ll have a treasure trove of memories to look back upon: easy, difficult, and everything in between.
The grief process does not have a definite end. Grief is an internal process that seeks expression throughout one’s life. You will find meaningful ways to be with and share your feelings. In this way, you move forward together with grief. As your capacity to engage with life grows, you will discover a renewed sense of meaning and purpose. Slowly, around the painful wound of loss, new ways of being with yourself, with others and with life occurs.
Common Manifestations of Grief
Helping Children Cope with Death
Children grieve differently than adults, based on their age and developmental stage. See here for developmental grief reactions for children ages 2 through 18. Children within the same family, even those who are close in age, may have very different reactions and have very different needs for support. Listen, answer their questions honestly and age-appropriately and offer reassurance that they are not to blame for the death of their loved-one. Seek professional guidance from your child’s school counselor or a clinician in the community for the best ways to support your child as you all grieve the death of your loved one.
Special Considerations for those Mourning Certain Kinds of Losses
Every relationship we have is different and no two people will mourn the same loss in the same ways. While we cannot possibly address in this Guide all the different losses we may experience in our lives, we think it is important to acknowledge some special considerations for mourning certain kinds of losses. Please reach out to us or other clinicians for additional resources and specialized grief support.
Mourning the death of a spouse
The death of spouse can be devastating and can profoundly change your life. The interdependence between partners may encompass significant physical, emotional, and social aspects that comprise the fabric of day-to-day life. Spouses may provide varying degrees of emotional support and companionship. The loss of a spouse can be disorienting physically and emotionally and can impact your sense of identity and purpose.
Spouses often coordinate and collaborate to meet daily responsibilities, each one assuming specific roles and responsibilities. Any unfamiliar tasks that a remaining spouse is left to assume, such as finances, or home maintenance, can be overwhelming. This occurs in tandem with the physical and emotional manifestations of grief. Additionally, the deceased may have played a significant role in caring for children, a family member with a disability or an aging parent, responsibilities that may now fall upon the surviving spouse.
It is normal to feel a complexity of reactions including deep sadness, numbness, shock, or anxiety. If you were involved in caregiving during a spouse’s prolonged illness, you may experience relief. Other responses include loneliness, sorrow, guilt, or anger that your spouse left you. How you feel may be impacted by how long you were married, the level of marital satisfaction you experienced, how your spouse died, the ages of your children if you have them, and how dependent you and your spouse were on one another.
Mourning the death of a parent
The death of a parent brings a range of emotions that are impacted by multiple factors such as your relationship with the parent, your age, gender, previous experience with death, and religious beliefs. Your parent’s age and cause of death affect grief reactions as well. Regardless of the quality of the relationship between you, the death of a parent is often accompanied by intense emotion. You share a fundamental bond with a parent who impacted your growth and development in significant ways and who may have influenced your life more than most others.
The experience of grief is as individual as it is normal. It is common to feel intense sadness, especially if you shared a close relationship. You may feel relief that your parent no longer suffers from a prolonged illness, or diminished capacity, or that you no longer carry the responsibility of caregiving. For those who had a challenging relationship with a parent, the finality of death may bring about a sense that the conflicts will remain unresolved. If the relationship was abusive, it is not uncommon for angry and painful feelings and memories to surface. Or you may feel anger at being abandoned by a parent whose caring and support characterized the relationship between you.
The death of a parent may also involve a reorganization of family structure. Older adult children may experience a range of feelings around becoming the oldest generation and assuming roles and responsibilities that parents traditionally performed, like carving the Thanksgiving turkey, leading a Passover Seder, or organizing and hosting family holiday gatherings. Children without siblings may feel particularly alone at the death of their last surviving parent and may need to seek additional support from other family members and friends.
Regardless of the circumstances, no parent is prepared for a child’s death. The death of a child shatters expectations and core beliefs of how life is supposed to unfold. Parents do not expect to outlive their children. No matter what the child’s age, whether in utero, adult, or any age in between, the loss is devastating.
Parents may grieve the hopes and dreams held for their child, the unfulfilled promise of their child, and the experiences that will not be shared in the years to come. The pain of grief is intense and complex. Initially, you might experience shock, confusion, disbelief, and an inability to process the reality of the death. You may feel overwhelming sadness that leaves you immobilized, unable to meet the most basic of tasks. Parents sometimes experience guilt or a sense of failing at protecting their child from death, and regret or remorse feeling that there was something else that could have been done to prevent their child’s death. Anger may lead to spiritual questioning of how this could have happened or be directed towards others (i.e., hospital staff) who they believe could have prevented the death. Fear, indecisiveness, emptiness, and loneliness are among common grief reactions as well.
There is no one “right” way to grieve and even within the same family, mourners grieve differently. One parent may need to talk and share feelings while the other is quiet and withdrawn. This can be a source of conflict or tension for parents at a time when they most need the support of one another.
Mourning the death of a sibling
The sense of profound loss that a surviving sibling may experience upon the death of a brother or sister is often not fully acknowledged, especially when the death occurs in adulthood. The focus of support may be on the sibling’s surviving spouse and children, and/or if still living, the parents. A sibling often has less input into the funeral, memorial service, or other arrangements. Despite dealing with their own deep grief, condolences offered to siblings often focus on the well-being of the deceased’s “immediate” family or parents. If you are grieving the death of your sibling, often the person you’ve known (and who has known you) the longest in your life, it is important that you recognize that this is a truly significant loss.
Sibling loss in adulthood can be laden with meaning. You share a history with a sibling, specific and unique to the two of you. While relationships with siblings may be complex, and sometimes conflictual and ambivalent, a sibling was an integral part of your childhood and youth, knowing aspects of family, values, and experiences that are specific to you and how you grew up. Because of your shared childhood, a sister or brother knew you in a unique way, different than those who know you as an adult. With the death of a sibling, you will lose one of your primary connections to the past and your role within the family may be impacted. For example, you may become an only child, the eldest or the youngest, creating a shift in familial expectations or your own sense of responsibility in caring for and supporting other family members. When grieving, this new role can make it more difficult to address the many complicated emotions that arise. Parents or other family members who are usually sources of support and guidance, may be overwhelmed with their own grief and unable to support and care for you, perhaps leaving you to feel a sense of abandonment.
You may feel guilt, sadness, or regret if the sibling relationship was not what you would have hoped for. Perhaps you had not tended to the relationship to maintain a connection between you or invested in difficult conversations to heal and repair past issues. While there is no right way to grieve, acknowledging the depth of your feelings and taking time to reflect on your relationship can be an important part of the mourning process.
Mourning the death of a close friend
Grieving the loss of a friend in adulthood can be complicated. While friends are not blood relatives, for many they are “chosen” family, individuals with whom you’ve chosen to share your time, deepest thoughts, favorite activities, and life’s ups and downs. A friend can hold an integral place in your life, regardless of the frequency of contact.
The relationship with and bonds of a friendship can be intense, whether it is a relatively new friend or a friendship that goes back to your childhood. Friends are sometimes there for us emotionally in ways that family members are not, and close friends may know us in ways that others do not. Regardless of the frequency of contact between friends, it sometimes feels as though you can pick right up where you left off the last time. When a friend dies, you may feel that not only is a part of your history gone, but an invaluable source of support and connection as well.
How you experience grief is unique to you and there is no “right” way to grieve. The grieving process for a dear friend may include a reevaluation of other friendships. There can be a shifting of time and energy invested in remaining friendships, some becoming closer while others more distant. As you mourn the loss of a friend, it is important to surround yourself with others who can acknowledge your pain and support you through the grieving process.
A death by suicide is almost always sudden and unexpected. In addition to the range of emotions that others mourning the death of a loved one also feel, these mourners may face additional emotional challenges such as shame, stigma, guilt, blame and rejection.
Due to the nature of the death, you may have needed to speak with police or respond to press inquiries. You may still have many unanswered questions. You may be at odds with family members as to how to present the death. You may be hesitant to share that your loved one took their own life. Being honest about the facts of the death can help give your friends and family the opportunity to support you. Individuals and families coping with this kind of loss often need more support but typically receive far less. We encourage you to reach out for additional support during this most challenging of times. Additional guidance, including how to talk with children and teens, can be found here.
Mourning a death from an overdose
Not everyone who dies from an overdose has a history of substance use. You may have experienced the shock, horror, and incomprehension of loss from your loved one’s first, or even unintended, use of drugs. Or you may have been caught by surprise by a loved one who was adept at hiding their substance use. For others, your loved one’s substance use was a well-known and long-standing challenge. Your relationship may have felt like an exhausting, frightening rollercoaster, and yet you loved them deeply.
In addition to the range of emotions that other mourners experience upon the death of a loved one, those who mourn a loved one who died from a drug overdose may face additional emotional challenges such as shame, anger, stigma and blame. Additionally, there can be confusion around intentionality: did your loved one overdose on purpose or was the overdose accidental? Or was it actually a death by suicide facilitated by a deadly combination or an excess amount of drugs? The cause of death and these unanswered questions can make the grief journey much more difficult.
Some families choose to be public about the death of their loved one to overdose with the goal of helping other families and reducing shame and stigma. Others choose to remain private. In these extremely difficult situations, the guidance of mental health professionals and clergy who are experienced with such losses can be invaluable. Equally so is the support of other families who have walked this road before you. We encourage you to seek support – you do not need to walk this road alone.
Legacy - Honoring and Remembering Your Loved One
“Death ends a life, not a relationship. All the love you created is still there. All the memories are still there. You live on in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here.” Morrie Schwartz as quoted by Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie.
In Judaism we say, “May their memory be for a blessing.” While walking on the path of grief, it can help to look for the blessings left by our loved one. How will you remember your loved one? In what ways does their memory continue to be a blessing? How have they have inspired and influenced you and the life you live? This is their legacy. Your life, and the light that you bring to the world, are the ways you continue to honor your loved one and all that they gave you.
It can be healing to create meaningful ways to remember and share your loved one’s memory and the life that they lived. You might support a cause or set up a memorial fund or create a scholarship in their name. You might gather their professional papers and donate them to a library or archive or volunteer at an organization that held meaning to your loved one. You might plant a tree or donate a bench in a favorite park, make a quilt of favorite t-shirts, or create a memorial book of pictures and favorite sayings.
You might create new rituals to acknowledge your loved one on special occasions such as an anniversary or birthday: lighting a candle to intentionally recall the light of a loved one, cooking your loved one’s favorite foods, creating and listening to a playlist of your loved one’s favorite songs, writing a letter to your loved one or doing something you know your loved one enjoyed (for example, a walk on their favorite beach, a golf outing or getting a manicure). There are so many ways to remember and to ensure your continuing connection with your loved one, either alone or with other family members and friends.