I got half-a-dozen paintings from that shattered plate.
Georgia O'Keeffe

Introduction to Mourning

While grief is the group of reactions we have to being bereaved, mourning is the processing of the loss and working through our reactions to that loss.  By processing the loss and our reactions to it, I mean how we adapt, adjust, learn to live with, and incorporate the loss into our daily lives.

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The Myth of Stages and Phases

Various models attempt to describe what happens during mourning.  Many describe mourning as a series of stages or phases.  Of these, the most well known is an adaptation of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of coping with dying.  She originally proposed that dying people go through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (sometimes abbreviated as DABDA).  Some writers erroneously took those same stages and proclaimed that they applied to mourning, even though that was not Dr. Kübler-Ross’ intention.  Since then various other stage and phase models have arisen from such theorists as Collin Murray Parkes with his four phases of mourning to Granger Westberg and his ten stages.

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It is a part of human nature that if something is repeated often enough, whether it is true or not, it becomes “Common Knowledge.” For example, most people seem to “know” how you are supposed to grieve – by being emotional, crying, and talking to others about how you feel. In fact, in her book Men and Grief, Carol Staudacher states that “there is only one way to grieve. That way is to go through the core of grief. Only by experiencing the necessary emotional effects of your loved one’s death is it possible for you to eventually resolve the loss.”

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Complicated Mourning/Grief

Sometimes no matter how hard we try to work on our grief, the work required  becomes too hard for us to handle by ourselves or with the support of those around us.  It is those times when some professional help may be of great benefit.

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Acknowledge the Reality of the Loss

The first item in any mourning model is for the bereaved to come to a complete understanding that the loss has actually occurred. While this might seem obvious, it can be very hard to do. After virtually every death, there is a difference between an intellectual (head) realization and a deep emotional (heart) realization. Intellectually we know that a death has occurred – we are told of the death, perhaps see the body, and maybe even witness the death. However, our hearts cannot readily accept the fact of death. This is what I mean by the head and heart being out of synch. Accepting the reality of the loss can be even more difficult when there is no physical proof such as with an MIA, an unrecoverable body, or a kidnapping.

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Reinvent Yourself

When someone we love dies, a part of us dies, too. One critical part of our assumptive worlds is the relationships we have with others, especially those we love. They become integral parts of our past, our present, and our future. They are key components of our hopes, fears, dreams, and outlook on life; what we think; and how we live our lives. In short, the unique relationship we have with each of those we love helps define who we are and similarly, we help define who they are.

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Avoiding the Pain

There are many ways bereaved people try not to address the pain of a loss. One way is literally to run away. Some people change their surroundings by taking an extended vacation and some may even move to another home or city. Running away may provide some temporary relief, but no matter how hard they run, they are never able to outrun their pain – it is part of them so it is always present.

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Working Through the Pain

Ironically, the first major step in working through the pain of a loss is to acknowledge that the loss has created pain and that we are going to proactively do something about it. What constitutes the pain and how to work through it are as distinctive as the individual experiencing it. There are no simple formulas or how-to books to refer to. As I have written so many times, every situation, relationship, and death is unique. Does the pain of this loss include loneliness where it didn’t before? Are there feelings of guilt, anger, anxiety, etc? Is there a crisis involving the meaning of life? It is only through careful, thoughtful, inward consideration of our particular situation that we are able to understand fully where we are in our pain and what we need.

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Your Assumptive World

From the time we are infants, we observe, experience, and learn about the world around us. From these observations and experiences, we form our own particular set of assumptions and beliefs about ourselves, the external world in general, and our relationship to that world. These assumptions, some of which we consciously know and others that become part of our core being, last into our adult lives sheltering our souls. Even if we do not consciously believe it, three premises form the foundation of how we see the world: the world is good, life has meaning, and I am a worthy person.

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Meaning Making

We humans are natural storytellers. We describe our lives in terms of the stories that we tell – the memories of how we grew up or what we did on our summer vacation, how our day went at school or at work, and what our plans are for next Christmas. It is through stories that we put our past in perspective, describe the present, and plan for the future. Of course, these stories change as we experience new things in our every day lives.

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Introduction to Restructuring Your Relationship

Historically, the advice given to those who have lost a loved one was to forget the deceased, quit “spending” so much emotional energy on him/her, “move on” with life, and find another relationship to “invest in.” Robert Neimeyer has a good description for this – love was being treated as if it were money that could be easily re-directed from one investment (relationship) to another. However, for a person who has lost a loved one, such advice seems ridiculously simplistic and cruel. How can we so readily forget someone we love, and besides, why should we? That person was an important part of our lives. How can we be expected to just walk away from those emotional binds? Thankfully, we now realize that “forgetting and re-investing” is bad advice – we can’t, and even shouldn’t, try to. Instead, we should do what we do naturally – actively strive to maintain a connection with our deceased loved one.

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Extraordinary Experiences

Sometimes during their mourning, people hesitantly report that strange things are happening to or around them, and they perceive their deceased love one to be involved.  They think they are ”going crazy” because they feel the presence of, talk to, smell, hear, see, or feel the touch of their loved one.   Others may see a message in the sky created by clouds, the lights in the house may flicker at a certain time, a favorite item of the deceased such as a feather may suddenly appears, etc.  The most common experience is the pleasant and reassuring feeling that the deceased is present.

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Linking Objects

No matter how long we are on this earth, no matter how rich or poor we are, we all accumulate some possessions. Even an infant has gifts given to him/her that become his/her possessions. What we are most interested here are the personal possessions (sometimes called “personal effects”) that our deceased loved one owned. Personal possessions can range from tools used for work or hobbies, clothes, writings, artwork, toys, jewelry, musical instruments, personal items such as a shaver or perfume, recipes, etc. They are those items that are closely associated with our loved one. (I am not referring to large-ticket items such as real estate and financial matters that are best handled through a will.)

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