While there are many things we can do to prepare for the death of someone we love, it’s impossible to prepare for complex grief. For my family, the loss of our mother was complex. When she was diagnosed with lung cancer, we faced the reality of loss. We knew that even the best treatment would lead to side effects, complications, and an ongoing effort to manage more and more symptoms. And that’s exactly how it went.
By the time she died, it had been around five years since that first diagnosis. She had grown weaker and weaker. At one point mitigating her pain, symptoms, and mentation grew to be a difficult balance. With her death came a myriad of complicated feelings: relief that the work was over, happiness that she no longer had to suffer, sadness that she was gone forever, comfort that we still had each other, and many others. Over time these feelings lingered, even though life moved on. We had to learn how to carry those feelings with us.
Each person’s grief journey is unique, but there are certainly commonalities we can identify and thus find ways to live with our grief. Here are the essential steps to healing complex grief. Please note that the grief journey is unique to every individual and these steps may occur in any order as well as simultaneously.
Step One: Acknowledge the loss. The first is that we need to work on truly accepting our loss and the impact it has on our lives. This isn’t limited to death. When we leave our family homes for the first time, we are often experiencing grief of the life we had before. We are no longer children who can rely on our families for immediate love and support. Many folks must accept the reality that they must now become independent and functioning adults in society. We cannot always run back to our homes and cry when we are hurt. We have to find our own support systems and learn how to live with our feelings. By honestly acknowledging the reality of our loss, we can lessen the harm of avoiding what is already changing about our lives.
Step Two: Let yourself feel. The second is allowing ourselves to experiencing all the feelings relating to our grief. Death has many feelings that accompany it. By avoiding or suppressing these feelings, we merely delay the inevitable and often cause ourselves to feel these feelings as other, potentially more harmful, feelings. For example, children who experience complex sadness have difficulties processing the multifaceted nature of what is happening and may express anger instead. Anger is simpler. It can feel good to shout and scream. But this is still not addressing the sadness they’re experiencing. In cases like these, I like to work with kids on finding words to describe what is happening so we can begin to process their experiences and identify coping skills. By allowing ourselves to feel the emotions of grief, we begin to learn how to live with them.
Step Three: Create new routines. The third is adjusting to our new realities after the loss or change in our lives. By the time our mother died, much of the focus of our lives was dedicated to her. We provided physical care, emotional company, cleaning, medical care, care coordination, supervision, and more. When she was gone, all of those needs disappeared, along with the person we once knew. My father began finding different activities to fill his day that was previously filled with his spouse. My husband had to find new ways to emotionally support himself when the person who was his greatest cheerleader was no longer there. One way or another, life will continue and that person who was very important in our lives leaves a gap that will be filled with more life and experiences. It has been years since she died, and we’re still learning how to live without her. Eventually our father began dating again, and this helped fill his sense of loneliness that previously his spouse filled. While life is never the same without her, this process helps us keep living.
Each member of my family spent time working on and off of these steps. Some days we didn’t have time or energy to work on it, and it was just about finishing the day. Other days we took a detour to feel her loss again. But either way what I’ve learned is that it’s an ongoing journey that I’ll be on forever. The most important thing is that no one has to do this alone. If you find yourself struggling on your grief journey, counseling may be a helpful solution for you.