Acknowledging the Reality of Loss
The finality of death is always a shock, even after a known terminal illness. After helping her 62-year-old husband battle a brain tumor for four years, Maureen McFadden thought she'd girded herself for his eventual passing. "A nun warned me that for all the pain I'd already gone through, I would not be prepared for what grief is. She was right," says the Brooklyn, New York, widow. "Even though I understood the outcome when he was first diagnosed, I had no idea that I was still hoping. When someone dies, you're just not prepared for that, because humans don't know how to live without hope."
It wasn't until after the busy period of nursing, funeral planning, and the memorial services that the truth struck -- "as if I'd been shot," McFadden says. Later, one of her husband's physicians told her that people who are constantly at a dying loved one's side often have the hardest initial response. "He said they seem to hold an unarticulated belief that just by virtue of their presence and determination, they will keep the person alive," she says. "The eventual death seems like a terrible failure."
Accepting that death is real (and not your fault) isn't the same as being OK with it. It merely means absorbing the truth of what has happened. This can be as difficult and painful as smacking through the first high breakers at the ocean's shore. For some people, acknowledgment happens quickly; others remain in disbelief for months or years (or experience disbelief in periodic bursts).
Experiencing the rituals of death. Lise Funderberg and her sisters allowed someone else to organize a quick memorial service because "we were so out of it, floating in Jell-O." Looking back, she wishes they had done it themselves. "We didn't even put anything in the papers. I wish we had known how a ritual of closure is really important for everyone in the community of the deceased, everyone who loved him," says the author of Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home. "It's not like we would be doing another one."
Knowing there are no shortcuts through grief. "Grief can begin even before death, during caregiving. But grief doesn't end until we do," says Sherry E. Showalter, a social worker in Tarpon Springs, Florida, who's the author of Healing Heartaches: Stories of Loss and Life.
Practicing your faith traditions. Some research shows that survivors with a spiritual life tend to absorb grief more quickly, possibly because -- psychologists believe -- people who eventually find meaning in loss are generally better able to cope with it.