Grief task #2: Weathering the stress of separation
Mourning brings many physical and emotional hallmarks: crying, being unable to cry, sleeplessness, not eating, numbness, feeling forlorn, withdrawing socially, and so on. The exact mix is different for everyone.
Anger is a common response, especially to a violent or untimely death. "My anger was so primal and intense, that this good person, my dad, had to die. It was illogical. I was mad at the world. I even thought, 'Why couldn't it have been my mom?' who was already sick and not a contributing member of society," says Harriet, a San Francisco producer whose father died at 69 after a cancer diagnosis.
Intense emotions can be a way to "hang on" to the deceased person, bereavement counselors say. It's a tangible connection to the person who died. "It feels like power, like life," one widow says of her white-hot anger. Letting go of the emotion, or learning to live with it, can feel like letting go of the person who died. Naturally, there can be a built-in reluctance to do that.
Another confusing emotion: Relief. "I felt horribly guilty that I was so relieved when my mom died," says the daughter of an alcoholic. Caregivers, for example, often feel surprise (and, in turn, guilt) that they feel a lifting of a physical and/or emotional burden when caregiving ends. This is a natural response that's separate from the sadness of losing the person. It's entirely possible, and normal, to feel two such different emotions at the same time.
Letting yourself experience turbulent emotions rather than shutting them down. "Wallowing is good," says Cherie Spino, a mom of four in Toledo, Ohio, whose mother was killed at age 69 by a drunk driver. "You have to go through it, dwell on the person and your sadness, cry."
Redirecting anger. Within a few years of her dad's death, Harriet, the producer, "used my rage to fuel my passion" for a new project about cancer.
Asking what the deceased person would suggest. Maureen McFadden, whose husband died of a brain tumor, says she partly transitioned out of anger when the thought struck her, "What would Jim want from me?"
Reading about others' experiences. Literature about grief can point out common threads. Survivors often point to Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking and A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis.
Seeking bereavement support. Professionally led support groups or individual counseling provide skilled guidance as you navigate confusing or painful emotions. The goal isn't to make the feelings go away but to help you embrace their purpose. Some people are ready immediately for this kind of help while some come to it long after the loss, and others do fine on their own.