It was 8:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning 2019, and I was just about to take my dog and my bags to the car so I could begin my one-hour drive to my parents' home when my sister called, "Mama is gone. She's dead." In an instant, my mom was gone and my life would never be the same.
At the heart of grief is intense sorrow. It is a deep emotional response to a significant loss. It connects us to each other and highlights the array of feelings we have for the person, experience, relationship, or thing we lost. Grief is a universal experience.
Yet, it is also a very personal experience. It often differs based on the type of relationship we had, our age at the time of the loss, our identity, our religious or spiritual beliefs, and our cultural norms and expectations. We are also in the midst of a pandemic, which, for many, has postponed the ability to connect with others in-person for support and to honor the one they lost through a memorial service.
Coping with loss during the holidays can be especially difficult. Loss is a painful experience and the holiday season can contribute to greater pain as we think more deeply about how much we miss who and what we lost. This can trigger feelings of pain and emptiness as the world around us continues to move forward.
In preparing for dealing with loss over the holidays, it is helpful to plan for ways you can alleviate intense emotions.
- Consider adapting your traditions to allow flexibility based on how you are feeling.
- This may be an opportunity to create new rituals and traditions in memory of your loved one (making your loved one's favorite holiday dish, lighting a candle, observing a moment of silence, or looking at photo albums with your family and friends).
- Take time for self-care. It is okay to step away from obligations and expectations that others may set for you and focus on what is meaningful to you.
- Talk about what you are thinking or feeling with trusted members of your inner circle. It may be difficult to express your thoughts and feelings with other family members dealing with similar struggles around the loss of the loved one. Therefore, it's important to consider other people in your support system.
What psychology shows us about grief
We can learn a lot about coping with grief using a psychological lens. My hope is that by sharing my professional perspective here, coupled with my own personal grief story, you will gain additional tools that can help you and your family's grief journey this holiday season and well beyond.
The experience of grief will naturally differ based on the person lost, the type of relationship, and whether it was an expected versus unanticipated death. In the grieving process of an expected or anticipated death, the grieving can begin long before the person passes. This can sometimes make it difficult to discuss the experience of loss because the person you care for is still living. I have worked with patients with close family members who were terminally ill and helped them normalize their experience with grief and find ways to grieve before their loved ones died.
In an unexpected death, the intensity of the grief doesn't change, but the ability to cope is reduced. Both of my experiences with loss, the death of my 20-year-old brother in a car accident and the death of my mother as a result of an undiagnosed heart condition, were unexpected. I initially didn't know how to deal with the loss. All I knew was that I needed to do something to help myself.
Accepted versus unaccepted grief
Unaccepted grief, referred to as disenfranchised grief, was identified by the grief researcher Dr. Kenneth Doka, who used this term to identify a type of grief that tends not to be accepted or recognized by society as legitimate. In disenfranchised grief, the relationship between the deceased and the survivor is not recognized, the importance of the loss to the survivor is minimized, and the need to grieve is discounted.
Types of loss that fit into this category include, but are not limited to: pregnancy loss, suicide death, the death of a beloved pet, the breakup or loss of an extramarital affair, loss of an ex-spouse, or the loss of a job. In such situations, it is important to remind yourself that your loss is legitimate and that you have the right to grieve. Reach out to those who understand, and seek help through support groups geared toward those who are experiencing this form of grief.
Identity differences in grief expression
Understanding the grief coping differences between biological males and biological females may provide you with insight into the experience of those around you (partners, siblings, parents, etc.). There are generally two types of grieving. Instrumental grieving is more physical and cognitive (engaging in an activity and thinking about the loss) and intuitive grieving involves the expression of emotion.
Although there are differences in the way biological males versus biological females grieve, instrumental and intuitive respectively, this does not mean that biological males can't and don't use intuitive grieving and biological females can't and don't use instrumental grieving. It is important to note that members of the LGBTQ+ community may have different experiences because they are often marginalized, and identity-specific resources are hard to come by. To learn more, read about the importance of finding support.
Children and grief
Children, as they are going through the developmental process, will naturally have a different grief experience than adults. Depending on their age, children will need guidance with respect to the grieving process.
Talking openly with them is a good way to model that it is okay to discuss grief and emotions. Their grief can be intermittent, meaning that you may notice they feel sad one moment and the next they are playing joyfully with their friends. Children also tend to engage in magical thinking around the death, believing that they played a role in the death of their loved one. Keep in mind that grief experience and expression changes as your child continues to develop. For more information, read about grief by age and review videos on the Speaking Grief website.
A clinical model of processing grief
Our personal grief is not a linear process. However, there are experiences we all share around response to loss. Clinical researchers have identified various models describing this process. The model which I find to be most clear and comprehensive is Dr. J William Worden's four tasks. These involve:
- Accepting the reality of the loss: Our initial reaction to a loss of any kind, even if we foresee it, is a sense that it hasn't actually happened. When I heard of my mom's death, I couldn't fully believe it. I cognitively understood what her death meant, but I wasn't internally in a place where I could accept it as reality. It took me time to get to a point where I accepted my new reality—my mom was gone, and I couldn't change that.
- Working through the pain of grief: This task often includes processing the emotions of sadness, anxiety, anger, guilt, depression and loneliness. Since my mom's death, I experience moments in which I feel quite sad and find myself feeling guilty, wondering, for instance, if I had gone to my parents' house the day before Thanksgiving, would I have been able to intervene and save her?
- Adjusting to life without the deceased: It is important to learn how to function in the aftermath of a loss that has left a hole in our internal, external and spiritual worlds. Our roles may be shifting, our household structure is changing and we may begin to question our ability to manage what is in front of us. It is important to be patient with yourself. The loss has changed your entire reality and it takes time to find your footing. I'm still finding my way. When I visit or call my dad, I am painfully aware of his sadness. He is learning to manage how to be on his own and run aspects of the household that my mother used to handle.
- Maintaining a connection to the deceased while moving forward in life: This is a time to find a way of connecting to who or what you lost in a way that is meaningful for you. One of my ways of connecting with my mom has been to make Indian food using her personal recipes. I've found this activity allows me to honor her memory.
Keep in mind that your experience in each of these tasks and your overall grieving experience will vary depending on different factors.
The complexities of coping with loss
External factors can make it more difficult to cope, such as dealing with a global pandemic, which makes it even more challenging to connect with family and friends. The following strategies offer ideas for helping children and parents communicate about grief.
Supporting young children dealing with loss
- Be clear with your child about the death. Avoid using terms like "passed away" or "left us," as they may create confusion. It is appropriate to use cultural, religious and spiritual beliefs to explain the loss to your child.
- Support children in putting words to their emotions. Consider using a feelings chart that displays pictures of the various emotions so they can identify how they feel.
- Remind them that they will likely experience a lot of different and conflicting emotions that are a normal part of reacting to loss.
- Often, children can feel as though they caused the death. If you recognize this, clearly tell them that they had nothing to do with the death.
- As best as you can, maintain their routine. Deviating from the routine may create a greater sense of disorganization and anxiety.
- Encourage children to ask questions about the death and consider using age appropriate books, movies, or expressive drawings to help them understand death.
- Support them in creating cards and letters to convey their grief.
Parents dealing with loss
- Acknowledge and express what you are feeling. Expressing your thoughts and emotions and having them validated by a spouse or loved one is an important part of the healing process.
- Find a way to externalize your feelings. This can be communicating your grief to close friends and family, engaging in religious or spiritual practices, journal writing, or working on a photo album or scrapbook.
- Do your best to maintain some form of routine. Just as with children, structure and routine provide a sense of balance.
- Eat healthy meals, exercise, and find methods for relaxation and stress reduction.
- Find a way to honor the memory of your loved one.
- Consider engaging in an activity you enjoy with your children that creates stability.
When to seek professional support
When you feel overwhelmed, have difficulty functioning in daily life and your support system isn't providing relief, it is time to consider a higher level of care. Professional support can provide a safe environment in which you can express your thoughts and feelings and get feedback that is tailored to your personal experience. Psychology Today and APA Locator are two resources you can use to find behavioral health professionals in your area.
If you begin to have suicidal thoughts, immediately tell someone close to you and seek professional help. You can also call 911 or go to your nearest hospital emergency department for immediate support.
Loss is painful, but together we can get through it and live a life of meaning that honors our loss. You are not alone.