The Pain of Letting Go

We are never quite ready for it: the phone rings and we find out that someone has died. Whether the person was dear to us or to someone we know well, we probably aren’t very well prepared to deal with the situation.

Sadly, day-to-day life doesn’t teach people what to do when a loved one dies. Yet how we react to the death of someone close to us or console someone who has lost a friend or a relative can go a long way in bringing comfort and closure. In either situation, there are things that can help.

Life and Death

Death is a part of life, and this needs to be recognized and accepted. Dealing with it is nevertheless harder than most people imagine. More than a few have done everything possible to cheat death or prolong a suffering life because they haven’t prepared themselves for the reality that this life will come to an end.

But even if people have it settled in their minds that death is inevitable, they probably don’t realize when they lose someone how long their road to recovery will be. In the introduction to her book I’m Grieving As Fast As I Can, Linda Feinberg cites the example of a grieving man who said, “I knew when my wife died that there would be many humps to climb over. I just didn’t know there would be so many bumps in the humps.”

Feinberg remarks, “There are many ironies when somebody dies.” First of all, “the person you need most to help you through this experience is the person who just died.” To make matters worse, a grieving person can feel that the things they valued while their loved one was alive no longer make sense. The activities that had meaning were built around the person who is now gone. Those left behind may therefore feel helpless to find continued meaning in their lives.

This can be particularly true for children. Children cannot articulate their emotions as well as adults can, and with silence comes the misunderstanding that everything is all right—that the child is coping well with his or her grief. Many children grieve in silence, waiting to be understood. In the meantime, the traditions and security that framed their life lie buried with the person they lost.

All too often,” writes grief counselor Helen Fitzgerald, “their surviving parents, preoccupied with their own grief but thinking they are doing the right thing, hide their true feelings, tell their children little or nothing about what has happened, leave them out of all serious family discussions, send them away at the time of the funeral, and somehow manage to ignore their children’s need to grieve the losses that have so drastically altered their lives” (The Grieving Child, 1992).

One of the greatest needs of children and adults alike, then, is to be able to talk about their loved one. They need to revisit the relationship they had with this person. The loss can leave a very big hole in their life, yet others often feel uncomfortable talking to them about it, thus deepening the sense of isolation and loneliness.

How Children’s Grief Differs From That of Adults

  • Children’s immature cognitive development interferes with their understanding about the irreversibility, universality and inevitability of death. 
  • Children have a limited capacity to tolerate emotional pain. 
  • Children have limited ability to verbalize their feelings. 
  • Children are sensitive about “being different” from their peers. 
  • Children are able to express their feelings in play therapy.

From Helping Bereaved Children: A Handbook for Practitioners (2002), edited by Nancy Boyd Webb.

Grieving in Stages

Everyone who has lost a loved one will go through various stages of grief. But while grief literature may imply that every bereaved person goes through a nearly identical process and is therefore necessarily at some level of dysfunction, this isn’t true. Some people don’t go through all the stages of grief that various books identify.

That said, lack of drive to go back to work, trouble sleeping, prolonged sadness, trouble concentrating and lack of focus are some of the symptoms that a grieving person may experience at various stages. How long does it last? Offering a general guideline, Feinberg states that a survivor’s way of life can be altered for as long as three years and commonly is disturbed for at least one year. “You will have your good days and bad days, your good hours and bad hours,” she writes. As some of these traits show themselves in a grieving person, therefore, they should be viewed as normal steps in the healing process.

Denial is another common aspect of grieving. It can manifest itself in different forms. Feinberg cites the case of a woman who commented, “When I came home [from vacation] I was hoping my husband would be waiting for me, but he wasn’t.” Accepting the reality of death isn’t always easy or immediate.

This is equally true for children, who may have a hard time understanding that a parent is gone forever. “Forever” is a hard concept for the young child. Questions like “When is Daddy coming home?” are common, because one hour can seem like forever to a child. This misunderstanding can be furthered by cartoons that illustrate characters dying and then getting up and moving on in another scene. Death, the cartoon conveys, is not real; it isn’t final.

A grieving person of any age may cope for a while by denying the event that resulted in the end of their loved one’s life. Eventually, of course, the reality becomes painfully clear and results in acceptance.

Losing Control

If the one who is left behind is alone for much of the grieving period, depression can become a troublesome companion. Feinberg expresses it plainly: “You feel hopeless, helpless, and out of control. You are extremely depressed. Sometimes you feel short of breath like someone punched you in the stomach.” With this as an emotional backdrop, a bereaved person may reason, “What’s the use?”

Feinberg notes further that it isn’t uncommon to develop some self-destructive behavior patterns while in grief. Many widowed people, for instance, drive recklessly where before they were careful. Or someone who used to enjoy the occasional glass of wine with dinner before the death may turn to alcohol for comfort or to fall asleep at night. The latter behavior, unfortunately, can lead to prolonged dependency on artificial aids.

The pain of grief can be so intense,” writes Fitzgerald, “that one may also start wishing for death for oneself, as in a wish that one could just go to bed and not wake up or, when flying in an airplane, have it crash.”

She adds that such feelings are normal for adults, but that children are not immune either. They may listen to melancholy music, lose sleep, hide anger, struggle in school and be less talkative. But this stage will pass. This is a time to explain the reality of death and reassure the child that he or she is loved and needed.

Anyone dealing with depression as part of the grieving process will find that the line between depression and anger can easily be obscured. It isn’t uncommon to alternate between the two. In the case of grieving children, the challenge is often that they don’t know how to convey their anger to parents or friends. Children may not understand why they feel angry. As a result, they may lash out at the people they love and respect the most.

Knowing that this is a possibility is a giant step in helping children through this very emotional time. What they really want is to have things back the way they were. “It may be,” explains Fitzgerald, “that he or she is angry with the deceased parent for dying and, being unable to communicate those feelings to the deceased, directs them instead to the living.” This underscores the importance of listening to children as they try to express their emotions.

A further difficulty develops for the individual who feels that it’s wrong to express anger. Buried anger can lead to prolonged depression. In other words, those who are grieving, whether they are children or adults, need to talk about the anger they feel.

That may not be easy, however, when friends don’t feel up to answering questions asked in anger and therefore avoid the bereaved person. Unfortunately this only serves to heighten the anger. Feinberg notes that the reactions often go something like this: “I was prepared to feel grief, but I was not prepared for the reactions of my friends. They have absolutely shunned me. They can’t fix my grief so they don’t call. They all say that they didn’t call because they didn’t know what to say. Why do they have to say anything? They should make the effort. I have enough to deal with.”

The best help anyone can offer at this time is to listen—and then to listen some more.

Clearly, friends must be careful what they say. Phrases intended to lighten the griever’s load are not always helpful. “‘You’re doing well!’ ‘You look great!’ These statements make widowed people furious,” Feinberg writes. The best help anyone can offer at this time is to listen—and then to listen some more.

Give It Time

Emotions will continue to ebb and flow as those who are grieving progress through the healing process. It is important that they recognize this and adjust their timeframe for getting back to “normal.” Just as a woman who has just given birth isn’t expected to get back to her usual routine right away, a person who has lost a loved one is not expected to get back to a routine right away either. Taking some time off can be very beneficial.

A grieving person may wonder what to do with various aspects of his or her new life as a single or as a single parent. The key is not to do anything in a hurry. The newly widowed person is best advised to wait six months to a year before making any significant decisions. This will help avoid actions that may be regretted later on. Whether it’s about discarding the deceased person’s clothing, redecorating, buying a new house or removing a wedding ring, time can help distance the bereaved from strong and unpredictable emotions. Things will seem much clearer in a few months.

Time does heal wounds. In the meantime, ups and downs are completely normal. Those who are grieving may alternate between various emotions and may do things that surprise both themselves and those around them, but eventually they will get through this very difficult time and come to a place of acceptance. There is light at the end of the tunnel. But recognizing that it will take a lot of talking on the part of the griever and a lot of listening on the part of friends and acquaintances is essential.

Words of Wisdom

Grappling with death often forces people to look more deeply at their spiritual foundations. Those who look to the Bible will find that it offers encouragement and instructs people to help each other work through the challenge of bereavement—to listen, to assist and to understand.

There is a time for everything, a season for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. . . . A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.” 

Ecclesiastes 3:1–2, 4

The Bible characterizes death and grieving as simply a part of physical, mortal existence. Solomon noted that during the course of this life “there is a time for everything, a season for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. . . . A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1–2, 4, New Living Translation).

The Bible also instructs people to help those who are in need and to be a friend to them in times of trouble: “A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need” (Proverbs 17:17, NLT). James wrote in his epistle that one aspect of practicing pure religion is to “care for orphans and widows in their troubles” (James 1:27, NLT).

The importance of listening is addressed by James as well: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry . . .” (James 1:19, New International Version).

While the pain of losing someone dear is always difficult, knowing what to expect (whether the person going through it is you or someone you know) will help ensure that healing can begin. The healing process will vary with each individual, but patience and understanding on the part of both the bereaved and those who seek to comfort them can be invaluable in moving that process forward.