Running head: Grief – Healing through illness and loss
Grief – Healing through illness and loss
Michelle R. Wallpe
December 6, 2012
Many people these days are faced with trying to heal from diseases such as cancer. Because of it being so wide spread throughout the country, many of us are left trying to heal from the loss of loved ones. We are struggling with disease and our own wellbeing either due to disease or due to the illness of a loved one we are giving care for. In fact, “Based on census data, over 50 million people serve as family caregivers for a loved one.” (Brunner-Routledge, p. 182)
In fact, family caregivers currently provide about “80% of all home health services,” (Brunner-Routledge, p. 182) with an estimated value of “$257 billion” (Brunner-Routledge, p. 182) per year.
These staggering statistics illustrate the importance of the subject of grief and healing. Can healing occur for the family and friends who are left behind after a loved one passes? Taking care of and letting go may not be easy. What is the impact loss can have on our lives? How do we care for ourselves while they are sick, especially if we are the caregivers? What are the steps to healing, if any? How do we move on? Can normalcy occur? Is there a way to honor and remember them after they are gone?
“Family caregivers are grieving people caring for loved ones.” (Brunner-Routledge, p. 182) Caregivers range from loved ones caring for the ill to those caring for the grieving. Everyday activities are such as “shopping, cooking, cleaning, running errands, listening, adjusting TV, reading, making family arrangements” (Brunner-Routledge, p. 182) and coordinating community resources. In addition, “administering medication, providing a massages and assisting with bathing” (Brunner-Routledge, p. 182). are all part of the support system a care giver provides for the grieving and ill persons in need. They are there to honor the individual, their illness and needs.
These caregivers may be in grief themselves. As they care for their loved ones, “they are subject to their own feelings of grief and loss, are coping with physical, mental fatigue and often feeling overwhelmed” (Brunner-Routledge, p. 182). They often experience a “thousand deaths … before the actual death” (Brunner-Routledge, p. 182). It is easy for them to feel taken for granted. In addition to the grief they are often trying to address issues such as: “depression, living a life outside the norm, relinquishing their own dreams” (Brunner-Routledge, p. 182) and perhaps being responsible for financial, legal, hospital and medical matters.
Many people have had loss of some kind in their life. “In fact, most individuals experience ONE traumatic or life threatening event in their life”. (Bonanne, G. 2004)
However, in addition to those who have had more than one traumatic even some have had numerous losses, tragic losses and losses that occur one right after another. These types of losses can lead to what is known as complicated grief.
“The process of grief is unique to each individual who experiences it. The moment you being to grieve for a loved one may depend on many different circumstances, such as whether the death was sudden and unexpected or whether it occurred after a prolonged terminal illness”(Life Care Inc. 2001).
Loss as it relates to long term illness differs from sudden death in that the loved ones often have had a chance to say goodbye. Discussing unresolved feelings and saying goodbyes help to ease the pain thru the grieving process. Often times the grieving process beings before death. Part of losing a loved one includes the loss of expectations and dreams. Lost expectations and dreams can be felt during everyday life situations. Such as seeing a closet full of clothes left behind. Smelling the familiar scent your loved one used to wear. Or sharing the favorite meal your loved one enjoyed.
After a loss, “review of all hopes, dreams and desires should be expressed and examined during Grief Work.” (Bonanne, G. 2004). “These feelings, sometimes called an anniversary reaction, aren’t necessarily a setback in the grieving process. They’re a reflection that your loved one’s life was important to you”. (MFMER. 2012)
When loss is sudden, it can feel and have the same affects as a major traumatic life event. A traumatic event is defined by Dyer (2005) as … “an experience that causes physical, emotional, psychological distress, or harm,” or “an event, or series of events, that causes moderate to severe stress reactions.” Major traumatic events are characterized by:
“horror, helplessness, serious injury, or the threat of serious injury or death. A traumatic event is perceived and experienced as threat to one’s safety or stability. It may involve experiences, changes or emotions, such as: physical injury or illness, separation from parents (perceived abandonment), death of a friend, family member, or pet, violence of war, terrorism or mass disaster, divorce, loss of trust, a move to a new location, hospitalization, anxiety, fear or pain” (Dyer, 2005).
In addition to the above mentioned characteristics, grief can include the following emotional responses:
- Impatience or irritability, feeling jumpy
- Startling with loud noises
- Changes in appetite—eating too much or not being hungry
- Problems concentrating
- Difficulty in school
- Wanting to be alone more often than usual, or not wanting to be alone at all
- Re-experiencing the trauma—in daymares, nightmares or flashbacks
- Increased use of alcohol/drugs to cope with traumatic event, impairing recovery
- Tearful at unexpected moments, crying more easily or wanting to cry all the time
- Avoidance of situations that remind the survivor of trauma—places, time of day
- Negative view of the world
- Difficulty sleeping, nightmares
- Loss of interest in previous activities
- Plans for the future no longer matter” (Dyer. 2005).
Common physical responses to loss include physical reactions such as “nausea, diarrhea, stomachache, headache, dizziness, rapid heart rate, lightheadedness, allergies, rashes, grinding of teeth, increased colds and flu-like symptoms” (Dyer. 2005).
Understanding the normal responses following a traumatic event can help survivors realize that certain responses may be expected. It helps survivors to know that they are not “losing it” or “going crazy” (Dyer. 2005). What they are experiencing, are normal responses to abnormal events. Survivors need to take care of themselves. The normal responses they are experiencing and feelings are their body’s way of coping with a major life-altering event. “This can help make the physical and emotional responses less disturbing and overwhelming” (Dyer. 2005).
“Recent studies have shown that 30% of widows experienced PTSD like symptoms one month after the death of their spouse” (Joseph. 2012). This tells us how important it is that the grieved seek healing. Getting involved with a support group, surrounding yourself with friends and family really help to ease the emotional pain of loss. Words from the heart of friends and family around you in support cannot be wrong.
Grieving has a process. This process can be identified by those around the grieving and may help others understand where the grieving person is in the process. That their actions, works and reactions are possibly part of a process they are going through. There are 5 Stages of this grieving process. They can lead to the path of healing. They are listed below with an example of what each may sound like.
- Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
- Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
- Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
- Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
- Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened” (Smith and Segal. 2012).
Each of the five stages varies in length according to each person suffering loss. Some people move through each stage with relative ease, while others take a long time to process and get through.
There are two suggested ways to look at the process or stages of grief. They include resilience and recovery. They are key to healing from loss and can be learned.
Resilience refers to the ability to cope with adversity and adapt to challenges or change. It reflects the ability to maintain a stable equilibrium. In developmental literature;
“resilience is typically discussed in terms of protective factors that foster development
of positive outcomes and healthy personality characteristics among children exposed to
unfavorable or aversive life circumstances. Adults who maintain relative stability
(physical and psychological) despite potential highly disruptive events such as death or a
life threatening event.” (Bonanne, G. 2004. p. 1).
The following table outlines the characteristics of Individual Resilience (per SAMHSA).
Vulnerability Factors Inhibiting Resilience
Protective Factors Enhancing Resilience
Facilitators of Resilience
The ability for an individual to cope with adversity and change
Poor social skills
Poor problem solving
Lack of empathy
Abuse or neglect
Divorce or partner breakup
Death or loss
Lack of social support
Good coping skills
Secure or stable family
The second process is recovery. The recovery phase refers to “trajectory in which normal functioning temporarily gives way to threshold or sub threshold psychopathology (PTSD, depression) usually for a period of at least several months, then gradually returns to pre-event levels” (Bonanne. 2004. p. 1). Recovery may be relatively easy and quick or may take as long as one or two years.
Becoming resilient is something that can be developed. “Charney recommends developing resilience by training regularly in areas that engage emotions, intellect, morals, and physical endurance and by overcoming challenges” (Charney. 2007). He believes this affects what type of adults, young people in particular, develop into and suggests that it be part of high-school health education.
“Bereavement is choiceless, but grieving is not.” (Brunner-Routledge, p. 182)
The road to recovery and resilience may, at times, feel impossible. There is hope. The following list suggests in detail, specifics that may make the process of healing from grief and building resilience, leading to recovery easier to navigate.
- “Turn to friends and family members – lean on the people who care about you, even if you take pride in being strong and self-sufficient. Draw loved ones close, rather than avoiding them, and accept the assistance that’s offered. Oftentimes, people want to help but don’t know how, so tell them what you need – whether it’s a shoulder to cry on or help with funeral arrangements.
- Draw comfort from your faith – If you follow a religious tradition, embrace the comfort its mourning rituals can provide. Spiritual activities that are meaningful to you – such as praying, meditating, or going to church – can offer solace. If you’re questioning your faith in the wake of the loss, talk to a clergy member or others in your religious community.
- Join a support group – Grief can feel very lonely. Sharing your sorrow with others who have experienced similar losses can help. To find a bereavement support group in your area, contact local hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, and counseling centers.
- Talk to a therapist or grief counselor – If your grief feels like too much to bear, call a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling. An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving.
- Face your feelings. You can try to suppress your grief, but you can’t avoid it forever. In order to heal, you have to acknowledge the pain. Trying to avoid feelings of sadness and loss only prolongs the grieving process. Unresolved grief can also lead to complications such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.
- Express your feelings in a tangible or creative way. Write about your loss in a journal. If you’ve lost a loved one, write a letter saying the things you never got to say; make a scrapbook or photo album celebrating the person’s life; or get involved in a cause or organization that was important to him or her.
- Look after your physical health. The mind and body are connected. When you feel good physically, you’ll also feel better emotionally. Combat stress and fatigue by getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising. Don’t use alcohol or drugs to numb the pain of grief or lift your mood artificially.
- Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t tell yourself how to feel either. Your grief is your own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to yell at the heavens, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.
- Plan ahead for grief “triggers.” Anniversaries, holidays, and milestones can reawaken memories and feelings. Be prepared for an emotional wallop, and know that it’s completely normal. If you’re sharing a holiday or lifecycle event with other relatives, talk to them ahead of time about their expectations and agree on strategies to honor the person you loved” (SAMHSA).
“the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”
(Mahatma Gandhi) retrieved from (APA. 2008).
It is important to mention that many people, when in the Anger stage of the grieving process, find that forgiveness aids in healing. Forgiving self, the loved one lost in some cases, lost plans, dreams and sometimes even God, helps to move forward and let go of current feelings of loss and anger. Forgiveness is a powerful act in the healing and recovery process.
Eventually, once recovering, most people begin to develop ways to remember their loved one. They often find that it gives them comfort to keep him or her with them mentally and spiritually. The ways in which remembrance is developed them may vary greatly according to religious and cultural beliefs. Some examples of building remembrance and keeping them alive are, talking to the lost loved one mentally. Or “new rituals that commemorate your loved one … (may be developed such as) lighting a candle … saying a prayer, planting a garden, donating money to a charity or visiting the cemetery” (Life Care Inc. 2001).
Many people choose to celebrate important dates like, birth, death and anniversary dates regarding their lost loved one. Whether alone or with others, some tips can be helpful to handle these times. “Be honest about how you feel and want to spend the day” (Life Care Inc. 2001). Don’t be afraid to let others know if you feel comfortable spending time together or alone. Make changes to special days if you feel necessary. “ If traditional get togethers feel like too much pressure, try celebrating in a different way,” (Life Care Inc. 2001) such as the night before or the morning after. “Consider helping others who may be in need” (Life Care Inc. 2001). Volunteering, inviting someone else who is alone to celebrate with you, or visiting the elderly can help relieve some of the loss and allow you to focus outside of your situation. “Donate money in memory of your loved one” (Life Care Inc. 2001). Remember your loved one by including them in a “special prayer, read a poem or reminisce about them with other loved ones. Looking through photo albums or creating scrapbooks” (Life Care Inc. 2001) can all be great ways to keep their memory alive. “Be positive. Being grateful for what you do have, helps to remind us that we are allowed to experience joy, happiness and love. It is not disrespectful to the lost loved one to feel good or happy” (Life Care Inc. 2001). Life is precious and it is healthy to recognize that there are lessons learned in losing a loved one and we are to grow from the process of grief.
Illness, and loss are often unexpected, sometimes sudden and overwhelming. In some cases, there are no outwardly visible signs of physical injury and grief, but there is nonetheless a serious emotional toll. It is common for people who have experienced these types of traumatic situations and losses to have very strong emotional reactions. “Understanding normal responses to these abnormal events can aid you in coping effectively with your feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and help you along the path to recovery.” (APA. 2012)
Healing during and after loss, can occur. With proper care, it is possible to grieve, build resilience through the stages and process of grieving and recover from the loss. Healing allows the grieved to live a normal, healthy life after loss. It may take effort, it may take breaking out of your comfort zone. It may take opening up and sharing vulnerabilities that we are not used to. However, healing and moving on can occur, allowing the grieved to live happy fulfilling lives.
References and resources
American Psychological Association. (2012). Managing Traumatic Stress: Tips for Recovering from Disaster and Other Traumatic Events. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/recovering-disasters.aspx
Bonanne, G. (2004). Loss, Trauma and Human Resilience. Have We Underestimated the
Human Capacity to Thrive After Extremely Adversive Events?American Psychologist
Association. Vol. 59 No. 1 20-28, DOI:10.1037/0003-006X.59.1.20. Retrieved from http://www.nh.gov/safety/divisions/hsem/behavhealth/documents/loss_trauma.pdf
Brunner-Routledge and Jeffreys, J. (2005). Helping Grieving People: When Tears Are Not
Enough: A Handbook For Care Providers.
Charney, Dennis. ( 2007). People Can Learn Markers on Road to Resilience. Vol. 42 No. 2, pgs.5-5. Retrieved from http://journals.psychiatryonline.org/newsarticle.aspx?articleid=110644
Dyer, Kirsti. (2005) Vol. 2. No.2. Medical Wellness Archives. Living Through and Surviving
Traumatic Events. Retrieved from
Joseph, S. PhD. (2012). What Doesn’t Kill Us. Bereavement Can Be Traumatic. Psychology
Today. Retrieved from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-doesnt-kill-us
Life Care Inc. (2001). “A Life Care Guide to Grief and Bereavement” Retrieved from
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). (2012). Grief:
Coping with reminders after a Loss. “Grief doesn’t magically end at a certain point after a loved one’s death. Reminders often bring back the pain of loss. Here’s help coping- and healing. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/grief/MH00036
Naperstek, B. (2011). A Meditation to Ease Grief: Health Journeys. Resources for Mind Body and Spirit. A Guided Imagery CD.
Resilience and Stress Management Resources Collection, Resilience. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Retrieved from
Smith, M. and Segal, J. PhD. (2012). Coping with Grief and Loss, “Understanding the Grieving Process,” Helpguide.org. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/mental/grief_loss.htm