When someone we care about dies, it doesn’t matter if we believe they are going to heaven or find solace that they are free from their pain. We miss their presence in our lives. The way they made us feel, unique perspectives, comfort, inconsequential actions, smells, voice, hugs, comfort and unique mannerisms.
Significant people hold keys to important parts of ourselves. Parents make us feel like the children we used to be. Friends make us feel uninhibited in our words and laughter. We also define our identity by the significant people in our lives. If a child is lost, so is our our role as a parent. Who are we without our loved one?
Some things cannot be substituted for anything else. You cannot replace a missing person. It is common to feel a hole in the chest or an ache in the heart. There is danger of substance use after the loss of a loved one. I’ve heard numerous accounts of people using immediately after learning someone died and the guilt that follows. People also report lashing out at others due to the stress of loss.
Death is the ultimate loss that constrains the heart and spirit. There will be small moments to sooth our hurt, but absence always waits in moments of dark stillness. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross set forth, “The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”
When we lose someone, a part of our personal reality breaks away to leave a cliff overlooking eternity. As we stare into the vastness of existence, we feel vulnerable, limited, and know that things we love can be taken at any time.
The deceased may go on to exist in an unseen afterlife, but we struggle to perceive it in a dimension ruled by space, time and a body. We want information. To know if they are at peace and safe… if that vital part that was their personality and spirit is still intact. If our relationship to them as child, parent, friend, teach, etc. remains.
Are people the same in death as they are in life? Some wonder do they rejoin the bigger, whole, transpersonal part of who they are? Do they become more than who they were in this lifetime? Are they still that person we love? Eric Clapton speaks of his son who passed, “Would you know my name, if I saw you in heaven? Would it be the same, if I saw you in heaven?” He goes on to speak of having to be strong and go on living despite wanting to be in heaven also. Many people find it heartbreaking to live out the remainder of their days without their significant person. All the little day-to-day habits are done, noticing that person is missing.
Watch: “Tears in Heaven,” Eric Clapton, “Your Missing,”, Bruce Springsteen
When we lose someone, memories that are carved into our minds can erode and lose clarity. Time causes both relief and anxiety with its ability to dull, numb and steal. It gets better in time, but it also gets emptier. Some people have a fear that if they heal their grief and allow change in their lives, they will lose the person even more. Sometimes, staying stuck in grief, feels like honoring the significance the person had to our lives.
Emotions are stored in the body and its vital energy. Grief causes emotional and physical upheaval. It can cause physical health problems. Our social connections, specifically our life partners, affect our biology. Many people report that they feel as though an energetic cord between themselves and the other person has snapped. This results in a sensation of energetically having a gaping hole in their chest and “bleeding out energetically.” Losing someone is a spiritual emergency that needs immediate attention and healing. When experiencing trauma, a person can feel isolated in a world without color and pleasure.
The strong emotions associated with grief cause us to experience surges of uncontrollable crying, irritability, disturbing thoughts, panic attacks, worry, etc. Some people feel numb and wonder if the fact that they don’t cry is normal. Others feel foggy and forgetful. Claire Bidwell Smith says, “Grief takes up such a large part of our hearts and our brains that, for a while, it becomes hard to think about regular life as we once did.” We can under-estimate how much of us is consumed by a loss.
Many people experiencing mental and physical symptoms associated with grief, don’t know what is going on. They think that something is wrong with them. It helps to understand that physical symptoms can be related to grief. This can lessen anxiety and normalize what the person experiences. It helps a person understand that they are not going crazy.
C.S. Lewis shares, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.” Fear plays a huge role in death. Especially in a culture that doesn’t like to talk about dying, doesn’t prepare for death and avoids illness.
Claire Bidwell Smith lost her parents in her young adult years. She dedicated her life to exploring the role anxiety plays in grieving. She states, “Worrying about something can make a person feel as though they are doing something proactive about it, when really they are just perpetuating a heightened state of alert that keeps them in an anxious state.” Anxiousness dysregulates and ties up our energy, causing exhaustion.
Watch: Claire Bidwell Smith, “Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief”
Behind my eyes… The sun is setting
Candles gutter out
Roses die on a nightstand
Dirty plates overflow from the sink across the counter top
Tears leak to suffocate, then turn to snow
Outside my windows
The sun is out and noise pervades the city
Everyone is rushing towards appointments and deadlines
But I rotate though the darkened rooms of my house
Embraced by lack
Boney hands encircle and entrap my arms
And my legs cannot run
My inner life is no longer calibrated to the living
At night I send a little row boat out
Into a treacherous ocean
For a time I cease to exist
When I wake in the morning there are a several moments
Before I remember, “They are gone.”
How do I escape what is now my truth?
Caregiving for a sick person carries additional burden, than if the person passed in a quick or peaceful way. The memories that accompany helping care for a dying person can be disturbing. Unpleasant smells, sights and memories take a long time to recede. Small things remind people of difficult times: florescent lights, doctor’s offices, prescription bottles, certain cleaners, blankets etc.
Watch: “Soon You’ll Get Better,” Taylor Swift
Experiencing the role changes that occur when someone loses their health is upsetting. The person who was our “other half, “or “our rock” becomes unable to provide that anymore.
Many people find that the ups and downs of caregiving causes them to have emotional issues. They realize, as they acclimate to their loved one’s death, that at some point, they stopped breathing deeply. People who never had anxiety experience it.
In her book, “Intimate Death,” Marie De Hennezel shares the experience of accompanying the dying. “I’ve known the pain of being separated from people I loved, the sense of impotence in the face of advancing illness, moments of revolt against the slow physical disintegration of people I was accompanying, and the temptation to put a stop to it all. I cannot deny the suffering and sometimes the horror that surround death.” She then relates that choosing to be present to people as they die gave her a depth, humanity, and spirit.
Unresolved business makes grief difficult to process. Long-held family resentments and rivalries often surface during and after a family member’s death. Many arguments ensue about the dying person’s care, funeral arrangements, money and dividing possessions, etcetera.
In modern culture there is a collective denial of death. We shuffle old and sick to hospitals and nursing facilities and continue with a fast-paced life until forced to slow down. We don’t take the time out to process our grief. We neglect rituals to honor and remember those who have died. The problem is that the grief and other emotions surrounding death want to be seen and heard. The more they are pushed down the more disruptive they become until we have no choice but to feel them. “If you bury it, you bury it alive.”
We could greatly benefit by empowering the dying as they transition. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi says, “With the help of loving counselors, they work through their fear and anger, dissolve resentment, heal relationships, and make peace with their destiny. By finishing business,” they remove the callouses that obstructions the heart, the spontaneous, loving core that connects them with their essential nature.” Doing work with the dying and their family promotes healing for the entire family.
What are healthy ways to engage with death? People develop their own personally meaningful ways to remember their loved one or cope with loss. Some people plant a tree, take care of themselves (because they promised the person they would), take walks in nature, create an outdoor memorial, light a candle and pray, develop charity work to honor that person, etcetera. Ethnic and cultural groups have beliefs and traditions to help people transition into death and ceremonies for the living.
In Hispanic cultures “Day of the Dead,” honors the ancestors and invites them into the home. Usually the family gathers to have a meal, play music and share stories. A table is set up with photos, candles, and offerings for loved ones in the spirit world. Marigold flowers are a special tribute. Families may visit graves.
How do you have a relationship with someone after they have died? You listen and intuit or send out thoughts. Our energetic body is connected to the spiritual realm. As we develop spiritually, we become more attuned to this channel of communication.
There are things that we can do in our everyday life to strengthen this connection. It is a powerful act to bridge the spiritual and physical. It is a skill to attune, interpret and then act. There will be synchronicities or coincidences along the way to reinforce that you are engaged in a meaningful practice. Some people look for signs in their life that the person is still connected to them like a cardinal bird or a butterfly.
When someone dies, we may feel fear, anger, dissonance and anxiety. These emotions are the opposite of creation, connection, hope and meaning.
You cannot think your way out of grief. Luckily, creativity bypasses the mind and facilitates deep transformation. Carl Jung states, “Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” Here are some creative practices to help you to creatively engage with your grief and bridge the perceived gap between material and spiritual realities.
- Trace a credit card or business card on a piece of paper
- List things that you love about life and reasons to live
- List people/ places/ things/ activities/ phone numbers/ higher powers that provide support
- Decorate your card with color and images
- Laminate the card if possible
- Carry the card with you and refer to it at times when you need HOPE
The Ripple Effect
Fill in the chart identifying all the ways that someone’s death impacted your life. Start with their name in the middle and fill in feelings and events as the rings go outward. Examples are: hobbies, bills, things pertaining to children, emotions, household responsibilities, work performance, social implications etcetera
- Go on a walk and reflect on emotions related to your loss
- Gather stones as you go.
- Paint the rocks any way you want and use a sharpie to write the names of what you feel on them
- Choose a lake, river, ocean, etc. to surrender the emotions to. They can be thrown or placed. It is up to you.
- Take some time to sit by the body of water and feel its energy. Allow the body of water to influence you. Oceans and rivers are good at purifying and ponds can provide serenity. Use your 5 senses to perceive your environment. Does an animal or plant “speak” to you? Some people like to write or draw in response to this experience. You may want to find an object to take with you or take a photo.
Activity: The Keeper of My Grief
- Sometimes, parts of ourselves carry memories and emotions that are too heavy for our conscious selves. Do a meditation to visit your grief. Ask it to reveal who it is. It may be a person, spiritual entity, animal or aspect of nature (example a rock or river). The symbol that appears to you may be surprising. Sometimes it is an outcast impoverished child or an abandoned shelter pet.
- Make a visual representation of this figure. You can also find an image to represent the grieving part of yourself, do a multimedia collage or find/ make a statue.
- Next meditate again and ask that part of yourself, what message it wants you to hear?”
Shelf or Box Altars
Dedicate a space in your home to an altar shelf or box.
- Select a shelf, countertop, box, vintage suitcase, glass box, hat box etcetera. You may also find an outdoor space.
- Intuitively select special objects to fit in this space. Some people start with a photo or an object that belonged to the person
- Examples: Spiritual statue, keys, plant or flowers, candle, rocks,
- One person wrapped her mother’s favorite necklace around an angel statue
Go to this space and share your thoughts or simply be. You can write notes, burn a candle (or a LED one 😊), place flowers or set a favorite offering out.
Metamorphosis: A Metaphor for the Human Experience: Imagine you are a caterpillar moving through an ether, accumulating little bits of stray energy, growing larger and larger. Then you attach to physical matter. You build yourself a body… a chrysalis. You begin to dream. You experience yourself as matter, forgetting that inside, you are a liquified caterpillar. As you grow your spirit reorganizes itself into the shape of a butterfly. By experiencing yourself in this life you transform your energy from caterpillar to butterfly. Your body ages and your chrysalis changes, becoming brittle. It isn’t a good container for you anymore. Your body dies and your spirit emerges with wings.
Metamorphosis is scary and uncomfortable. The caterpillar does not know that one day it will be a butterfly. The caterpillar follows its instincts and becomes what it is destined to be. When the caterpillar is in its chrysalis everything is undefined and unknown. This promotes fear and a struggle to cope. That is the experience of being human.
The human experience is one of forgetting. We forget what came before our birth and do not know what to expect at death. Robert Jackson Bennett reminds us, “Forgetting… is a beautiful thing. When you forget, you remake yourself… For a caterpillar to become a butterfly, it must forget it was a caterpillar at all. Then it will be as if the caterpillar never was and there was only ever a butterfly.” If we were born for a reason, there must be some value in not knowing. It must help our human existence, benefit us spiritually. Spirit insists on transformation, even at the expense of the ego and body.
John O’Donahue reveals, “Your death need not be a negative or destructive event. Your death can be a wonderfully creative event opening you up to embrace the divine that has always lived secretly inside of you.” The body is a vessel for spirit, and our spirit holds our essence and our memories. Our body can’t contain the entirety of our personal spirit at any given time. That would be madness. Parts of our spirits interface and move through our body and consciousness at different times. At death, we experience our spirits as unlimited and whole.
- High Peaks Hospice Office
454 Glen Street, Glens Falls, NY 12801
Kimberly Moore at 518-891-0606 or email@example.com
*Support groups for children and adults
Books that Provide Meaning and Hope:
“Anam Cara,: John O’Donahue
“Intimate Death,” Marie De Hennezel
“From Aging to Saging,” Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
“The Wheel of Life,” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
“Care of the Soul,” Thomas Moore
Movies that deal with grief and loss that don’t leave you feeling depressed:
- Fearless (deals with fear of death)
- What Dreams May Come
- No Reservations
- PS I love you
- Catch and Release
- Wrist Cutters
- The Greatest
- The Lost Husband
- Carrie Pilby
- Dead Like Me
- We Bought a Zoo (kids)
- Over the Moon (kids)
- Soul (kids)
- Coco (kids)
Special Resources for Suicide:
Mia Adams, (803) 552-6610, firstname.lastname@example.org, Resources and Groups
The Council for Prevention
214 Main Street, 2nd Floor, Washington, Hudson Falls, NY, 12839
Facebook Group: https://bit.ly/Their_Stories_Still_Matter
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255); En español 1-888-628-9454
The Lifeline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Lifeline connects people to the nearest crisis center that provides crisis counseling and mental health referrals.
- Crisis Text Line
Text “HELLO” to 741741
The Crisis Text Line is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This confidential service helps anyone, in any type of crisis, connecting them with a crisis counselor who can provide support and information.