by Bev Stratton—
I remember reading Grandma’s letters when I was a child. I wondered how she could go to so many funerals. Now my mother is the one who attends many funerals, and soon it will be me.
Death and grieving are ordinary parts of life. If we have done our estate planning, cleaned out our houses, and had conversations with our elders or children about end-of-life care (see theconversationproject.org), we may find the transitions at death painful, yet fairly smooth. We appreciate the rituals of our faith, feeling the support of a funeral or memorial service as we gather with family and friends for remembrances of our loved ones. And we will grieve.
Loss is a regular part of life. Babies are thrust from the womb, and children lose the need for a parent’s constant doting as they gain maturity and independence. Parents likewise experience loss as their children separate—babies and toddlers grow up, and children ideally leave home and become independent as fully functioning adults. Spiritual teacher and writer Sobonfu Somé, from Burkina Faso in West Africa, reminds us that change and loss are part of life: “It is necessary to grieve those things that no longer serve us and let them go.”
Grieving affects us in many ways. Physically, we may have nightmares, stomachaches, headaches, changes in appetite and sleep, fatigue and increased sickness. We may find that we are easily distracted, preoccupied with the loss, or have a shorter attention span, difficulty concentrating or other memory difficulties. Emotional changes may include irritability, mood swings, loss of interest in normal activities, anxiety, panic, fear, anger, guilt, shock, disbelief or a sense of being overwhelmed. Spiritually, we may question our faith, disconnect from ourselves, experience a shift in our prayer life or desire to worship, or change our beliefs, values or priorities. Losses could even make us wish we were not alive, as they did for Job (Job 3:11).
DIFFERENCES IN GRIEVING
How we grieve varies from person to person. There is no right way. What we learned growing up affects our way of grieving, as do the losses we have experienced in childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Our grief will also differ depending on our relationship with the person or aspect of our life we’ve lost—whether we were close, ambivalent or conflicted.
Circumstances around the death may affect our grief. While the timing of my mother-in-law’s death in her 90s was not anticipated, we did have time for goodbyes. The family made the decision together for her to enter hospice. We sang hymns and kept vigil. She died at home, in a place she loved, surrounded by her husband, children and several grandchildren. We were there together to support one another in our grief. Having good social support, a strong belief system and a resilient personality makes grieving easier.
There is no need to control grief. We can let the feelings ebb and flow like waves. It is normal to have times of deep grief as well as times when you go on with some of your normal activities. You may swing back and forth between grieving and daily life, like a pendulum. This is healthy.
Bev Stratton is a couples therapist in Roseville, Minnesota, and professor emerita of religion at Augsburg University (Minneapolis).
This article is excerpted from the October 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.