How To Deal With A Death In The Family
Updated December 13, 2018
Reviewer Rashonda Douthit , LCSW
One of the most challenging experiences that anyone will experience is losing a family member. In most cases, people share close bonds and attachments with their relatives. The apparent sever of that bond via death is something that many people struggle with. To say that a loss of a family member is tough would be the underestimate of the century.
One of the most important decisions someone will ever make is determining how to deal with losing someone they cared for. While some people choose to honor the deceased relative, other people may grieve by taking time for themselves and remembering the legacy of the recently departed. Unfortunately, not everyone handles grief constructively or healthily. Certain individuals choose to lash out at others, alienate people, and engage in other self-destructive practices. In certain scenarios, the behaviors above are due to an unawareness of how to deal with a death in the family.
Addressing the Death
Truly accepting the loss of a loved one is very painful; some people become afraid to accept the death truly. Throwing oneself into work, declining to discuss the recently deceased relative, and otherwise preoccupying oneself with other matters are some of the most common forms of purposeful distraction. Many people genuinely believe that engaging in the preceding behaviors will help them move forward.
Mental Health America explains the importance of allowing oneself to experience all the feelings which accompany the loss of a family member. Some of the most common emotions are anger, guilt, despair, shock, disbelief, confusion, and even denial. These feelings are healthy; processing them takes time and is not an experience which can be rushed. Failure to accept the passing of the relative and experience the reactions above can prompt emotional, psychological, and even physical problems.
The Five Stages of Grief
Individuals who experience a death in the family will likely experience the five stages of grief. According to Focus on the Family, the five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Each person will experience the preceding stages at their own pace; the grieving process can take weeks, months, or even years. There is no one formula or timetable. The closeness one shared with the recently deceased is also a critical factor; most people take longer amounts of time to mourn loved ones with whom they shared a connection…and that's OK.
As the initial stage of grief, denial occurs as an internal defense mechanism. On some level, the individual knows their relative has passed, but denial arises to help people survive and not become completely broken by the loss. Despite the naturalness of this first stage of grief, denial is problematic when someone does not eventually overcome this feeling. Gradual acceptance that a relative has passed is very important. Remaining in denial over a death in the family can lead to very severe issues in other parts of one's life.
Following denial comes anger. Anger after the loss of a relative can come in many forms and be directed towards a variety of individuals. Sometimes, people feel angry with themselves for not saying or doing something before their family member passed away. Anger can also be directed towards other relatives, friends, the world, medical staff who tended to the recently deceased in their final days, and even towards the dead relative. The event which prompted the death of a family member can also contribute to the extent and longevity of a grieving person's anger.
Although anger is an innate part of dealing with a death in the family, constructively managing this emotion is paramount. Some people exercise, spend time in nature, hit a boxing bag, or engage in relaxing activities which permit the release of anger. Similarly to denial, anger can become quite dangerous when someone holds onto it. Ongoing anger will not bring back a dead relative, but, left unchecked, anger does have the power to ruin the lives of those who are still living. At some point, grieving individuals must figure out how to move past anger.
After one has experienced denial and anger, the next, most common stage of grief is bargaining. In most cases, bargaining comes in the form of a sort of truce, such as "I'll do anything to bring them back," "if I do XYZ, will that fix things?" Bargaining is also a way of attempting to escape the natural strain which anger and grief wreak upon the body. Although nothing can bring back the dead, bargaining is still a natural response to feeling saddened and overwhelmed by the loss of a family member. People may also go through the hypothetical "what ifs" during the bargaining stage. "What if I'd been there," "what if I'd said this or done that." The longevity of the bargaining stage varies from person to person.
As people work their way through the grieving process, they may experience depression. The loss of a relative can engender feelings of emptiness, sadness, and even an altered outlook on life. During this time, it's very important for individuals to take time for themselves, process their feelings, and heal. Talking with others who can empathize is often helpful, although some people find it best to be alone and process matters at their own pace.
While depression is a natural part of the grieving process, it can still become dangerous if it lasts for too long. Taking time for oneself is fine, but habitual alienation from other people is not healthy. If depression maintains or reaches extreme levels, seeking help is imperative. Depression is linked to a plethora of physical, emotional, and psychological issues. Depression after the loss of a relative generally follows as one begins to consciously come to the realization that their loved one is gone forever.
Acceptance is the final stage of grief and occurs when one realizes that their relative is gone and nothing can bring them back. Many people mistake acceptance with the completion of the grieving process; however, accepting the loss of a loved one does not erase the pain. Individuals can accept something, yetremain displeased. Many people who have reached the final stage of grief attempt to move on with their lives while keeping their relative in their hearts and memories. This may include returning to work, immersing themselves in hobbies, and otherwise living their lives and attempting to be happy again. The past cannot be changed. A critical part of dealing with a death in the family requires acceptance.
Moving On With Life
Different people have different ideas on what it means to move on with life. For some, it means getting back into one's daily grind. For others, moving on involves prayer, reaching out to others, and working so that grief is less emotionally taxing or draining. There are also many misconceptions about moving forward; doing this does not mean forgetting the loss of a relative or never acknowledging it. Many people visit the graves of their loved ones to honor them, leave flowers, and pay tribute. Others keep pictures of the recently departed in their homes or at their work offices. While each can move on with life in his or her way, doing so is a crucial part of dealing with a death in the family.
Seeking Professional Help
Seeking professional help is one of the best ways for people to work through the stages of grief and eventually move on with their lives. Unfortunately, this is still something which many people struggle with. In some cases, a grieving person may not be in the mood to talk with anyone. In the earliest stages of loss and grief, mere discussions of the death can be upsetting and even do more harm than good. However, many individuals have found that after some time, talking with others can help. Conversing with other human beings provides a release that doesn't exist when thoughts and feelings are bottled up.
Here at BetterHelp, providing assistance and guidance to those who contact us is our top priority. This applies regardless of who you are or what you're going through. Although we all have things to work through, we do not have to work through them alone. Help will always be available for those who ask. Dealing with a death in the family or other traumatic experiences is not a process which should be rushed. Craving alone time and solitude for awhile is OK.
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