Navigating Death, Loss, and Mortality
Updated: May 17, 2020
We receive such confusing messages about death. People don’t even like using the words death, dying, or dead, and instead use other words or turns of phrase that contribute to our confusion. These euphemisms only hinder our understanding and acknowledgement about “death”. It’s so important to start having direct and honest conversations about death, loss and mortality, by using accurate and appropriate language for a particular situation.
Younger children, for instance, aren’t yet able to fully understand that when a person dies it is forever, that they don’t come back to life. They need to clearly hear that people are no longer physically present and cannot come back. We might use sentences like: “Daddy died and he’s in heaven now” for those who might want to incorporate religious beliefs, or “People die when they are very sick and their isn’t any more medicine to help them” for those who might be affected by a chronic illness.
When talking to others, especially children, it’s best to avoid using phrases such as:
He went to sleep
She went on a trip
They went to the big ranch in the sky
To get more comfortable with the whole idea of death and dying, let's learn what grief and grief work is all about.
Grief (also called bereavement) is the experience of loss. Many people associate grief with the death of an important person or pet. However, people experience grief after any important loss that affects their life, like the loss of a job or relationship, or experiencing grief after the diagnosis of a chronic illness or other health concern.
‘Grief work’ is the general idea that a griever must work through their difficult and painful feelings around the loss. Each of us experience grief in our own unique ways. You may feel shocked, sad, angry, scared, or even anxious. Some feel numb or have a hard time feeling emotions at all. Others might even feel relief or peace after a loss. There is no right way of grieving; it’s a "one size fits one" type of process.
For those who subscribe to ‘grief work’ theories, the belief is that a griever will not recover from their loss if they do not go through the ‘grief work' process, often involving tasks and stages to confront their difficult emotions. Under the ‘grief work’ model, you must face the pain of the loss head-on. This is emotionally and physically exhausting, but it is important to healthy grieving.
The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement (or DPM) argues that to “avoid, deny, or suppress” certain aspects of grief is not only normal, but a healthy and important part of grieving. In DPM, there are two types of stressor that are associated with grieving:
1) loss-oriented stressors and 2) restoration-oriented stressors.
Loss-oriented stressors are stressors that come from focusing on and processing the loss of the person who has died and our relationship with that person.
Restoration-oriented stressors have to do with secondary sources of stress and coping, such as feelings of isolation, or having to fulfill tasks that the person who died used to do (like cooking, cleaning, managing finances, etc).
In DPM, healthy grieving means engaging in a dynamic process of oscillating (swinging back and forth) between loss-oriented and restoration-oriented coping. Meaning that their will be moments in your day, week or year where you might ping-pong between crying about your loss and successfully re-written your Will, or going through old photos of the deceased and cancelling your membership to doubles tennis.
Ultimately though how you feel and react about the loss is dependent on the meaning that is assigned to it.
If you are feeling stuck or unsure about how to navigate your 'grief work’ journey, you can start by trying one of these actions suggested by the Canadian Mental Health Association:
Connect with caring and supportive people. This might include loved ones, neighbours, and co-workers. It could also include a bereavement support group or community organization.
Give yourself enough time. Everyone reacts differently to a loss and there is no normal grieving period.
Let yourself feel sadness, anger, or whatever you need to feel. Find healthy ways to share your feelings and express yourself, such as talking with friends or writing in a journal.
Recognize that your life has changed. You may feel less engaged with work or relationships for some time. This is a natural part of loss and grief.
Reach out for help. Loved ones may want to give you privacy and may not feel comfortable asking you how you’re doing, so don’t be afraid to ask for their support.
Holidays and other important days can be very hard. It may be helpful to plan ahead and think about new traditions or celebrations that support healing.
Take care of your physical health. Be aware of any physical signs of stress or illness, and speak with your doctor if you feel that your grief is affecting your health.
Offer support to other loved ones who are grieving. Reaching out to others may be helpful in your own journey.
Be honest with young people about what has happened and about how you feel, and encourage them to share their feelings, too.
Work through difficult feelings like bitterness and blame. These feelings can make it harder to move forward in your life.
Make a new beginning. As the feelings of grief become less intense, return to interests and activities you may have dropped and think about trying something new.
Think about waiting before making major life decisions. You may feel differently as your feelings of grief lose their intensity, and the changes may add to the stress you’re already experiencing.
Stay Strong, Myriame