What do I do when someone important to me dies?
(Column: Ask the Therapist)
If the person mattered to you then his death will matter and you have the important work of grieving ahead of you. This is not the time for a "stiff upper lip" nor is it the time for hysteria. But it is the time to mourn. Mourning helps us to deal with loss, even though it may feel so painful as we do it.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book Death and Dying, was the psychological pioneer in helping people who were dying and in helping those who live on. She described five stages of mourning: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Denial is what we do at first when the person dies. "It can't be." "I just spoke to him." "We had work to do." "It isn't time yet." We call our friends to express dismay and disbelief. If the funeral occurs shortly after the death, we often go to the funeral in a state of disbelief. But the funeral itself is part of the mourning process, of accepting reality, of being in the company of other mourners.
Anger follows the acceptance of the reality. "Why didn't he tell me how sick he was…" "Why didn't he give me a chance to say goodbye. If only he hadn't left so much work to be finished…" "If only he had left directions, a plan, a will…" "How could he leave me to pick up the pieces?"
Bargaining involves making deals in retrospect to save the dead person. "If I had known how sick he was I would have… talked to the doctor, made him slow down, insisted that he take better care of himself, spoken to him the last time he called." We are now involved and in both exonerating ourselves and trying to figure out what he might have done. Mourners often get stuck here -- feeling guilty for what might have been -- when truly it was beyond our powers to prevent the death.
Depression means we go beyond sadness at the loss. We feel helpless in the face of loss and it usually arouses memories of other deaths or other kinds of loss. Life seems gray without our loved one. Our hearts hurt. This is the time that we cry for the person who has died and for ourselves. After all, the loss is to the survivors. This phase of powerlessness is part of reconciling ourselves to losses over which we truly have no control.