All humans are influenced by their interactions with significant others throughout their lives. One’s social context helps people understand, organize, and define themselves and their situations. Thus it is common and natural that the loss of a significant other brings a great loss of one’s own identity and reality.
The loss of a person who has been so important in defining one’s self and environment leads a person to grief. The absence of this relationship forces people to search for alternative guides to help them understand this situation and themselves. They often feel lost in their basic ability to interpret and define events, feelings, and meanings for their new life experiences without their loved ones. Thus, grief grows from emotional pain to an uncertainty about one’s self, future, and purpose. All this plus the need for the bereaved to create a new meaning to life and death can be extremely overwhelming. Safe and loving support from friend and family is crucial to get through these changes in a healthy way.
Four Tasks of Mourning
These four basic tasks, or challenges, must be successfully completed for a person to move on to a healthy life after the death of a loved one. Just as a child must successfully pass through each phase of development to grow into a healthy adult, a mourner must pass through each of these tasks to reestablish healthy functioning.
The four tasks include accepting the reality of the loss, experiencing the pain, adapting to a new environment, and reinvesting one’s emotional energy. This timeline gives the family a better understanding of the process of grief and healing– allowing for the space and knowledge of how to help their mourners come back to reality without their lost beloved.
Accept the Reality of Loss
The first task of mourning is accepting the death and the loss. It is not easy for anyone to help mourners through this task. However, there are several ways for family members and friends to know that the bereaved is moving towards through this challenge, such as subtle shifts in speech and needs. For example, a mourner becomes able to speak about the deceased less in the present tense and more in the past tense with time and acceptance. This may also include the family’s ability to incorporate the deceased into conversations less painfully.
One helpful way to measure progress is the way deceased’s possessions are used. It is not uncommon for people to use their loved one’s possessions as transitional objects through this difficult time. Immediately after a loss, the grieving may hold closely onto a possession of the deceased. He/she will always carry that object and is greatly distressed if it is misplaced. As the grief passes, the bereaved person is able to separate from the object only if he/she knows where it is and how to access it easily. With time, the object is finally able to be put away in a treasured place for safekeeping. It is important to understand that the acceptance of death is a process – not an end point. The bereaved will forever experience their pain to some degree throughout his/her lifetime. But the task of this phase is for the system to simply accept the fact of loss and not deny the impact it will have on one’s life. It is also important to note that our Orthodox faith dictates that physical death is not necessarily permanent loss – rather it is a temporary pause in relationship until we meet each other again in Paradise with the Lord. The deceased is not dead, but fully alive with the Lord.
Walk through the Pain of Grief
The second, and most difficult, task of mourning is to allow oneself to experience the emotions, whatever they might be – sadness, abandonment, anger, confusion. Surprisingly, it is usually at around this time that society expects the bereaved to have completed and “gotten over” the pain. Friends and support systems begin to pull away and return to their “normal” lives and expect the grievers to follow. But to the contrary, this is usually the most intensely emotional phase in the grief process. When others begin to pull away, it leaves the griever feeling even more alone than ever! The bereaved are often cautioned not to talk about the deceased anymore, even though this is the most important time to do so. They will hear things like, “You should stop taking about him, it only makes you feel worse.” But that is not the case, by talking about the loss, the mourner gets to release his/her emotions and begin to heal. When the mourner is forced to stay quiet, it makes them feel as if their painful emotions are inappropriate, “abnormal”, “out of control”, and that they can never belong in this world again. Furthermore, family functioning is greatly impacted during this time, as grief hinders the family members’ ability to perform their duties, day-to-day roles and activities. This problem is dealt with during the next task of mourning.
Adjust to an Environment where the Deceased is Missing
Adapting to a new environment without the deceased is the third task of bereavement. By now, one’s system has had time to allow the shock to subside. They are beginning to settle down and live with the loss. With time comes the realization that the death has brought many unwanted changes in the functioning of the family, and the pain is highlighted everyday when the practical, everyday routines are no longer routine without the deceased. For example, if a wife is used to having to husband drive her to the market every Tuesday and leave the light on in the kitchen for when they return home – the Tuesdays without her husband will feel especially difficult when she finds she has to shop alone and come home to a dark house.
The adaptation process requires individuals, and the family as a whole, to shift and create new patterns. The family must be flexible in order to cope with the disorganization and grief. They must be willing to shift relationship boundaries and delegate new family roles and responsibilities.
Emotionally Relocate the Deceased and Move on with Life
The final task of mourning is to reinvestment the emotional energy into new relationships with the living. In other words, individuals must strive to give less energy to the pain of their loss and reserve their efforts and heart for re-creating their previous, close relationships. This is not to say that the bereaved has completely abandoned the deceased from their everyday experience, but is now able to focus on living in the other areas of their lives – keeping space and respect for the deceased, while making room in one’s heart for new or rekindled relationships and growth. Be aware that with this growing happiness, sometimes comes difficult feelings of disloyalty, guilt, or fear as they begin to care for others again. It is important to remember to hand over to the Lord all our hardships and burdens, in order to allow space for Him to shine His light and warmth into our souls.
Death and loss are faced at one time or another by all people. Bereavement centers around individual pain, however, grief occurs within social relationship. Unfortunately, people who are mourning usually lack the focus, energy, or flexibility to deal easily with others. Due to this stress of grief, one’s availability to others declines – often making it difficult for family and friends to support one another.
Besides grief’s pain, the disorganization it causes, and the tendency it has to make people less available to support one another, is the problem of forming new rules, patterns, and purpose for life. However studies show that the single best indicator of distress one month after a loss is lack of interaction with close friends. Therefore, providing appropriate social support and understanding the four tasks of mourning are the most effective ways of decreasing the distress of bereavement.