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The Years After a Loss



When a close loved one dies, the first and second year are the most critical in the process of healthy grieving and avoiding unresolved grief. The state of preparation of a family’s finances and end-of-life planning decisions before a death will greatly impact the stress level of the bereaved, as well as their own grieving process. When a surviving spouse does not have to suddenly figure out how they are going to pay bills and care for children, they are then afforded the freedom to focus on the emotional depth of the loss without this extra burden. Make no mistake - finances are a considerable cause of extra worry and stress. Even in the best of circumstances when there are no worries about money, the survivor still has a difficult journey ahead. 



Imagine having to take this journey of losing your most important person, while you are filled with fear or trepidation, maybe even confusion about training for new life skills to get a job, going back to school, borrowing money, having to search and interview for a job, take care of the kids, and possibly move if the mortgage cannot be afforded? This leaves very little time for actual grieving. It is crucial to spend time with yourself expressing feelings in ways that ensure your healthy recovery.


Delayed grief due to survival


The state of affairs before a death directly determines what will happen in Year 1 and Year 2 for the bereaved. When the first year is consumed with activities and decisions about survival, it’s no wonder that people break down months or years later. Grief can actually be delayed, and often is, especially in these circumstances. A surviving spouse or partner will have difficult decisions to consider in that first year about the home, finances and children’s well-being.


Caregivers whose parent has died face similar decisions when they have lived in the home of the deceased, or shared the majority of their time caring for another person. That last thing they need is to be worrying too much about basic survival needs at a time like this. Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that before one is able to ‘self-actualize’, one must first have tended to the basics of food, clothing and shelter. Until stability is restored in these basic needs, it’s nearly impossible to reach one’s potential. In the case of grieving, ‘potential’ means re-defining or re-inventing oneself toward a new life. It doesn’t mean ‘forgetting’ the deceased, or pretending they never existed, but learning how to live with loss. Part of the hard work in bereavement is to emotionally relocate the loved one in a new place within oneself in order to move forward. Focus on survival needs, trumps the grief process, because it has to. Food, clothing and shelter come before all else in life. It’s not that pain won’t be felt – it will. But healthy grieving will have little time in this person’s world in a year such as this. 


Annual death dates and healthy grieving


During the first year after a death, expect to experience difficult emotions on anniversary firsts, like birthdays, holidays, Mother's or Father’s day, Valentine’s Day, wedding anniversary and most importantly, the anniversaries of the death. Depending on the level of trauma experienced and the hardship of the year since the death, it may be helpful to take the day off from work or other obligations. It’s not uncommon for emotions to suddenly come back to life on these important days when the living feels the void in especially acute ways. Consider thinking ahead before the death anniversary date about what you can do to make yourself feel better on that day. For some, planning to stay at home with a homemade bowl of soup and good movies may be just what the doctor ordered. Many experts advise not throwing away all of your loved one’s belongings from your home and not make life-changing decisions during this year. Because of the volatility year one brings, our decision-making abilities will not be done with clear thinking. If it’s possible to stay in your home, not move or change jobs, your decisions might look different after a year has passed. 


Harvard Medical School’s professor of Psychology, J.W. Worden, created a model called "The Tasks of Mourning" that has been widely used by mental health practitioners. The model concedes that grieving takes work through active participation in the process, for healthy healing to occur. The work involves learning to live with the loss, finding meaning and creating a new life for oneself through actively being involved in your own process. During the first year, whenever possible, taking time for oneself for expressing emotions through journal writing and allowing emotions to be expressed, will go a long way in the overall health during this critical time. Art therapy, an excellent grief and loss counselor or support group, having coffee with a friend, taking in a movie, writing down one’s feelings, taking up yoga or meditation, starting an exercise class – these are all steps to heal loss. Anything positive and supportive, are steps in the active journey of healing, no matter how long it’s been. 


Year Two: An Unwelcome Surprise


For some, year two can bring unexpected and surprising feelings to the bereaved that spent the first year worrying about survival. The true nature of the loss and the realization of a new life without the loved one, finally reaches their psyche. This can be frightening to realize the questions that must be answered, "What am I going to do now?" and "What am I going to do with the rest of my life?" Some people will experience this sense of themselves in the first year if they were able to focus on the loss. But for others, their process may just be beginning. There is no way around grief – no matter how much we stuff feelings or mask pain with the busyness of life. Grief has a way of slipping back in, even under the best of circumstances.


Take care of yourself


The most important aspect of bereavement is taking care of oneself by being with supportive people who understand and will listen. Support groups, family, close friends and counseling, and taking an active role in the process, are all components necessary to grieve well, especially in the first and second year without your loved one.


Article Submitted by:

Tim and Alison Dinan, Owners

Cook Family Funeral Home, Cremation Service, and Hillcrest Cemetery

206-842-2642



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