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The 6 As of Healthy Bereavement

How to grieve

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The 6 As of Healthy Bereavement

Coping with the loss of a loved one can be one of the hardest things we ever do. The grieving process is complex, but there is a healthy way to grieve.

It is remarkable that something we plan for, anticipate even, can turn our life upside down when it happens. Although death and loss are universal, they can cause an uncertainty and an unravelling in our lives. When we lose someone dear, is there a way we can grieve well? Thankfully, there are things we can do to help ourselves through loss. We can, in healthy ways, create realms of relief. Bereavement means, simply, “left alone by death”. While the definition may be clear-cut, the reality of bereavement can be confounding. Loss is complex We have distinct relationships, each with a specific language and history. The one who died had their own unique encounter with death. Add age; community, if any; and words left unsaid—it’s no wonder that coping with the loss of a loved one is complex. My own bereavement has come with the loss of my parents. Their deaths have forced me to learn how to grieve. I have learned that each of us has to navigate our own path. We can honour our loved ones and grieve while regaining hope by using Nature’s six As. Ally Seek support—and do so as early as possible. A health care practitioner can recommend someone who can serve as a listener. Consider a social worker, therapist, or shaman—someone who can provide constancy, comfort, and insight. Whether loss is coming, just occurred, or happened years prior, cultivate an ongoing connection with a nonjudgmental professional to plumb the gravity of loss. Allow Permit time and room to grieve as feels right. There are no “oughts” in bereavement—other than to allow grief to unfold as it wishes. “What if grief is the natural order of things, a way of loving life anyway? Grief and the love of life are twins ...,” writes Stephen Jenkinson, author of How It All Could Be (self-published, 2009) and the subject of the National Film Board film, Griefwalker. Among his chief aims are to strip fear and anxiety from dying and to embrace grieving. Awaken Rather than plunging into excess or trying to outrun or hide, we can face absence soberly and live our grieving awake in the now. If we love, we feel the ache of loss. “The deliberate focusing of attention on the present moment is critically important,” notes yoga teacher J-P Tamblyn, speaking about his grieving. Tamblyn, who’s opening his second studio, Ahimsa Yoga Centre, in Toronto’s Annex this fall, has noticed how the recent passing of his father and his already deep and dedicated practice have enriched each other. “Being in the now allowed me to be with my sadness instead of being wrapped up in the story of what caused the sadness,” Tamblyn explains. “To be fully with that grief has helped me process my feelings and honour the impact his passing had on me. In that sadness I found even more love for my father. And gratitude for his life.” Awareness Everyone’s grieving is unique. Some need to be social right away, others need months of hibernation. Some need to talk about the loved one and their dying, others need quiet privacy. Some need a getaway days after a memorial service, others need to surround themselves with the familiarity of their loved one’s things. Some claim that the grieving process takes one year, others say two, and yet it could well be that grief is never over. Some delineate stages. In any case, every story of love—for child, parent, partner, family, or friend—is different. So too is every story of death. Be aware that there is no template or formula, and that one day may be different than the next. Attitude We need to adopt a kind attitude toward ourselves. Let go of expectations, both external and from within. Try not to force. For example, consider asking for a few extra days of bereavement leave or cut back on exercise without feeling guilty. In the same way that the dynamic has changed with the loss of a beloved, so too will our routine, as might our interests and passions. Bereavement is eased when we loosen our grip a little and let things be as they are. Active Grieving is neither easy nor effortless. Grieving takes conscious work—to balance the responsibilities of the self with those of the one who’s passed away, to take care even if there’s little energy left, and to hear what the body, heart, mind, and soul need—and to find creative, constructive outlets. Poet and educator Catherine Graham, author of the poetry collections Pupa (2003), The Red Element (2008), and the forthcoming Winterkill (2010, all published by Insomniac Press), lost both of her parents in early adulthood. An only child, she notes how this double loss “was the end of my family unit. By translating crisis into language—[into]—I was able to push through my suffering. And by being active in my grief, I learned how to regulate my emotional life. Loss served as catalyst and became grief’s gift.” There are other As too—such as the Anger which often arises around loss, as too the compassion felt when our grief is Acknowledged. Although my own bereavement hasn’t been smooth or simple, I’d like to think that my parents would be proud of my attempts.

Help when grieving You are not alone. There are many ways to help you through the grieving process, such as:
  • neighbourhood bereavement groups (religious, spiritual, and secular)
  • survivor/victim services offered by specific organizations (cancer, heart disease, suicide, et cetera)
  • support modalities (reiki, massage, homeopathy, to name a few)
  • self-directed activities (journalling, meditating, or using ritual)
5 stages of grief Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined these stages in her book On Death and Dying (Scribner, 1997). Grief is a unique process. All five stages may not be experienced or they may be experienced in any order.
  • denial
  • anger
  • bargaining
  • depression
  • acceptance
Healthy ways to cope Taking care of yourself physically will help you feel better emotionally.
  • exercise
  • get adequate sleep
  • eat nutritious food
  • avoid alcohol, a depressant, to numb grief
See our article, “Beat the seasonal blues” to learn how adequate sleep, exercise, acupuncture, and supplements such as vitamin D, 5-HTP, omega-3, and the B vitamins can help elevate your mood—naturally.
Grief support groups These national groups offer information and support for those grieving the loss of a loved one: GriefShare - griefshare.org Rainbows Canada (for grieving children and youth) - rainbows.ca The Compassionate Friends of Canada (for parents grieving the death of a child) - tcfcanada.net

Types of grief Forty percent of people will experience some form of anxiety disorder during the year following the loss of a loved one. Those who lose a family member or friend unexpectedly or violently are at greater risk of suffering major depression, prolonged grief, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Major depression Lasting longer than two weeks, major depression may include any of the following:

  • disturbed sleep patterns
  • lack of energy
  • poor concentration
  • change in appetite
  • weight loss or gain
  • feelings of unreasonable guilt
  • loss of interest in favourite activities
  • difficulty functioning at home, school, or work
  • suicidal or homicidal thoughts

Prolonged grief A depression that lasts longer than a year is classified as prolonged grief. It has the potential to:

  • affect all of a person’s close relationships
  • cause one to question one’s personal beliefs
  • result in an ongoing focus and longing for the deceased person

PTSD PTSD shares many of the symptoms of major depression, but also includes:

  • upsetting memories and/or flashbacks
  • nightmares
  • avoidance of places, people, or things that hold memories of the loved one
  • numbing of emotional response

Should you experience any of these symptoms or feel unable to cope, visit your health care or mental health practitioner, or one of the services suggested in our “Help when grieving” or “Grief support groups” sidebars.

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