Loss of a loved one affects us deeply
People we love greatly impact our lives because we include them in so much of what we do, and what we think and feel. We develop expectations of ourselves as well as our loved ones and the world that are shaped by our relationships. Their death creates a painful discrepancy between these expectations and what actually happens. We must find ways to adapt to this change.
Acute grief emerges naturally after a loss
Dealing with life after a loved one dies is a little like immigrating to a new country. In the beginning everything is hard. All kinds of daily life exchanges seem strange and unfamiliar. It’s common to feel lost and alone, like you don’t belong. It’s important to know that even though your mind may feel muddled, you have tools and instinctive motivation to adapt to this new place even if it feels impossible to do so.
A period of intense acute grief emerges naturally after someone we love dies. Deep longing and sadness infuse our lives. We want more than anything to change reality and are helpless to do so. Grief typically has many facets. Sometimes it can seem to recede only to suddenly reappear in what feels like a surprise attack. Its intensity and unpredictability can make people wary and worried. They wonder whether what they are experiencing is normal and how long it will last. A common answer is that each person grieves in her or his own way. While this is true, there are also commonalities and these can be helpful to know. There is little in our modern culture to guide the mourning process and people don’t know what to expect. An orienting framework is helpful.
Acute grief might feel or look like a mental disorder but it is not. Rather grief is a form of love and it evolves over time. Acute grief typically matures or progresses as we adapt to life without our loved one. We instinctively find a way to live that has possibilities for satisfaction. Some people call this a new normal.
Everyone adapts differently but there are some commonalities
Adapting to a loved ones death requires adjusting to a reality that is different from the one in which our deceased loved one was present. We need to accept the reality of the loss, reconfigure our relationships with the person who died and learn to find joy and satisfaction in a life without that person. These are abstract generalizations and the concrete reality of how we achieve these adjustments is what adaptation really entails. You can use the generalities as an orienting framework as you move forward or watch someone else move forward after an important loss.
When grief is integrated we can open our hearts to others
Adjusting to the absence of a loved one changes grief. Its intensity diminishes as we adapt; eventually we stop expecting our loved ones to reappear. They stop dominating our thoughts and instead rest more comfortably in our hearts. If you understand that grief is the response to loss, you won’t expect to stop grieving completely after losing someone very close, but you can find a new normal that includes possibilities for happiness with new ways of experiencing satisfaction and even joy. We call this long-term response integrated grief.
When grief is integrated you are again open to others. You do not forget the person who died or love them less, but your relationship with them is different and your love takes a different form. Your grief may wax and wane in intensity in response to family holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones or when stressful events or other losses occur. However when grief is integrated, surges in grief intensity are shorter and much more manageable.