The death of a loved one is an experience no one can avoid. It is a common denominator among all human beings everywhere. Hearing of another person’s loss immediately touches a place inside us more deeply than anything else can. Most religious traditions emphasize that the individual who makes this transition has moved on to a new phase of life in spirit and that it is those of us who remain behind that feel the pain and loss. The overwhelming nature of that loss is accurately represented by the word “bereavement,” whose French root means “to have been robbed.”
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, MD, was a pioneer in understanding the experience of grief and loss. She identified five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) to help those trying to recover from loss. It is now known, however, that these are not actually stages which people progress through sequentially during recovery. They are, indeed, struggles faced by those who have lost loved ones, but they may occur in a differing order from one person to another and some people go through one or more of these struggles more than once. It has also been found that the recovery process from loss takes longer than the 6 months originally thought. Based on more recent research, the average period to recover from loss is 2 to 5 years.
A more helpful conceptualization of grief and loss has been developed by thanatologist Alan Wolfelt, PhD, who founded and directs a center in Colorado focused on bereavement, writes extensively for the public and professionals, and educates counseling professionals in working with people experiencing loss. He has also identified how to process (mourn) the content (feelings of grief) associated with the state of bereavement.
Grieving can be defined as “feeling one’s subjective responses” associated with losing a loved one. And although it is imperative to be in touch with those feelings, just feeling them over and over again will not lead to healing. It can, in fact, lead to retraumatization associated with the loss. One thing that can most aid a person to heal is to identify his or her personal style of grieving by listing all of one’s personal reactions and then putting them into the following five categories:
- Physical reactions – includes reactions such as muscle tension, change in appetite, decrease in self-care, fatigue, sleep disturbances, and an increase in blood pressure.
- Emotional reactions – includes reactions such as hopelessness, anger, sadness, and bitterness.
- Spiritual reactions – includes reactions such as being apathetic about the future, finding one’s beliefs being challenged, searching for meaning, and having to face issues of forgiveness.
- Behavioral reactions – includes reactions such as crying, withdrawing from friends and activities, and completing unfinished business.
- Cognitive reactions – includes reactions such as confusion, disorientation to time and space, inability to concentrate, ruminating about the loss event, and experiencing an increase in dreams.
After putting one’s grief reactions into the various categories, choose the two categories that contain the most reactions. These identify your primary grieving styles and can be used to develop personalized mourning rituals. A person’s grief reactions and feelings must be moved up and outside of oneself through rituals and activities associated with the process of mourning. Mourning rituals can consist of attending funerals and memorial services, participation in a grief group, talking to friends, creating memorials for the loved one who died, releasing feelings through art/music/writing, and other such activities. These rituals should also address the six tasks and needs of mourning identified by Wolfelt in his book Journey Through Grief. These tasks and needs, which may be achieved in varying order, include:
- Tolerating the pain that comes with the work of grief while taking good care of your self physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
- Experiencing and expressing outside your self the reality of the death.
- Converting your relationship with the person who died from one of presence to one of memory.
- Developing a new self-identity based on a life without the person in your life who died.
- Relating the experience of your loss to a context of meaning.
- Having an understanding support system available in the months and years ahead.
A local opportunity to begin constructing an understanding support system is the ongoing support group “From Grief to Grace” at Atlanta Unity Church. This group meets every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Meditation Room. Whether you have lost a relationship, a loved one, financial status, or any other type of loss, this group is appropriate for you.
Atlanta Unity Church is located at 3597 Parkway Lane in Norcross, Georgia 30092 (phone at 770-441-0585). The church campus is located outside I-185 (the Perimeter Highway) off Peachtree Ind. Blvd. From I-285 go North on Peachtree Ind. Blvd. (Exit 318/GA 141). Bear left on GA 141/Peachtree Parkway at the split. At the third light, go left on Jay Bird Alley (see Walgreen’s at that light on the left). Turn at the second right onto Parkway Lane at the Royal Peachtree Corners sign.
There is a long-term trauma recovery website that provides support and education for those who have experienced loss. “Survivors to Alivers” can be accessed by clicking here.
Available resources to provide greater guidance on developing personalized mourning rituals and activities (on Amazon) include: (1) Journey Through Grief by Alan Wolfelt, PhD ($24.28 in hardcover); (2) Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart by Alan Wolfelt, PhD ($10.17 in paperback); (3) Eight Critical Questions for Mourners: And the Answers that Will Help You Heal by Alan Wolfelt, PhD ($14.21 in paperback); (4) Healing Your Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas by Alan Wolfelt, PhD ($9.56 in paperback); (5) Healing Your Grieving Soul: 100 Spiritual Practices for Mourners by Alan Wolfelt, PhD ($10.16 in paperback); (6) Healing Your Grieving Body: 100 Physical Practices for Mourners by Alan Wolfelt, PhD ($10.16 in paperback); and (7) “On Death and Dying” by Marianne Williamson ($19.95 audiocassette set).
For residents of Columbus, Georgia, who seek a spiritual community that provides support during one’s experience of loss, the following five Unity churches are also within driving distance:
- Unity of Albany (GA) – approximately 75 miles from Columbus, GA. Address for services at 11 a.m. on Sundays is 178 Hugh Road, Leesburg, GA. Phone: (229) 435-1001.
- Unity of Montgomery (AL) Spiritual Center – approximately 77 miles from Columbus, GA. Address for services at 11 a.m. on Sundays is 1922 Walnut Street, Montgomery, AL 36106. Phone: (334) 263-1225.
- Unity in the Heart of Georgia (Byron, GA) – approximately 78 miles from Columbus, GA. Address for services at 11 a.m. on Sundays is 127 Peachtree Parkway #701, Byron, GA. Phone: (478) 737-7537.
- Unity South Atlanta Church (Jonesboro, GA) – approximately 84 miles from Columbus, GA. Address for services at 10 a.m. on Sundays is 7541 Mt. Zion Boulevard, Jonesboro, GA. Phone: (404) 578-3033.
- Unity of Dothan (AL) – approximately 90 miles from Columbus, GA. Address for services at 11 a.m. on Sundays is 942 South Oates, Dothan, AL 36301. Phone: (334) 794-2840.