Grief and Bereavement
Life and Death in Context
There is an appointed time for everything, and there is a time for every event.
Whatever our beliefs may or may not be as to a specific "appointed time," each of us knows the inherent truth of the well-known Bible verse. One day, death comes to us and to everyone we love.
Mere knowledge of this inevitability does not lessen our suffering. Poet Maya Angelou wrote, "I answer the heroic question, 'Death, where is thy sting?' with 'It is here in my heart and mind and memories'" -- a reflection that death takes from us the physical presence of people who are precious, with effects that often bring piercing pain and indescribable depression.
Although the walk through the valley of the shadow of death is the toughest part of life for the human spirit to endure, most of us move beyond the shadows and once again enjoy the sunlight. Let us gather insight into some of the feelings and experiences you may have in your walk through this valley of shadows, and let us offer hope that sorrow will not be your constant companion for the rest of your years.
On Words and Their Meaning
Loss causes pain. Losses may be both actual and symbolic.
- Actual loss is the death of a person we love and the deprivation of intimacy that flowed from our relationship with him or her. We lose companionship, laughter, sharing, and hugs.
- Symbolic loss includes life events that are not yet and never will be: high school graduations, weddings, and births.
Pain may be experienced from both actual and symbolic loss; the latter may cause pain several years after a loved one has died.
- Grief is our personal experience of loss. Grief is multifaceted and can literally affect all areas of our life: spiritual, psychological, behavioral, social, and physical. In grieving, we come to terms with what has changed our life and how our life has changed. Grieving is tough, and we must work to get through it. Doing that work is painful, but absolutely essential, because grief has correctly been described as the anguish that permits hope.
- All grief is not alike. When we lose someone we dearly love, and with whom we have shared a good life, deep pain results. Although it hurts tremendously, this type of pain is actually the best type to experience when someone dies, because it reflects the immense role that person played in our life and the huge hole left by his or her absence. Of this, author C.S. Lewis, who lost his wife to breast cancer, said, "Always remember, the pain now is part of the joy then."
- We may feel another type of pain upon the death of a loved one -- the pain of opportunity now lost forever. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, "The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone."
- Sometimes pain is not the predominant emotion in grief. When someone we love dies after a long and painful illness, we may primarily be thankful that his or her suffering has ended, although we are in pain.
- Finally, while death always entails loss, that loss does not always result in pain. Of death coming at the "right time," Julie Burchell observes that "tears are sometimes an inappropriate response to death. When a life has been lived completely honestly, completely successfully, or just completely, the correct response to death's perfect punctuation mark is a smile."
- Mourning is a public expression of our grief. It is the societal process by which we adapt to loss. Examples of mourning include funeral and memorial services, flying flags at half-staff, temporarily closing a place of business in honor of the person who has died, and many other rituals that help us feel that we are doing something to recognize our loss.
- Bereavement is the period after a loss during which mourning occurs (usually a relatively brief time) and grief is experienced (often for a much longer time).
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/11/2016
Lynn Barkley Burnett, EdD, MS, LLB