A new year is under way, a time when people are reflecting on their lives and setting goals aimed at moving closer to long-term aspirations. If you recently experienced the death of a loved one, you may feel grateful just to have survived the first holiday season without them. Focusing on goals and aspirations while your grief still feels so present may seem paradoxical. But doing so is an essential part of your grief work, according to M. Katherine Shear, MD, founder and director of The Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University.
While each grief process is unique, the loss of someone with whom you have shared a deep emotional and supportive relationship usually causes the most intense grief reaction. Someone who has held you up emotionally when you were in crisis, helped shape your sense of self, and/or encouraged you to reach for your dreams is physically removed from your life forever. So it makes sense that in the acute phase of grief, you may feel as though you have lost your sense of self or feel unsure of your life purpose.
Grief is an expression of love that continues after death. You shouldn’t expect your grief to ever end completely. However, it is possible for your grief to become more integrated; painful emotions occur less frequently and with less intensity, and no longer interfere significantly with work, other relationships, or your experience of positive emotions.
The path to integrated grief requires three interrelated processes:
- Accepting the reality of your loved one’s death
- Finding new meaning or purpose in your life
- Continuing the bond with your deceased
Humans are innately motivated to search for meaning in living. However, if you are overwhelmed by sadness as you struggle to accept the reality of a loved one’s death, it may seem impossible to think about trying to find new meaning in your living without them. But after the first few months following your loved one’s death, if you can spend a short period, on as many days as possible, focused on redefining your goals and reimagining your life purpose, it can offer glimpses of joy—a welcome respite from your sadness. It may help you with acceptance on a deeper level of your loved one’s death. Greater acceptance of the death may help you to reconnect with your deceased loved one in memory. Reconnecting with your loved one may alleviate some of the longing and sadness you feel so you are more free to focus on redefining your goals and reimagining your life purpose.
Maladaptive thinking, such as the belief one doesn’t deserve to experience the joy that comes with a renewed life purpose after the death of a loved one, can serve as an obstacle, keeping an individual locked in the acute phase of grief. People are sometimes unable to focus on new goals or life purpose because they fear accepting their loved one’s death and “moving on” means they will or must “forget about” their loved one.
It is important to have a balanced focus on all three processes. Knowing when and being able to shift your focus from working on acceptance of the death to focusing on future goals, or to reconnecting to your loved one, can be challenging. While many individuals can navigate the path to integrated grief with the support of other loved ones, some people can get stuck along the way. One reason for this is on a societal level, death, dying, and bereavement are still taboo topics. Thus, many individuals aren’t educated about the grief process, particularly about the importance of finding new meaning or purpose in living after the death of a loved one.
Maladaptive thinking, such as the belief one doesn’t deserve to experience the joy that comes with a renewed life purpose after the death of a loved one, can serve as an obstacle, keeping an individual locked in the acute phase of grief. People are sometimes unable to focus on new goals or life purpose because they fear accepting their loved one’s death and “moving on” means they will or must “forget about” their loved one. Thus, they may become fixated on people, situations, and places that remind them of the loved one when they were alive, or avoid circumstances that remind them of the loved one’s death. Both fixation and avoidance serve as obstacles to accepting the reality of the death.
Even though grief is a normal response to the death of a loved one, and finding new meaning is a natural human tendency, the path to integrated grief can be a complicated one. If more than a few months have passed since your loved one died, and you are feeling overwhelmed or recognize your grief is interfering with your day-to-day functioning, it may be beneficial to work with a mental professional who specializes in grief work. They can work with you to help you remove obstacles in your path so you can balance the range of emotions that come with the struggle to accept your loved one’s death, the joy that can emanate from finding new meaning in your living, and the peace that flows from reconnecting with your deceased loved one.
A new year is under way. Will you accept the invitation to allow it to be the beginning of a new life for yourself?
Shear, M. K. (2015). Complicated Grief Treatment: A Handout for Patients, Friends, and Family Members. Columbia Center for Complicated Grief, The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Retrieved from https://complicatedgrief.columbia.edu/tools-and-resources/
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