On Healing 4/21/2003: Death of a loved one is never easy to get through

I am 17 years old and lately my biggest problem is dealing with death. Family members and friends’ family members are passing away frequently lately. It makes me think about death, and what it is, and the whole thought bothers me. Could you maybe write an article on how to deal with this rough topic?

The death of a loved one is the greatest pain we can experience in life.

This pain can affect our emotions, our bodies and our minds. In the early days following a death, the pain is with us constantly. In the days that follow, every now and then we might notice that we have experienced some brief period of time when we were not thinking of our loved one. And in that moment, the pain returns.

On an emotional level, grief causes sorrow, anguish or anger. Often, grief makes us feel very alone. A friend who recently experienced a death said: “I can’t believe the whole world is still going about their business as though nothing happened while my world just stopped.”

Physically, we can experience grief through exhaustion, sleeplessness or lack of appetite. The loss of someone we love turns our lives upside down. It is important to understand that the pain and confusion you might feel are not problems to be solved; they are a normal reaction to death.

I contacted Corinne Mazur, a psychologist who specializes in childhood bereavement. She said that when it comes to dealing with death, our nation’s young people are both overexposed and underprepared. She explained that between the news and video games, today’s children are almost constantly assaulted by images of death.

Mazur was most concerned that the media portray death in a way that is depersonalized: “This makes it hard for people to have personal reactions to death because they become numb to their feelings. If this did not happen, and people felt the pain of each death they witnessed, they would quickly become overwhelmed. This process of desensitizing death makes death appear less painful then it actually is. So the media do not give us any help dealing with the very real pain that occurs when a loved one dies.”

Remember, though death may end a life, it does not end a relationship. It may take months, even years, to say goodbye to that person, that part of your life, and that part of yourself. And the goodbye is never permanent. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one will tell you that both the pain and love revisit. You may feel these emotions on the holidays, or if you see someone who reminds you of a loved one; sometimes a piece of music or a book will stir the feelings. But as long as you live, parts of that person will live in your heart.

The amazing thing about us is how we recover. I have watched hundreds of people recover from the loss of a loved one. Although they all react differently – some feel anguish, some feel anger or guilt, and some just feel grief – but they all heal the same way.

Somehow the emotions get smaller, and one day they notice they did not think about their loved one constantly. Eventually the searing pain diminishes and we are left with an ache – a longing that often lasts a lifetime.

For some people, grief turns into depression. It could be because of a complicated relationship with the person who died, or it could be because there was a depression beneath the surface. For these people, dealing with the pain is usually helped by psychotherapy and/or medication.

Many people find comfort in spirituality and believe in an afterlife. They feel reassured that their loved ones have found peace. Our task is not to make that pain go away, but to find a way to live in a world that is no longer inhabited by the person who has recently died.

I have lived through many deaths – both personally and professionally. And what I have learned over time is that I don’t deal with death, it deals with me. Inevitably when someone I love dies, I feel searing pain and very alone. I feel an indescribable longing as though a piece of me is gone. And then, over time, the searing pain turns into sadness and the sadness turns into an ache that I carry inside. Sometimes the ache feels bad and sometimes it feels good.

The other night, I had dinner by myself and after dinner I found some cookies in the kitchen. I sat at the counter and ate far more cookies than I should have. While I was doing so, I reflected back to the image of my late father doing the very same thing. When I realized this, first I looked skyward and smiled. Then I cried. And then I moved on.

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