There’s a whirlwind effect that happens with death. For a few days the lost loved one is at center stage. Yet when that initial process is over, survivors are left to confront the reality in their own way, and the process of getting closure is not always easy.
“It’s very individual dependent,” Cleveland Clinic Staff Psychiatrist Dr. Robert Rowney told Saludify. “Some people are more resilient and can handle it fairly well. They’re back to work and living their lives and taking care of their children within a few days, despite the fact that by no means does that mean their grief is suddenly resolved. Other people experience more difficulty and take months to get on track.”
The longer it takes for closure, the tougher the journey for the afflicted. While there is no one factor that contributes to the difficulty of letting go, University of Memphis Professor and Practicing Therapist Robert A. Neimeyer says the underlying theme is the construction of strong bonds with people, places and possessions.
“As human beings, we are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence,” Neimeyer, who is the author of Techniques of Grief Therapy, told Saludify. “We do not willingly relinquish the strong bonds. This can particularly be the case if we have a kind of difficult history of attachment that has led us to invest our caring in very few people. Of course, the anguish is all the greater. That can lead to a condition of complicated grief, which is a prolonged and intense form that has all kinds of bad medical and psychological outcomes.”
Neimeyer said that anywhere between 33 to 50 percent of those who have lost a loved one will need only a few weeks to get back to a state of normal. While they’ll mourn the loss, they won’t become incapacitated by the tragic event.
One the other end of the spectrum, he said roughly 10 percent of the public who lost a family member or friend will experience prolonged complications. One factor that creates added difficulty is how the person died. Naturally the death of a young child is traumatic. The same goes for victims of suicide and fatal accidents.
“This tends to go on a year or more following the loss where the person just can’t quite get back into life,” Neimeyer said. “There may be severe consequences in terms of one’s medical condition – a greater risk of heart failure, greater susceptibility to infections. It seems like our immune systems don’t function well under those conditions, much less our ability to work or to love.”
Added Rowney, “People when they begin to move on, especially if it’s a spouse, if they end up going forward or leaving the home or trying to go a day without thinking about the loss, they put a lot of pressure on themselves and feel a lot of guilt. This is very common and can make things a lot more difficult. Unfortunately, it’s part of the process and that’s probably the most important part of it.”
Often the problem of moving on stems from the fact the relationship with the deceased may have been strained or lacked, well, closure.
Neimeyer said that’s where a therapist’s involvement is important to help the survivor make peace by working on their relationship with the dead and maybe even resolving issues that still demand attention.
He said, “A good therapist can in some ways help us reopen the conversation with the dead in a symbolic way and begin to have a different kind of relationship in which forgiveness can be sought and also given for the shortfalls in the relationship during the time the person lived.”
Tips to work on getting closure after the loss of a loved one
Here are a few tips to get closure from the death of a family member or friend:
Accept the inevitable: In addition to paying taxes and dying ourselves, we all experience death at some point in our life. Neimeyer said, “All of us will lose typically many we love across the course of our lives.” Do not dwell on the events or the loss.
Open your eyes and heart: Oftentimes we’ll cope with a death through avoidance. “That is trying not to think about it and maybe limiting our lives in order not to come into contact with reminders of the loss,” Neimeyer said. “That can be a recipe for difficulty.” Denial will only prolong the pain and may cause you to act out in other ways to express your bottled feelings.
Stay balanced: “We shouldn’t be going to either extreme,” Neimeyer said. “That’s immersing ourselves in grief 24/7 or seeking ways to suppress and avoid grief 24/7. The wise course is the middle road, where we find ways of doing some of both in ways that feel safe and appropriate for us.” If you are heartbroken, be heartbroken. Embrace the pain and then let it go.
Don’t be tough: Everybody hurts and deserves permission to grieve in their own way. “Don’t scold or evaluate yourself when those emotions break through,” Neimeyer said. “Give yourself the opportunity to reengage people and projects and to derive satisfaction from that engagement without being weighted down with guilt about the ability to then experience joy.”
Be open: Acknowledge the loss and seek companionship and support from family and friends. “It’s okay to talk about the loss and be tearful and upset,” Rowney said.
Remember yourself: “It’s really important once you’re able to get back on track with life,” Rowney said. “You’ll still be sad, but you need to get back involved in daily activities that you’ve always been a part of and continue putting one foot in front of the other is important. It’s not an easy process by any means.”
Keep a clear mind: Don’t bottle up your emotions or seek solace in bad habits. “Don’t turn to alcohol or drugs,” Rowney said.