Death and Grief

When you or someone you care about is dying or dies, there is a grieving process. Recovery from a loved one's death is a slow and emotionally painful one. The grieving process can be less painful if you try to understand that loss and grief are natural parts of life. Accepting your loss, trusting that the pain will fade in time, and reaching out for help if you need it are essential skills in healing your grief.

The grieving process often consists of the following stages, whether a person is grieving the loss of a loved one, their own life, a relationship, a goal, or a cherished piece of their identity. Note that not everyone goes through all these stages, these stages may come in any order, and you may find yourself returning to a previous stage.

Denial and Shock
At first, it may be difficult for you to accept death of someone about whom you care. As a result, it’s natural to struggle with accepting the new reality, to want to deny that the death has occurred. However, this denial will gradually diminish as you express and share your feelings about death and dying with other family members or friends. The more you talk to other people about your loss, the more real it will feel, and you can begin healing.  Some find it helpful to talk about the details of the day they lost their loved one, especially their feelings and reactions.

During this stage the most common question asked is "why me?" You may feel angry at what you perceive to be the unfairness of death and you may project and displace your anger unto others. Again, the key is to reach out to others to express your sadness and anger, and to get support from people who trust.

In the process of seeking to deny the new reality after death, many grieving people try to bargain with some sort of deity, offering to give up an enjoyable part of their lives in exchange for the return of the lost person.  It may help you cope to instead channel your energy into activities that help you accept the loss and feel close to the person you’re missing (e.g. cook a special meal you shared, watch a mutually favorite movie, or tell stories with other loved ones about the person you’re missing).

You may find yourself feeling guilty for things you did or didn't do prior to the loss. Forgive yourself. Accept your humanness and the uncertainty of life.  Some find it useful to write letters to the person they lost, to express their grief and say what they would like their loved one to hear.

You may at first experience a sense of great loss. Mood fluctuations and feelings of isolation and withdrawal may follow. It takes time for you, the grieving, to gradually return to your old self and become socially involved in what's going on around you.  Others may attempt to encourage and reassure you in ways that you find invalidating and painful; but resist the urge to isolate yourself further.  Sometimes people who want to help need explicit instructions on how to help the grieving: “Please don’t tell me she is in a better place, but can you instead share with me a memory you have of her?”

As you go through changes in your social life because of the loss, you may feel lonely and afraid. The more you are able to reach out to others and make new friends, the more this feeling lessens.

Acceptance does not mean happiness.  Acceptance does not mean approving of the loss you have suffered. Instead it means you accept and deal with the reality of the situation and turn towards coping.

Eventually you will reach a point where remembering will be less painful and you can begin to look ahead to the future and more good times.  Trust that that time will come.  It may help to talk to others who have suffered similar losses to hear about how they regained hope, though bear in mind your journey may be different from theirs.

Ways to Cope with Death and Dying

  • Discuss feelings such as loneliness, anger, and sadness openly and honestly with other students, instructors and family members.
  • Maintain hope.
  • If your religious convictions are important to you, talk to a member of the clergy about your beliefs and feelings.
  • Join a support group.
  • Take good care of yourself. Eat well-balanced meals. Get plenty of rest.
  • Be patient with yourself. It takes time to heal. Some days will be better than others.
  • UMSL Counseling Services can offer therapy and support to help you make sense of your feelings and heal. 

Ways to Help a Bereaved Person

  • Be supportive but do not attempt to give encouragement and reassurance when a person is in the depressed stage of grieving. It will not be helpful.  If you find yourself starting any sentence with "At least...", stop talking.
  • Talk openly and honestly about the situation unless the person does not want to.
  • Use an appropriate, caring conversational tone of voice.
  • Show that you care. Listen attentively and show interest in what the grieving person has to say about their feelings and beliefs. Share your feelings and talk briefly about any similar experience you may have had. Avoid using the phrase "I know just how you feel."
  • If symptoms of depression are very severe or persistent and the grieving person is not coping with day to day activities, encourage that person to get professional help.  You may offer to walk with them to UMSL Counseling Services and wait while they speak to a counselor.