At one time or another, everyone experiences the death of a loved one and goes through a period of bereavement. This universal experience of profound loss describes the period in which someone grieves inwardly and mourns outwardly on their path to healing.

While grief feels like an unwelcome intruder in our life, it is a natural reaction to loss. Grief is multifaceted and affects our whole being: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Sometimes, grieving may make us feel ill and include overwhelming tiredness, restlessness, difficulty breathing, or other physical symptoms. At other times, we may feel numb and disoriented as we yearn for the person who has died. Mentally, it may feel like we are wandering aimlessly looking for answers that cannot be found. While death has caused the physical loss of the deceased, death has stolen the grieving person’s hopes and dreams for the future. Feeling anxious, having trouble sleeping, and dwelling on old arguments and regrets are also common. Most people also experience sudden outbursts of tears during periods of grief, oftentimes triggered by memories or reminders of the loved one. They may describe themselves as an “emotional wreck” because it is difficult to contain their feelings. A person’s faith can be greatly challenged as well. Clearly there are numerous symptoms and expressions that come with grief.

Mourning needs a voice that expresses our loss. The bereaved individual needs to know he or she is being heard. In other words, putting feelings into words is an important help in processing the loss. There are no right or wrong words, since the words the individual uses have special meaning to them personally. Some people also mourn by expressing themselves in poetry, writing music, journaling, or scrapbooking memories. These all give an outward voice to the pain felt within. Following religious rituals, such as having a wake and praying a rosary for the deceased, or adopting cultural practices, such as dressing in dark clothes for a set length of time, are additional ways people mourn publicly. Mourning draws people together and allows the bereaved to have a community of support, which is essential for healing and moving forward.

Processing Our Grief

John and Sandy O’Shaughnessy, founders of a Catholic bereavement ministry called Good Mourning Ministry, say it is essential to process grief. Death has changed everything, and life will never be the same again for the bereaved person. It is in processing the grief through prayerful reflection, practical learning, and personal fellowship that the individual will be able to build a bridge for a new and different life. No two individuals grieve in the same way or for the same length of time. After all, God uniquely formed each person in His image and likeness.

However, for decades, experts believed everyone grieves in five well-defined stages that were first described by the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. In her work with terminally ill patients, she observed them going through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In her book On Death and Dying (1969), she portrayed these stages as predictable and linear in progression. Individuals needed to complete one stage before moving to the next.

By 2000, grief counselors began to criticize Kubler-Ross’s stages. Counselors realized that not all individuals move through the stages in the same order, and having well-defined stages did not account for the uniqueness of each person who grieves a loss in life.

Four Active Tasks of Mourning

Criticism of the stages also reflected a change in the way grief counselors came to view the grieving process. Grief began to be understood as an active process rather than a passive one. This shift was in a large part due to the work of J. William Worden at the Harvard Medical School. In his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, Worden presents four active tasks that people complete as they grieve. These tasks include the following:

  1. Accepting the reality of the loss. Denial is often the first instinct an individual has in dealing with loss and grief. The individual must work through the denial and come to full acceptance of the loss.
  2. Processing the pain of grief. Trying to avoid the pain only prolongs the grief; whereas working through the emotions brings healing.
  3. Adjusting to the world without the loved one. The grieving individual must adjust to life without the physical presence of the deceased, which also involves taking on new roles.
  4. Maintaining an enduring connection, while embarking on a new life. The grieving individual maintains an emotional and spiritual bond with the deceased through memories and prayer, while moving toward new hope and experiences. 

Six Needs of Mourning

A broadening understanding of bereavement is also seen in the work of Alan Wolfelt, Founder of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. Wolfelt, whose stages are like Worden’s, describes Six Needs of Mourning:

  1. Acknowledging the reality of the death. It can take anywhere from several days to several months for the grieving individual to come to full acceptance of the death.
  2. Embracing the pain of loss. The grieving individual must confront the pain. The individual will not be able to move forward without first embracing their pain.
  3. Remembering the person who died. The grieving individual must hold on to memories of the deceased. Before moving into the future, the individual must embrace the past.
  4. Developing a new identity and roles. The death of a spouse, child, parent or other close family member changes our identities and roles. Feelings of being in a fog are normal as the grieving individual strives to find his or her new role compared to who he or she was in the past.
  5. Searching for meaning. When bad things happen, it is normal to question why. It is in these times the individual confronts his or her faith by pondering the existential questions of man’s purpose and the human condition.
  6. Ongoing support. A supportive network is a necessary part of the healing process. It is in sharing our stories of grief that we work through the healing process.

Grieving with Great Hope

The wisdom of the Church has always known what modern-day grief therapists now know.    Our Church has provided us with avenues to actively journey through grief.

  1. Pray and spend time in Adoration. The psalmist wrote, “My soul is depressed; life me up according to your word” (Psalm 119:28). Grieving individuals need to realize they are weak and cling to God as they work through their grief. The prophet Isaiah wrote, “He gives power to the faint, abundant strength to the weak…They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength, they will soar on eagles’ wings; They will run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint” (Isaiah 40:29-31).
  2. Remember and honor the loved one. Rituals are a great way to have a connection with the deceased as we honor and remember them. Some examples of rituals include having Mass offered in memory of the loved one, visiting their gravesite on anniversaries or birthdays, or planting a tree as a symbol of new life.
  3. Accept and acknowledge what happened. For change, there must be acknowledgement of the situation. The grieving individual cannot move on without first acknowledging the loss.
  4. Accept the pain. Suffering is part of the grieving process. Avoiding or resisting the pain will only prolong the grieving process. Emotions are not good or bad, but they must be dealt with. It is impossible to escape the pain associated with mourning. After all Jesus wept for His friend Lazarus (see John 11:35). Jesus gave us permission to weep. We all experience pain in this life. The pain of grief is a gift to us because it is evidence of the presence of love. After all, man was created to love and be loved.
  5. Reinvest your emotional energy. Some individuals feel they are being unfaithful or disloyal to the deceased if they move on. Healthy grieving is about not forgetting the person who died. Contributing to a project that was near and dear to the deceased keeps the memory alive.
  6. Seek ongoing support. There is no immediate and easy way through grief. However, Jesus promised us that He would always be with us (John 14:18). As Catholics, we are blessed to have Jesus, the Great Healer, comes to us in the Sacraments. At Mass, we receive the body and blood of Christ, the source and summit of our faith. The Sacrament of healing, Reconciliation, provides pardon and mercy. Through prayerful support from our faith community and by turning to Jesus in the Sacraments, we can grieve with great hope.