Dealing with Death

Death is always a difficult topic to discuss - whether we are mourning someone in our own lives, or trying to comfort others who have lost someone.

Even if death is 'expected' - as in, someone is ill and we expect them to pass shortly - it is always 'unexpected'. We do not know exactly when someone will pass away, and it always feels 'too soon'.

As a doctor, I have faced death on multiple occasions - both in my personal life and in my professional life. Episode 3 of my podcast discusses this is more detail. 

I am by no means a grief counsellor...but as a human being and professional who has had to comfort others - and myself - in situations of loss, here are some pearls I have gleamed. 

1) When death occurs, acknowledge that is has happened. It is natural to go through some stages of grief, including denial, bargaining, acceptance, etc. Ross and Kessler describe these in more detail. Essentially, it is okay if you cannot yet 'handle' the fact that someone has died. You may even deny it, feeling like you are living in a dream. And that's okay. Allow yourself to feel all these feelings. Inside, you know that the person had died...but it feels surreal. Breathe. Once you pass this stage, you will begin to heal.

2) Don't try to 'throw it under the rug'. We often do this with difficult feelings. When we try to comfort someone in pain - or even ourselves - we often 'shrug our pain off'. Typical statements include things like 'don't worry, it will get better!' or 'I'm okay, really I am. I'm not even bothered'. Similarly, turning things automatically into positive statements are not helpful. 'He is in a better place' can be a helpful statement of comfort, but only if used appropriately and at the right time.

For example, if you have lost a loved one, you may in fact admit that they are in a better place of rest now. Their pain and suffering may be over now that they have passed. Regardless, you are still sad - and you have every right to be so. Rather than get angry with yourself for being sad, or trying to focus on the fact that your loved one is no longer suffering, try to soothe yourself and accept the situation at the same time.

A more helpful statement may be 'while I know that my loved one is resting now and their suffering is over, it is really hard for me to accept that they have passed away. I will miss them a lot. And I know that it will take time to accept this pain and heal'.

Notice how this statement includes both acceptance of the situation and acceptance of one's emotions of grief and pain. When we allow space for all emotions, we are able to be more gentle with ourselves and with others.

3) Know the boundaries between normal grief and complicated grief. Like any emotion, there are extremes. While it is normal and healthy to feel sad and hurt that someone has died (more information here), there are situations when grief can be 'taken too far'. For example, harming oneself or thinking about hurting yourself because a loved one has passed is not safe, nor will it help ease your pain. After coping with the death, saying your goodbyes, and setting the person to rest. know that it is normal and healthy to still miss them. At the same time, you must learn to accept these feelings while also living your best life. This can be hard, especially if the loved one was very close to you.

Helpful things to cope with this can include pondering how your loved one would want you to live now. Would they be happy that you spend the rest of your days hiding, crying, and not functioning? Instead, what would they have been proud of you for doing? What would make them happy to see you do? How can you give back to the world, or celebrate their life? 

And remember - it is always okay and perfectly acceptable (and recommended!) to reach out to others for help. This can be a doctor, friend, family member, spiritual care, don't have to grieve alone. You don't have to hide your pain or emotions. It isn't always easy to open up about our struggles with death, especially since we sometimes worry that everyone will be 'over it' while we are still hurt. 

But, you are you - a unique being with emotions. Find someone who you trust, who cares, and who can listen. Take refugee in the Bible and prayer - the Bible if full of comforting verses about how our dear Lord comforts us and heals our wounds (read this for 44 verses about grief)

You will heal from this. The memories of your loved one will always stay with you...and you can turn those memories into motivation to carry out a rich and meaningful life.

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