Perhaps you struggled through years of caring for your sick loved one, especially if he or she suffered from dementia or another incurable illness. For a moment you may have even guiltily wished for your loved one's death. Or your loved one was killed quickly in an accident or another tragedy.
Now the day finally comes and he or she passes. You are amazed, stricken, numb, bereft, overcome with sadness and anxiety. These are perfectly normal reactions. Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross examined the five stages of dealing with death and dying in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. She included denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Based on my years treating patients who have dealt with the loss of a loved one and my personal experience with my husband's death, I know there are many more emotions that one can experience when dealing with late-stage illness and death.
I also believe that our emotions are often hard to identify and process in part because contemporary American society does not prepare us for our loved ones' deaths. Instead we have a false sense that all of us are here forever. A hundred or so years ago, we were more in sync with the cycles of nature. In an agrarian society, we witnessed crops growing, crops being harvested, and then the land lying fallow for periods of time. We saw chickens, cows, and horses going through their life cycles from infancy to death. Also many lived with a few generations in our households: babies, teens, middle-aged adults, and grandparents. Our elders and sick loved ones died at home, but now they are relegated to nursing homes and hospices, where we can't usually share their struggles. Those of us who have pets are still going through life cycles with them, which can be good preparation for our human loved ones' deaths.
Amidst the sea of emotion, there are ten practical tips that can help you deal with your loved one's death:
1) Try to feel your emotions. The entire gamut of emotions is possible. Try to get into them, whatever they are.
2) Engage in psychotherapy, either individual or group. During these sessions, you will be able to identify your emotions and release them. This is important, because unidentified and suppressed emotions can potentially lead to illness.
3) Reach out to others. You'll find others who have experienced a similar loss and many people have excellent advice for you. Contact either forgotten family members or old friends. Try to make new friends.
4) Practice your religion or embrace a new one. The old rituals are comforting. New concepts and prayers may help you deal with your loss.
5) Experiment with meditation and yoga. Meditation will quiet your mind, identify your emotions, and release them. If yoga is too difficult for you, try breathing exercises.
6) Get into old hobbies or try new ones. Maybe you always wanted to draw or paint. While mourning a loved one, art therapy, dance therapy, and knitting can be helpful.
7) Exercise. Moving your body in a controlled exercise program at least three times per week will strengthen you mentally, emotionally, and physically. The tendency for mourners is to stay at home and brood, but walking, running, bicycling, or swimming is a preferred plan.
8) Travel. Seeing new sights and different people will stimulate you and help you move on in many ways.
9) Make sure you eat well. You may be eating more or less due to guilt or some other suppressed feelings. Check to see that you're maintaining good nutrition.
10) Honor your deceased loved one in a unique way. For instance, plant a tree in his or her honor, write a song about him or her, or bake a cake. Planting a tree or writing a song are ways to represent your deceased loved one symbolically and offer dedications to his or her spirit.
Stay hopeful. You will get through late-term illness and death with these tips and with time.
For more by Carol W. Berman, M.D., click here.
For more on death and dying, click here.