How Do I Live Without My Loved One?
“How do I go on?” So many people have uttered these words after the death of a loved one. There is no easy answer, yet we must talk about this question and find a way forward. If we do not deal with grief, then grief will deal with us. The effect of unresolved grief can be devastating for the loved one who is left alive.
“Bob and I got married when I was 18. Doing life with him is all I can remember. How do I live without Bob?” That’s how Rita asked the question after their 55 years of marriage ended with Bob’s death. For the last few years, Rita had been even more than Bob’s wife—she had been his caregiver. She had organized her daily routine around Bob and his needs. How could her life go on?
We can remind Rita of passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14: “But I would not have you be uninformed, my friends, concerning those who are already dead. You should not be weighed down in grief, like those who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, God will bring back to life those who believe in Jesus.”
But Rita’s life has changed forever. In working with grief, we encounter lessons like: “Weep softly, but grieve long;” and hear warnings such as: “We live in a society that doesn’t educate us to deal with loss but rather teaches us how to acquire and hold on to things.” Death and grief are struggles for which millions of people—people just like you and me and our families—are poorly prepared. Death brings about one of the most dramatic changes of all for the survivors. Our grieving should not be ignored because this is a process that shapes the rest of our lives. Wise words alone are not enough. That’s why an intentional process of dealing with grief sometimes is called “grief work.”
The sorrow of grief and its duration are frequently related to the extent to which those who mourn focus on the work of grief. Grief work is often defined in stages or processes. Because people grieve in different ways, the manner in which people move through the grief journey is also different. It is important to keep in mind that these grief stages and processes are not sequential or linear. People tend to move through the grief process in a cyclical pattern. For some, the bereavement process falls into overlapping phases. A mourner may move from one phase to another and later experience an earlier phase again. Some will not experience one or more of the grief phases at all. The hope is, as mourners do their grief work, they discover they are moving forward to a positive resolution of their feelings of grief.
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross was a pioneer in trying to chart the phases of grief. She identified five grief stages:
However, that is not the only model for understanding grief. Dr. Colin Parkes is a psychiatrist honored by Queen Elizabeth II for his many contributions to grieving people and the professionals who care for them. Dr. J. William Worden is a professor of psychology who also is internationally known for his work on bereavement, including research at Harvard and other universities. Parkes and Worden have charted the course of grief in new ways—one describing the “process of grief” and the other writing about the “tasks of grief.” A friend of mine, Dr. Joy S. Berger who directs the Hospice Institute in Louisville, Kentucky, has brought Parkes’ and Worden’s multifaceted dynamics of grief together in the following table:
Processes (Parkes) and Tasks (Worden)
Process: Numbness, shock and denial
Task: To accept the reality of the loss
Process: Yearning, painful, longing, searching
Task: To work through to the pain of grief
Process: Disorganization and despair
Task: To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing
Task: To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life
These terms are a good summary of their conclusions, adapted here so that we can think about their ideas side by side. Parkes does not use the specific term “reorganization,” but he writes “it is only after the stage of disorganization that recovery occurs.” Considering their insights together like this, we see that Parkes and Worden are charting similar movements through grief. They are showing us that grief is a journey that takes time and work—but there is, indeed, a pathway through grief so that we eventually can go on with life even after a devastating loss.
Though the first are self-explanatory, the second, third and fourth tasks suggested by Worden need some clarification. In the second task, it is important for those who have lost a loved one to realize that grief work is painful and should not be avoided. A person should not try to suppress this pain or the grief process could be prolonged. In the third task, the survivors are usually not aware of all the roles that were played by the deceased. Adjusting to the environment means discovering and coping with all of these roles that are now missing—some of which need to be filled. In the fourth task, grieving people realize the loved one is gone and allow that departed person to move to a new location in their minds and memories. We are not “forgetting” them; we are making room for our lives to continue.
Naturally, the aim of the grief journey is resolution, acceptance, and affirmation of life in spite of the loss—but there are no shortcuts. Unfortunately, our culture is so goal-oriented and competitive that reaching the final stage of grief is a preoccupation. Many people rush the process or friends push them. I call this malady “McGrief Syndrome.” We rush through the grief process as we would a fast-food takeout window, desperately striving for some elusive Kübler-Ross final stage of “Acceptance.” We do not take into account the slow and unpredictable nature of this process in which we may loop through various phases yet may never experience all of them.
Sören Kierkegaard’s “weep softly, but grieve long” stands in distinct contrast to the idea of setting up goalposts in grieving. The 19th-century theologian argued that we should grieve for our beloved until we too shall die. Rather than putting the loss behind us, Kierkegaard would have us embrace it and permit our grief to strengthen our relationship with God. Kierkegaard’s approach has much merit but we need to encourage those who grieve to understand the difference between appropriately embracing the memory of the deceased and inappropriately becoming fixated on the deceased.
All of these approaches that I have summarized may have merit for you and your family. Grieving is neither as universal nor as clear-cut as a 5-step Kübler-Ross checklist.
I first heard the story of Rachel and Bert, which appears in Chapter 1, during a workshop that I was leading. Rachel wanted and needed to move on with her life. So, we talked about her children and her grandchildren. I encouraged her to refocus her attention on these living members of her family. Bert surely would have wanted that. But the question continues to echo within millions of families: How do I live without my loved one?
As men and women deliberately work through grief, they begin to realize that grief is a part of life. Grief is not the enemy. Grief is like breathing air and drinking water. If you live, you are going to grieve.
Dear God of Life:
How can I go on?
Living without my loved one is so painful.
My grief is sometimes unbearable.
I want to scream!
Am I going crazy?
O God of Life:
Rescue me from the land of death.
Pull away the shroud that drapes my life.
Send Your Son of Light to push away the darkness.
I lean my mournful soul on
Your everlasting arms of Hope.
You have set my loved one free for all eternity.
Set me free, too.
In Jesus’ name.