by James Saxman
Tasks for Mourners
J. William Worden, Harvard professor, identifies four tasks for mourners in his book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy. Gently helping a mourner to recognize these tasks is beneficial to the mourner’s good health in the days that follow loss.
1. Accept the reality of the loss. It sounds ridiculously obvious, but facing the stark fact that the loved one has died is necessary for the mourner to move on from denial. To experience irreversibility is a shock. Children know that Daddy and Mommy fix everything. When our childish imaginations are confronted with reality, we must change what we are accustomed to. Like it or not, we must begin the awful task of accepting the finality of death.
2. Accept and experience grief. While it is abnormal to seek pain, it is also abnormal to deny pain. Grievers often attempt to avoid people and places that remind them of the loved one. It is ironic that attempting to remove ourselves, to flee, from familiar surroundings usually makes disorientation, or an altered mental state, more profound.
3. Begin to adjust. Sights, sounds, and habits are part of the way individuals express themselves in everyday life. Much of the grieving process involves adjusting to a new environment, as well as identifying how the deceased played important roles in life, realizing that those areas will require change.
4. Reinvest in other relationships. Studies show that mourners who isolate themselves often become disoriented—confused or unable to think with their normal level of clarity. Counselors have known for a long time that adults who are untouched do not thrive, especially those who are oriented to physical expressions of affection. Any grandma can tell about the value of hugging. Reinvesting emotional energies in other relationships, though threatening, is one of the necessary tasks of grief work (the resolution of a significant loss).
A griever who persists in what psychologists call unhealthy or abnormal grief should seek professional help immediately. Those who care about the grieving person should be aware of these five danger signs.
1. Persistent thoughts of self-destruction. Fleeting ideas of self-destruction are common, but habitually focusing on this is a definite sign to seek help.
2. Failure to provide for basic survival needs. Though all mourners fail at times to meet some of their basic needs, an ongoing inability to provide these basics may signal a need for help.
3. Long-term depression. Chronic dysfunction or not expressing any grief after a loss can be a warning sign that help is needed.
4. Substance abuse. Longtime substance use as an attempt to suppress distressing symptoms does not address the underlying cause of the symptoms of grief.
5. Mental illness. Mourning can mask mental illness. This is not the same as healthy bereavement.
Flip the coin over. Here are five factors that help to identify mourners who are likely to adapt in a healthy manner.
1. A nurturing, supportive social network. This is the most important factor, especially for short-term health. Family, church, participation in mutual help groups, online networks, and regular social activities seem to be crucial if mourners are to maintain vitality. Keeping a viable social network is a key for mourners to maintain a way of expressing themselves in everyday life.
2. Adequate nutritional balance. Though people differ in age, size, and activity level, everyone needs a variety of foods from each of the food groups to ensure healthful intake of nutrients.
3. Adequate fluid intake. Since beverages with alcohol or caffeine cause dehydration, mourners should make sure they drink healthier fluids, even if they don’t think they need them.
4. Daily exercise. For the person with sedentary habits, reasonable daily exercise is doubly important. Regular exercise is also the most effective means of controlling depression.
5. Daily rest patterns. Rest should come at the same time in each 24-hour cycle. Mourners make the mistake of working into the night because they are restless, which causes them to sleep later and later into the day, changing their rest cycle radically. Their internal clocks then become unsynchronized. In short, mourners should try to maintain the same rest patterns.
On Death and Dying
In 1969 Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published the findings of her oncological studies in a book that would be hailed as one of the most profound works in this area of psychology and medicine. On Death and Dying came to be known as the Bible for grief management. For that reason alone, anyone who desires to minister and be helpful to mourners should read the book. Her categorization of the “five stages of grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) was nearly canonized as the textbook for managing dying patients, as well as for monitoring post-death grief. Her observations have served as legitimate landmarks whereby counselors identify the normal processes of bereavement.
With the advent of groups such as those that provide hospice care, the bar of awareness regarding death, dying, and bereavement has been substantially raised. In addition, numerous other organizations have made literature and information available to those who minister in this critical area. In conjunction with Jesus’ admonitions to believers to extend benevolence to those who hurt, we Christians should avail ourselves of all the information available that we might genuinely extend Christ’s love and compassion to those who are in the throes of loss.
And in the End
In the end, we console ourselves and others with the revolutionary message of God’s Word regarding mourning, that the ransomed of the Lord (God’s people) will return to Zion, and they will obtain gladness and joy, while death, sorrow, mourning, crying, and pain will ultimately flee away (Isa. 35:10; Rev. 21:4). Hallelujah!
James Saxman is pastor of Southside Baptist Church in Tacoma, Wash., and author of Memorializing the Dead/Preaching to the Living: A Resource Manual for Christian Clergy. Portions of this article were extracted from The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (James Orr, gen. ed.; Eerdmans); Understanding Mourning: A Guide for Those Who Grieve (Glen W. Davidson, Augsburg Press); and Grief Counseling and Therapy (J. William Worden, Springer Publishing).