Coping with the Death of a Loved One
Coping with the death of a loved one is most often one of the very hardest of the major life transitions we will face.
Many other things will try us, but the loss of a loved one can fundamentally impact our sense of who we are, and our sense of belonging in the world.
The Uniqueness of Your Grief
The ways in which you might be coping with the death of a loved one are probably quite unique, and probably are distinctly different from the grief experience of someone else. It depends crucially on your make-up, your life experience and the character of your relationship with the person you lose. Losing someone you love could mean a spouse, a parent — or a child. The impact on the individual plunged into grief will be enormous, but will be unique to you, and likely very unique to the particular character of the relationship you have had with the person whom you have lost.
The Physical Experience of Grief
As Dr. Therese Rando shows us, grief has a physical dimension, manifesting in deep ways in the body.
These include weeping and sighing, headaches, which can be severe, loss of appetite, sleep disturbance, physical weakness, sensations of heaviness, aches, pains, and other stress-related ailments.
Emotional Experiences of Grief
Coping with the death of a loved one is a formidable emotional experience. There are usually intense feelings of sadness and yearning. Less common, but still within normal expectation are feelings of worry, anxiety, frustration, anger, and, not infrequently, guilt.
Detachment and Isolation
When experiencing grief, a person can often feel detached from others, and can want to isolate her- or himself from social contact. Other forms of behaviour that just seem to be abnormal for you may also appear.
Grief and Meaning
A few days ago, I attended a screening of the film Jackie, centered on the experience and memories of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In my opinion, this is a film of extraordinary emotional power, which deals with the experience of grief in a gripping and profoundly human way.
WARNING: THIS VIDEO MAY CONTAIN DISTURBING ELEMENTS, ESPECIALLY FOR TRAUMA SURVIVORS
Jackie shows many deep truths about grief. Above all, it shows how, like almost no other experience, grief opens up profound questions of meaning at the heart of our existence. Wrestling with these questions can be a very central aspect of the experience of grief.
It’s an entirely normal and understandable that, in the face of the loss of a loved one, the individual questions: why he or she has sustained this loss; what possible purpose such pain and suffering could serve; and, in conjunction with this, questions about the purpose of life, and the meaning we are to assign to death.
As Jackie also eloquently shows, it also contains a very crucial question, one that matters to us perhaps more than any: What is the meaning of the beloved’s life? We are confronted with this question both consciously and unconsciously, and it is often reflected in dreams experienced during the time of loss.
Grief and the Unconscious (Dreams)
Dreams do occur in grief; dreams of great power and vividness. Some are related to the trauma of loss, while others seem much more connected to the psyche’s attempts to make meaning out of what has happened.
As Jung’s associate Marie-Louise von Franz noted in her book On Dreams and Death,
[Whenever humans are confronted with] something mysterious, unknown… [the] unconscious produces symbolic, mythical, that is, archetypal, models…. In principle, individuation dreams do not differ in their archetypal symbolism from death dreams.
So, it seems that ultimately, the human psyche symbolically portrays the death of the individual as another stage in the psychic growth of the individual. The meaning that each of us assigns to this will probably depend on our individual beliefs about ultimate things and human destiny.
Creative, highly supportive /a-midlife-transition can assist in the difficult process of coping with the death of a loved one, and of making that process part of individuation, which is our becoming who we most fundamentally are.
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst