Q: I have a close relative who is very ill, and who is expected to die soon. I have never experienced a death this close to me, and I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know what will be normal for me to feel, and I’m afraid of how I’ll react. Can you shed any light on this problem for me?
A: It is quite understandable that, having never experienced a death of a person close to you, you’re afraid of how you may react. And it is very important that you understand the nature of normal grief, and that you allow your normal grieving to occur.
There are hardly any absolutes in psychology. In fact, I know of only one: When you lose a person close to you, you have to grieve. Here are some of the typical symptoms of a normal grief reaction:
- The pain of loss feels like a physical sensation, which builds up like a wave and then subsides. It may be important to let go and cry so as to help the wave of grief feelings to subside. As time passes, the waves of discomfort occur less often and become less intense.
- You may have a pronounced need to sigh often.
- You may have a feeling of tightness in your throat.
- You may have a temporary loss of appetite. Food may seem unappetizing.
- You may find yourself going over and over your memory of your most recent contacts with the deceased. You may find yourself asking yourself whether you treated them with enough kindness or understanding.
- You may feel that you have lost your normal strength and energy.
These experiences are all normal, and are to be expected. Their intensity and duration will of course depend on how close the deceased was to you. And they all tend to diminish and go away. Their intensity may drop off markedly within two weeks or so, and will continue to gradually diminish thereafter.
It will help you immensely if you can think of this grief process as an important, natural, cleansing experience. Just let it happen. Experiencing these emotions rather than suppressing them may be thought of as a better way to commemorate the life of the deceased.
On the other hand, you may be capable of suppressing your grief – of holding back the tears and putting up a “brave facade.” But, that will not serve you well in the long run. Delayed grief reactions are the inevitable result of suppressing normal grief, and they are far more disruptive.
Strength comes more from flexibility than from rigidity. Let your grief feelings happen. If you have trouble doing so, seek help. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of being a willing problem-solver. I am sorry about the loss which you are anticipating, and I hope that these remarks will be helpful to you.
Michael R. Slavit, Ph.D., ABPP, is Board Certified in Cognitive Behavioral Psychology. This column is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified professional.