Healing Process: What Do I Do When Someone Dies?

When someone close to you dies, your world can feel suddenly different and unknown: think of grief as your adjustment to life after loss. While certain feelings can be expected, everyone’s journey will be unique. Some people find solace in speaking to friends, while others don’t want to talk to anyone. Some turn to group therapy, while others prefer one-on-one sessions with a counselor.

The emotions you experience are normal, even if they aren't what you expected. Allow yourself to feel each as it arises and understand that it will take some time to adjust to your new circumstances. If you find this process difficult to navigate alone, don't hesitate to contact your doctor or a grief counselor to help guide you on your personal path toward healing. We have prepared this section to guide you on your own journey, in the hopes that it will help you determine what works and feels best for you.

1. What is Grief?

Many of us have heard of the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. This model was conceptualized by grief pioneer Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her landmark study, On Death and Dying. Though influential, today the five stages model is thought to be fairly limiting—most experts agree that the reality of the grief experience is much more fluid and varies greatly from person to person. At first, you may feel as if in a fog of denial, with a sense of unreality permeating everyday tasks. You may find simple rote tasks nearly impossible to do. On another day you may feel depressed and the next angry toward friends, family, or the world. For some, the experience will be intense, with a quick succession of high and low emotions. The experience of an emotional state can last for just a few hours, or it can last for weeks or years.

What’s important to remember is that whatever emotion you are feeling is a part of your unique grieving process. There is no right or wrong way to feel.

Your unique experience of grief may be based on factors like your relationship to the person who has died, the circumstances of his or her death, and your own personality. For example, it is not uncommon to experience a long denial phase after the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one. Author Joan Didion coined the term “the year of magical thinking” to describe the year following her husband’s sudden death from a heart attack. She writes about a state of shock and denial, in which one goes through the motions of dealing with the death but still harbors a belief that life will go back to the way it was before he died.

Acceptance is not necessarily a permanent state, nor does it mark a return to happiness or your pre-loss state of mind. The death of your loved one has changed the circumstances of your world, and acceptance marks your understanding of this, as well as your willingness to move forward in life without them. Think of the loss as a tear in the fabric of your life: the pain will ease over time, but in some ways the loss may always be with you.

Throughout your grieving process, you will likely experience a range of mental, physical, and emotional symptoms, from dizziness to loss of appetite to inability to concentrate. Understand that, while sometimes frightening, such symptoms are completely normal. However, we encourage you to consult a physician if you are consistently having difficulty completing everyday tasks.

For more information, read our article on the Stages of Grief.

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2. Ways to Heal

There is a range of options for dealing with your grief in a healthy and conscious way. You may find that some will work for you, and some will not. Some of the activities mentioned below may be difficult or impossible, depending on your mental and emotional state, but the range of options available means you can choose and try as you see fit. Keep in mind that none of these suggestions is a surefire solution, as not everything works for everyone. Let go of your expectations, take your time, and find out what works for you.

Recognize Grief
First understand that there is no “correct” way to grieve. Grieving is not something you should be expected to simply “get over.” Rather, it is a process of learning how to live in a world without your loved one. It is quite normal to experience a variety of high and low emotions over a long period of time.

Take Care of Yourself
The stress of grieving can take its toll on your mind and body, so continuing to meet your emotional and physical needs is of the utmost importance. Don’t neglect your health and well-being. Make sure you continue to eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep. You may want to try holistic options to treat your grief symptoms.   

Talk to People
While some people prefer to grieve in private, some find talking to people immensely helpful. No one should be expected to grieve alone. Accept assistance when it is offered to you, and let people know if you want to talk. Be specific when expressing your needs to others. Most people want to help, but simply don’t know how.

Join Grief Support
Research support groups that meet in your area such as in hospitals, religious groups, counseling centers, and hospice facilities. By talking to others who are grieving, you can find a healthy outlet for your thoughts and feelings amongst people who may be having similar experiences. You can also seek out therapy with a grief counselor, who is trained to assist you in working through your intense emotions. Visit the Local Resources page, where you can find qualified Grief Counseling and Therapy professionals, or locate drop-in grief support meetings in your area on our End-of-Life Calendar of Events.

Keep Your Loved One’s Favorite Belongings
Give yourself time, at least a year, before making any decisions regarding your loved one’s things. While it was once thought that those grieving should rid themselves of old personal objects in order to “move on,” we now know that people can connect strongly with the person they’ve lost through their belongings.

Holding onto personal objects can help you keep cherished memories alive, and you may gain comfort from the sensory experience of the object. Enjoy the familiar smells, touch, and sounds associated with your memories. It could be wearing their favorite sweater, calling their old phone number once in a while, or carrying a special watch in your pocket.

Draw Comfort From Spirituality and Religion
If you are religious, you may find comfort in the mourning traditions of your religion. Ritual has a profound effect on the human spirit and can greatly aid the healing process. If you are spiritual, praying or meditating can be soothing exercises and can help you find peace under new circumstances. Take the opportunity to talk to clergy and other spiritual leaders in your community. Understand that it is not uncommon to question your spirituality after the shock of a loss. Approach your beliefs at your own pace, until you find a comfortable relationship with them.

Express Yourself Creatively
If you enjoy or thrive on creative expression, you may want to make it part of your grieving process. Focusing on creative projects under the duress of grief may be difficult, but this feeling generally passes as your grief evolves. Take the time to write in a journal, keep a blog, create a memory book, or sew a quilt out of old clothing. Find an outlet in drawing and painting, poetry, or music. Perhaps you’d like to get involved in a cause that was close to the heart of the person you lost. Finding a productive way to work through your grief and create something beautiful from the experience can be immensely therapeutic, and your work may even inspire others who are also grieving.

Spend Time Practicing Favorite Hobbies
If you are ready and willing to engage in activities, try keeping yourself busy doing the things you’ve always enjoyed. Go see a movie, visit your library, take hikes, work in the garden, or participate in a book club.  Keep up with your favorite projects or perhaps find something new that interests you.

Engage in Physical Activity
Get outside in the fresh air, appreciate your surroundings, and simply meditate on new life perspectives. Join a gym or yoga class, or try new walking routes and locations. Your area may include a walking labyrinth, which can be a peaceful place to get some calming, meditative exercise. 

Seek Out Healing Art and Literature
Watch films, seek out exhibits, or read books and stories that deal with loss. Find narratives that you relate to and gain comfort in. Take a look at our Multimedia section for film and book suggestions, or visit the Opening Our Hearts column of our blog for a collection of personal stories from others who have experienced loss.

Talk to a Doctor
You may feel that speaking to a trained professional will help you to cope with the emotional and physical stress of grief. If so, or if you are having great difficulty in performing everyday tasks, consult with your physician about your options. Many find that properly-prescribed drugs can lighten the burden of grief and aid in the healing process.

Join a Healing Retreat
A day spa or retreat can be a vital physical and mental experience to help you mend, rejuvenate, and begin your new life. A day of relaxation and massage at a local spa, or a weekend or weeklong retreat, either group or solo, with healing activities and possibly spiritual guidance can lift your spirits. Visit our Local Resources section to find local, national, and global Spas & Healing Retreats.

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3. Grieving as a Family

A loss in your immediate family can be devastating for individual members as well as for the family as a whole. Each person may go through their own grieving process at their own pace. Family roles, both practical and emotional, may shift and be reassigned after a loss. As you work towards your own personal healing, it is important to remember what other family members are going through and to remain sensitive to their feelings. Here are a few practical suggestions to help you work toward healing together:

Invite dialogue about the person you lost. It can be as simple as mentioning his or her name, recalling a fond memory, or saying when you miss him or her the most. These won’t always become deep and emotional conversations, but they will keep your loved one’s memory alive and allow your family to share openly with each other.

Go on Family Outings
Connect with your family by going on trips together to places that hold special significance, either to your lost loved one or to the family as a whole. Visit a childhood home, picnic in a favorite park, or go to a place you all associate with happy memories. Something as simple as having a family meal together can be comforting.

Keep Old Traditions and Make New Ones
You may find comfort in family traditions, such as favorite holiday meals or ritual gift exchanges. Keep practicing the ones you love, but also try starting new traditions. This can allow your family to discover a healthy balance between honoring the past and moving toward the future while recognizing the changes in your lives following the loss of a family member.

Look at Family Photos
We are increasingly recognizing that it is healthy to hold onto old memories, rather than cast them off in an attempt to “move on.” Looking at photos of those you love can bring about close memories or times that you’ve shared together. Spend time going through old photo albums and reminisce together about the happy times you had with your loved one. Reminiscing can make you feel better through difficult times, and your family can collectively keep memories alive in your hearts.

Create a Memorial or Memory Object
A family may find a shared sense of closure through a personal memorial. Planting a tree or a garden, making a memory book, sharing photographs, creating an art piece, or recording favorite stories about your loved one can aid in healing while bringing your grieving family closer together. Read about how one family made a poignant home memorial to a lost wife and mother.

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4. Talking to Children About Death

Grieving can feel overwhelming and be difficult to work through for you, but remember to take some time to help the children affected by a death as well. Particularly before age 10, a child's perception of death is uncertain and incomplete. Children are affected just as adults are by the loss of someone close, however they are not equipped with the same experiences and vocabulary to deal with it. You can help guide a child through their grief by talking with them as honestly as possible about death, so that they understand that the person has passed on and will not return. Without honest discussion, a child may not grasp the permanence of death, or they may feel a sense of responsibility for the loss of a loved one. These practical suggestions can guide you in helping children grieve in a healthy way.

Explain Death as Plainly as Possible
Avoid using euphemisms like “passed on” or “sleeping.” Explain, in age-appropriate language, what happens when someone dies. Do not leave a child's imagination to fill in the gaps and set up the expectation that a loved one may return. Make sure the child knows he or she is in no way responsible for the death. Children can often think in terms of blame, since they are used to evoking strong reactions when they misbehave. Explain to the child that the person who died did not go away because of something he or she did, and that there was nothing that could have been done differently.

Talk Openly
Have conversations with the child about the loss and listen to what he or she says. Talk openly about feelings and tell the child that having different or confusing emotions is normal. Make sure they know it’s okay to feel sad, angry, or upset. Encourage the child to ask questions and answer any questions as well, or work together to find the answers.

Encourage Self-Expression
You can give a child a creative outlet to work out his or her feelings in addition to talking. Encourage younger children to draw pictures or paint and older children to write in a journal, craft a poem, or play a musical instrument. For example, this studio makes children's drawings into stuffed animals-- creative keepsakes that provide grief therapy and serve as memory objects for the children.

Allow a Child to Say Goodbye
Try to find a meaningful way for a child to gain closure on a death. Suggest that he or she draw a picture of a happy memory, make a craft, bring a meaningful object, or pick out some flowers to share at a remembrance event. Ask the child if he or she would like to contribute to planning a commemorative ritual, such as planting a memorial tree or reading a poem in memory of the person who has died.

For more healing resources for children, check out the Moyer Foundation’s Camp Erin, a bereavement program for children ages 6-17.

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5. Holistic Healing

You may find that holistic methods can enhance, complement, or replace traditional healing methods to help you through grief. By considering these options, you may find the right combination of methods that will lead you towards peace of mind. Find Holistic Healing in your area by visiting our Local Resources page.

Based on traditional Chinese practices, acupuncture involves the insertion of very fine needles into strategic points of the body. It is believed that acupuncture stimulates your body’s energy flows and improves overall health. Some acupuncture providers offer specific grief and loss healing, which targets particular points in your body that deal with emotion and letting go.

Aromatherapy uses essential oils and fragrances to stimulate physiological responses for mental and physical health. Essential oils come from various sources, including flowers, wood, leaves, herbs, spices, and fruit. By combining oils that evoke strong, positive responses, aromatherapy can be used to treat grief symptoms and improve mood and mental health.

Yoga has deep physical and spiritual foundations that can aid in healing after a loss. Practicing yoga can allow you to harness a new body-mind connection, control emotions through positioning and deep breathing, and gain new perspectives on life and self.

Reiki is a spiritual Japanese practice meant to treat both your body and mind. It involves a reiki practitioner placing their hands over strategic points on your body in a soothing way, as the practitioner's palms transfer your life force energy and restore your body's equilibrium. Many find it to be deeply relaxing, as well as a wonderful healing practice.

Crystal Bowl Healing
Crystal bowl therapy focuses on the healing power of sound. The crystal bowls are set to different frequencies, creating sounds that resonate with the body. These ringing sounds are said to have healing effects on body and mind and can be immensely peaceful to listen to. Crystal bowl singing is used in music therapy, meditation, yoga, religious services, relaxation, and personal well-being. For more information, read our interview with a crystal bowl performer.

Healing Retreats
There are many places that offer healing retreats for those experiencing grief and loss, often in beautiful natural surroundings. Such retreats provide a peaceful and supportive atmosphere to work through difficult emotions while sharing similar struggles with others who are also grieving. Depending on your preferences, retreats may include a spiritual aspect such as Buddhist meditative retreats, or they may simply offer practical counseling and grief support. For options in Spas & Healing Retreats, see our Local Resources.

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6. Caregiver Burnout

It is not uncommon for family or friend caregivers to experience adverse health effects during or after a prolonged period of caring for a terminally ill patient. If you were the primary caregiver of someone who has just passed away, there’s a chance that you are facing caregiver burnout in addition to grieving. You may feel physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Symptoms of burnout can overlap with common symptoms of grief, however, it is a strong indication that you have burnout if some of these feelings manifested prior to the death of your loved one:

  • Have you been experiencing feelings of depression and helplessness?
  • Have you been experiencing feelings of anger, frustration, or hostility towards yourself and the person you were caring for?
  • Are you constantly fatigued?
  • Are you less interested than you once were in your work or your hobbies?
  • Are you withdrawing from family, friends, and general social contact?
  • Has there been a change in your eating or sleeping habits?
  • Has there been a change in your appetite or weight?
  • Have you been turning to stimulants and/or alcohol more often?
  • Does it seem like you catch every cold or flu that comes around?
  • Do you have trouble relaxing even when you have free time?

If you answered yes to two or more of these questions, you may have caregiver burnout.

It is important to understand is that there is no shame in feeling burnout. It does not make you a bad caregiver, and it certainly does not make you a bad person. The truth is that we can only give so much of ourselves, physically, mentally, emotionally, before our bodies begin to shut down. Sometimes that point is simply not reached until after the person you are caring for has passed. Remember: To be a good caregiver, you have to first take care of yourself.

Grieving the loss of a loved one due to illness is already a difficult process and caregiver burnout can compound your stress and exhaustion. Recognize the stress to your physical and emotional health that burnout can cause, and work towards healing your mind and body.

To see the industry experts whose gracious contributions helped make this guide possible, visit our Acknowledgements.


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