Author: Michelle Lynch

Signs You May Need Extra Help with Your Grief

Signs You May Need Extra Help with Your Grief

Grief is a normal reaction to the death of a loved one but most of us are not prepared to deal with our grief. We are often frightened and upset by our reactions to the death and wonder if we will ever recover from this overwhelming emotion.

Bereavement counselors caution that grief has no timetable but often takes longer than the bereaved or the people in their lives expect.

Many counselors recommend asking for and accepting help from an expert in loss and bereavement issues if any of the following experiences are intense or continue for a long period of time:

  • Are you always irritable, annoyed, intolerant or angry?
  • Do you experience an on-going sense of numbness or the feeling of being isolated from your own self or from others? Do you usually feel that you have no one to talk to about what happened?
  • Since your loved one died, are you often highly anxious about your own death or the death of someone you love? Is it beginning to interfere with your relationships, your ability to concentrate or live as you would like to live?
  • Do you feel that you are always or continually preoccupied with your loved one, his or her death, or certain aspects of it even though it’s been several months since his or her death?
  • Do you usually feel restless or in “high gear”? Do you feel the need to be continually busy beyond what is normal for you?
  • Are you afraid of becoming close to new people for fear of losing again?
  • Do you find yourself acting in ways that might prove harmful to you over time: drinking more than you used to, using more prescription or non-prescription drugs, engaging in sexual activity that is unsafe or unwise, driving in a reckless or unsafe manner or entertaining serious thoughts about suicide?
  • Are you taking on too much responsibility for surviving family members or close friends? If you’re feeling heavily burdened by this responsibility, angry or that the situation is “suffocating” you, it might be time to speak with someone.
  • Do your grief reactions continue over time to be limited in some way? Are you experiencing only a few of the reactions or emotions that usually come with grief? Are you unable to express your thoughts or feelings about your loved one and his or her death in words or in actions?
  • Is there some aspect of what you’re experiencing that makes you wonder if you’re normal or going crazy? Do you feel stuck in your grief in some way, unable to move on, even though it’s been some time since your loved one’s death?

Beyond these ten signs, trust your own judgment. If you think that talking to a professional might help, there are many resources available to you.

The Community Hospice, located in many areas throughout New York State, offers bereavement counseling and support sessions.

You can ask your family funeral director for the name of a local bereavement counselor who can help you.

Remember, be patient with yourself. People have a natural inclination to recover. But, if your grief is taking over your life, it is time to seek help.

Create a Journal to Help Ease Grief

Create a Journal to Help Ease Grief

Creating a journal helps to ease grief because it provides a safe place where you are free to express your deepest thoughts and feelings about your life loss.

At this unhappy time, it is normal for grieving people to feel helpless and out of control.

According to Linda Cherek, a member of the National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved’s Board of Trustees, telling the story of your relationship with the lost loved one in a journal will help to calm these emotions.

Through writing, we can express our ideas and feelings about the death, and look inward to identify and consider our strengths, areas for growth and coping mechanisms.

Ms. Cherek offers some thoughts on getting started on using journaling as a part of the grieving process:

  1. Find writing materials that appeal to you — a bound book, a spiral notebook, or loose sheets.
  2. Create a special place to write. Make it comfortable and inviting.
  3. Set aside time to write. Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way suggests getting up a half hour earlier each day (while your brain is still free of the cares of the day ahead) and write three pages — whatever comes into your head.
  4. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling or grammar. If you can’t think of anything to write, just write, “I can’t think of anything to write” over and over. Often, your innermost feelings will emerge. Your journal listens without judgment.
  5. Consider some questions to focus your writing. Are there unresolved problems or questions about your relationship with the loved one who died? What has the experience of their death been like for you? What am I going to do without their physical presence? What do I want to remember? What have I learned about myself?
  6. Consider writing a letter to your loved one — what it has been like since their death, or what you want your life to be like in the years ahead.

Ms. Cherek adds that writing out our losses is a method of therapy. “The word ‘therapy’ comes from the Greek word ‘therapei’ which means the kind of attention one gives the sacred.

The way our life was connected with that of our loved one is a sacred story of the unique journey we walked. Keeping a journal is one valuable way to honor that journey.”

Grief in the Workplace

Grief in the Workplace

Thomas Aquinas once said, “Grief shared is grief diminished.”

This thought is so appropriate, whether grief results from the death of a colleague’s loved one, or the death of a fellow employee.

Both situations call for compassion and understanding on the part of the workplace’s management, employees and human resources department.

When an employee is suffering because of the death of a loved one, he or she should be helped to return to work and be productive again.

Grieving consumes enormous amounts of energy.

But grief counselors tell us that energy can sometimes be restored with the support of others, organized surroundings and the satisfaction and praise from a job well done – even under the most difficult of circumstances.

To help employees who have suffered the loss of a loved one or a fellow employee, David Opalewski, President of Grief Recovery, Inc., says that companies should organize a crisis response team comprised of employees trained and in place before a tragedy occurs.

Such a team can play many roles.

Team members can act as an information source and assist in small group discussions.

They can help workers who may need additional counseling or identify high-risk workers among the friends of the deceased and assist the family with obtaining benefits that may be available to them.

Colleagues who are unsure of what to do, or how to express his or her sympathy to the bereaved employee, can turn to team members for advice.

Team members should be aware that the real work of grief does not begin until several months after a death, and may continue for an indeterminate length of time.

Companies may also implement a quality grief support program that allows bereaved employees to grieve and work in a healthy environment at the same time.

Many of us consider our workplace colleagues to be our extended family.

This is especially true when they express their care, concern and support for us when we are bereaved.

(Research information for this article derived from Bereavement Publishing and the college course “Death, Dying and Suicide Prevention” instructed by Dave Opalewski, President of Grief Recovery, Inc.)

Is Closure Ever Possible After the Death of a Loved One?

Is Closure Ever Possible After the Death of a Loved One?

We hear people talking about “closure” as if there is a door that can be shut after experiencing a tragedy in our lives, losing a loved one or being witness to a horrific event such as the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Friends might ask “Haven’t you reached closure yet?”

Grief cannot be forced or pushed or closed off from our minds.

There is no magic formula for working through grief.

The fact of the matter is that grief must be expressed and dealt with.

We all experience and react to loss in different ways depending on the relationship of the deceased to us, our past experiences with loss, and sometimes even our health and emotional state.

Grieving for a lost loved one can take years, sometimes a lifetime.

According to Curtis Rostad, a Certified Funeral Service Practitioner who has been a licensed funeral director since 1973, there is no such thing as closure.

He maintains that those who refuse to begin the journey through grief simply delay their own recovery.

Rostad goes on to explain why he thinks the concept of closure is mentioned so often in today’s culture. “It should come as little surprise that a generation of people brought up with minute rice, instant coffee and microwave ovens would search for quick relief from something we call grief,” he says.

“We hear it from those who go to the scene of a disaster where their family member has died. We hear it from those who witness the execution of the person convicted of killing their loved one. We hear it expressed by those who have someone missing in war.”

In Rostad’s long experience in helping families deal with grief, he has found that seeking closure only produces feelings of frustration that join the emotions of sorrow.

There is no closure, but there is a point where people have a great deal of acceptance, even peace of mind, and are able to move on to a different frame of mind.

It’s a frame of mind that leaves them supported by the memories, but empowered to continue with their lives knowing they did all they could do with respect to the person they lost.

Why would anyone seek closure? Why would anyone want to close the door on thoughts about a departed loved one?

Grief will soften in the years after a loss, but the door to memories should always be open.

Prescription for Grief Relief

Prescription for Grief Relief

Oh to be a stone! To feel no grief!

The Greek dramatist, Euripides, wrote these words 400 years before the birth of Christ. Grief is the price of love. When we love someone and they die, we feel the pain of grief. However, there are steps we can take that may ease the stress and hasten our recovery.

Here are some tips that can help the bereaved on their journey through grief:

  • Go back to work. If you had a job, return as soon as possible. Work is a healthy distraction from the pain of loss. If you were not in the workplace, find a job.
  • Stay fit. Exercise can help you both physically and emotionally because activity provides an outlet for stress.
  • Enroll in a class. Not only does taking a class provide you with a healthy diversion from grief but it also can supply practical knowledge for improving the quality of your life.
  • Be good to yourself. Do not hesitate to treat yourself to something you truly enjoy.
  • Take some time to write down a list of things that bring you pleasure such as displaying a vase of fresh flowers, gardening, leisurely reading a newspaper, etc. Then, try to engage in at least one of these activities daily.
  • Volunteer your time. Another effective way to get out of the house and provide some grief relief is through volunteering. Local community groups or museums and historic sites always welcome people who can spare some time to support their activities.
  • Talk about your grief with a friend. Expressing and exploring your feelings with a trusted friend is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Talking helps relieve the pressure, brings you perspective, and keeps you in touch with others. Cry when you feel like it.
  • Read practical articles and books about grief. Reading about bereavement is an excellent way to find your way through this difficult, uncharted experience. (This Web site lists many publications that offer advice on how to cope with grief.)
  • Guide your thinking. According to Laurence G. Boldt, author of Zen Soup: “Thoughts,’ as Emerson put it, ‘rule the world’ for the simple reason that thoughts determine feelings and actions. We can think ourselves into happiness or a deep depression. We can think ourselves into health or illness. If we only take care of our thoughts, our feelings and actions will take care of themselves.”
  • Cultivate hope on a daily basis. When the days seem too long, the nights endless and hope a distant memory, rinse your mind and fortify your spirit by reflecting on words of hope. Though your journey through grief may seem dark, the light of recovery will break through.

Most survivors will find solace in these suggestions. But if you feel that your grief is overwhelming your life, ask your family funeral director for the name of a local bereavement counselor who can guide you through resolving your feelings of sadness and loss.

(Material in this column was excerpted (with permission) from an article authored by Victor M. Parachin, a National Funeral Directors Association grief educator and minister.)

Surviving the Death of an Infant

Surviving the Death of an Infant

Every death of a loved one is difficult to bear, but the death of a beloved or expected baby has a special sorrow. The family so joyously awaits the birth, and then without any warning the young life ends. The death of a baby can be a devastating experience for the family.

When a baby dies, the future is affected, lives are forever changed and dreams are shattered. The pain is compounded by endless self-searching questions and feelings of helplessness, anger and guilt. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers statewide programs to help families cope with such an awful loss, and to educate the community about steps that can minimize sudden infant death:

Information, support and guidance for parents and family members affected by a sudden and unexpected infant death including referral to bereavement support groups, home visits, contacts with other parents who have experienced this loss and other services.

Education and consultation offered to public health nurses, law enforcement officers, emergency medical personnel, funeral directors and other professionals. Topics include Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), infant mortality and interventions that can comfort bereaved families.

Professional and community-based education about reducing the risk for SIDS and other causes of infant mortality.

To learn more about the Center and its programs and services, please call 800.336.7437. The First Candle website is also an excellent resource whether you are seeking information on ways to help your baby survive and thrive, or have experienced the death of a precious infant.

Unresolved Grief Without a Body Present

Unresolved Grief Without a Body Present

Going through the grief process can be a daunting journey.

Support from friends and relatives can be enormously helpful when survivors are working through grief.

But after a disaster such as 9/11 or the 2010 Haitian earthquake has occurred, what happens to the grief process when a loved one’s body has not been found?

Psychologists tell us that denial is one of the steps in the grieving process.

Until bereaved persons accept that death has happened, no progress can be made in resolving their grief.

Research indicates that viewing the deceased or knowing that a body has been located helps to fulfill the psychological needs of those who are left behind.

Most people need the experience of seeing a loved one’s body because it makes the loss real and allows survivors to take the next step in the grieving process.

This is one of the reasons why enormous efforts and expenditures of time and money are made to recover victims who perished in disasters, as well as our cultural respect for the dead. 

As shown by the awful aftermath of 9/11, sometimes body recovery is impossible even though herculean efforts are undertaken.

On May 30, 2002, a solemn ceremony at Ground Zero marked the end of search and recovery efforts; only 291 bodies had been found intact and the remains of only 1,102 of the 2,823 victims had been identified.

This horrific event has placed survivors in a state we cannot imagine. They are coping with a sudden and tragic loss coupled with the absence of a body.

Struggling through their grief, many of these survivors have turned to their family funeral directors for solace and advice on memorialization.

An appropriate funeral service can help survivors to reach closure in accepting the fact that a death has occurred even though a body is not present.

Funerals can aid the journey through the grief process by commemorating the life of the deceased and by providing a public occasion to celebrate the life that has been lived.

One funeral director who helped many families victimized by 9/11 was impressed with the enormous community outpouring of support for the victims’ families.

He told us that regular funeral services were generally conducted, but with emphasis on unique ceremonies to memorialize the victim’s life.

For instance, basketballs played an important role in the services for a young man killed on 9/11 who had been a star basketball player.

Survivors in these tragic and overwhelming circumstances should seek help in resolving their grief by talking to a member of the clergy, getting advice from their funeral director and in some cases reaching out to one of the many local community hospices that offer bereavement counseling.

Volunteering to Help Others Can Help Ease Grief

Volunteering to Help Others Can Help Ease Grief

Many grief counselors advise that one of the best ways to work through grief, especially during the holidays, is to keep busy — to get involved with life again especially by volunteering your time to help others.

I know a woman who was grieving deeply after the loss of her husband. Having always loved horses, she decided to volunteer at a local therapeutic horsemanship program.

This program provided people with mental or physical disabilities the opportunity to enhance the quality of their lives through learning to ride and take care of horses. 

She worked as a “walker” steadying the riders who had difficulty in riding, and helped to groom and feed the horses.

Being around these gentle animals and seeing how the program helped people with disabilities gave her a new hope and vision for a better future.

There are many other organizations that will welcome volunteers no matter how much time you can commit whether it is an hour a week, or a few days a month. An article in the AARP Bulletin listed some interesting volunteer activities which offer a wide variety of activities:

America’s Second Harvest
 is the nation’s largest domestic hunger relief organization. It feeds hungry people by soliciting and distributing food and other grocery products through food banks and rescue programs. It is worthwhile for another reason — it helps to eliminate the waste of food. There are currently ten centers in New York State. To find out if one of them is near you, visit Second Harvest’s website.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is the country’s oldest and largest youth mentoring organization which serves more than 200,000 children and youth annually nationwide. To contact them, look in your local phone directory, call 866.276.2447 or visit their website to find a local center.

Habitat for Humanity
 is dedicated to eliminating poverty housing. To find an affiliate near you, check your local phone listing or visit their website. In addition to site work in this country, they offer one to three week tours overseas in their Global Village program.

Meals on Wheels Association of America
 depends on volunteers to deliver nutritious meals and to maintain social contact with older persons who are homebound. To locate the nearest program, visit their website.

National Mentoring Partnership is a resource for people interested in becoming mentors to young people. For information on mentoring and local programs visit their website or call 888.432.6368.

Points of Light Foundation mobilizes volunteers to work in communities through a network of 500 volunteer centers nationwide. Call 800.865.8683 or visit their website.

In addition, some newspapers publish “volunteer matchmaker” columns which give information on local opportunities such as county offices for the aging, theater groups, animal shelters, etc., which can use help.

Bonnie L. McCullough, CAE
Former NYSFDA Executive Director

When a Beloved Pet Dies

When a Beloved Pet Dies

The loss of a beloved pet can be a traumatic experience for a child, a lonely senior citizen or anyone who has cherished an animal companion.

In many homes, a pet provides affection, friendship and loyalty. Thus, in time, the companion animal truly becomes an important member of the family.

Grief, which results from the death or loss of a pet, involves a difficult set of emotions and problems which may take time to work through.

It wasn’t too long ago that people did not believe that it was okay to grieve for an animal.

Now psychologists and grief counselors recognize that sorrow for a pet is a very real emotion akin to grieving for a lost friend or relative.

A family veterinarian, who has helped to care for a pet, understands the emotional bond with a pet.

Mourning the loss of a pet is normal and should not be a cause for embarrassment. Pet owners experience the same stages of loss that everyone undergoes after the loss of a beloved family member or friend, including denial, bargaining, anger, grief, and resolution.

In some cases, the anxiety and sorrow over the loss of a beloved pet may be greater than that experienced at the death of a friend or relative and the pet owner need not feel guilty about it.

Guilt can arise when one has to determine if it is time to end the life of an animal that is in pain or distress, and has no hope of recovery even with the best of veterinary care.

The veterinarian and the pet’s family, including children, should understand and decide together to do what is most merciful for the pet and the family.

When a pet dies, burial or cremation are choices for disposal of the pet’s body.

The place of burial can vary from a backyard to a pet cemetery, depending on the size of the pet and the laws or ordinances of the family’s community.

When a pet’s body is cremated, the family may ask the veterinarian to dispose of the ashes, or they may take them to scatter in a favorite place, or keep in an urn at the pet owner’s home or pet cemetery.

Your local veterinarian may be able to help arrange a funeral service complete with casket, flowers and memorialization.

Such a service can be an enormous comfort to the persons who loved the pet by helping them demonstrate their affection for the pet and accept the finality of their loss — a necessary step in the recovery from grief.

There are many ways to memorialize a beloved pet — placing flowers on its grave, installing a permanent marker or planting a tree.

A good thing to do is to make a contribution of time or money to a local animal shelter, or to one of the many organizations that are trying to save the world’s animals.

A local veterinarian or funeral director can provide advice in helping say goodbye when a beloved pet dies.

This article was prepared with research material from the New York State Veterinary Medical Society and Guideline Publications “Death of a Pet.”

Tips For Packing Up A Home After Death

Tips For Packing Up A Home After Death

When people die, they often leave behind a lifetime’s worth of memories and possessions.

Usually, it falls to the person’s family and friends to clean up their homes and pack up and sort out their belongings.

Depending on the size of a person’s home, how much stuff they own and how long they’ve lived in their house, the process of cleaning and packing up can be a long one.

If you’ve been given the responsibility of handling your loved one’s possessions after they’ve passed on, here’s how to cope with death and the occasionally complicated process of packing up a house.

Break Up The Project

Whether your loved one lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment or a massive, three-story home, the process of sorting through their belongings after the funeral can seem overwhelming at first.

Splitting what looks like a larger project into smaller, more manageable pieces is part of learning how to cope with death.

For example, you can decide to focus on one room at a time or on one type of object at a time, such as the person’s paperwork or personal documents.

Focusing on a single area can also help to contain the mess that is likely to develop as you sift through someone’s belongings.

If you live in the house you are cleaning, having the project contained in a single room can help you go about with your other daily responsibilities without a constant reminder of it.

Get Support

If your loved one named you the executor of their will, sorting through their possessions and cleaning out their house isn’t something you need to handle on your own.

Ask other family members to step in and help you organize and clean.

“You can divide tasks up based on people’s strengths and talents,” says Michael A. Lanotte, Executive Director & CEO of the New York State Funeral Directors Association.

“For example, if a sibling or cousin is an attorney, you can ask them to sort through the deceased’s paperwork, taking out the documents that need to be kept and getting rid of the non-essential papers. Asking a person who might not have known the deceased well to help can also be useful. They can provide an objective opinion about certain possessions that might have sentimental meaning for you.”

Decide How To Divide Up Items

People often state how they want their estate and possessions divided up after their death. 

If your loved one left behind a will, then part of the process of deciding how to split up their belongings might have already been taken care of.

In some cases, people don’t specify who gets what in their will but instead ask their family members to place stickers on items in the house to claim those items.

If your loved one didn’t do any of that, it’s up to you to decide what to do with their possessions.

One option is to have close family visit the house and take items they’d like to have.

That can lead to arguments, especially if there are expensive items that more than one person wants.

In the case of valuable belongings or potential heirlooms, it might be a good idea to have the items appraised to determine their value.

If one family member really wants a piece of jewelry or a valuable piece of antique furniture, a solution might be to have them split up the cost of the item and pay the other family members their share of the item.

Take Breaks

Cleaning out a person’s house can take longer than you expected.

Don’t feel as if you need to power through the project in a day or over the course of a weekend. Take breaks from the project, both to clear your head and to give yourself some space.

“Although it’s important to pause every so often during the clean-out project, it’s also important to remember that you might be on a deadline,” says Lanotte.

“It can be helpful to create a schedule for the clean-out that will have the project finished by the time you need to vacate or sell the house, but that won’t require you to rush through the process.”

Give Yourself Some Distance

Setting up clear boundaries between the clean-out project and the rest of your life can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed by the process or by grief.

If your loved one lived in their own home, don’t feel that you need to stay in the house as you sort through their belongings.

Either return home at the end of each day or, if you don’t live nearby, stay in a hotel or with a friend or relative.

If the person did live with you, keep their belongings separate from the rest of your house, so that you don’t feel the need to continue the project late into the night or so that you don’t have a constant reminder of the process that lies in front of you.

Get Professional Help

It’s likely that there will be some belongings that no one in your family or immediate circle is interested in.

You’ll most likely also find some items that are past their prime and not worth keeping. You don’t have to take responsibility for hauling items to the landfill or recycling center.

You can hire a company to take care of that job for you.

You might also want to hire someone to come and evaluate any useful items that no one in your family wants.

It might also be worthwhile to hire someone to oversee a yard sale or an estate sale or auction of your loved one’s belongings.

Although it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the process of cleaning up and packing up your loved one’s home after their death, remembering to give yourself time and space and to lean on others for support will help you get through the process.


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