Death grief:
When does it stop hurting?

I have never understood why death grief hurts so much, and considering the pain we first feel when a dear one passes away, how it is possible to get used to it. It didn’t make sense when I lost my brother to cancer. It didn’t make sense when, three months later, a heart attack took my father away. Surprisingly, it finally made sense when I lost... my cat!

I have to admit that 17 years had gone by, and my spiritual journey had propelled me to a higher level of understanding. The answer actually came from my hypnotherapy training and my awareness of the role of the subconscious mind.

Where does grief come from?

Before I dive into my own story and discovery, I will attempt to list the most common reasons why we may feel death grief. Based on personal experience and on what others have told me, I have identified four broad categories.

Additional Resources outside this site
Death Grief
Back To Life! A Personal Grief Guidebook
If you are devastated by the Loss of a Loved One and wondering how you are going to survive, this book provides the answers you are looking for!

Move From Grief To Joy - 6 Techniques To Transform Grief
Proven program to quickly take you from Grief to Joy.

If there is anything I can do
How to help someone cope with grief

Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep
This book will help you find the words to express your grief for eulogies, funerals, etc.

While this list is not complete, the following reasons for death grief will probably apply to most situations. My purpose is not to write an exhaustive inventory or a scientifically accurate article, but to share my personal opinion to help my grieving readers put some sense into the chaos often associated with death grief. Also, this is just a catalogue, not a process, so the four categories cannot be assimilated to the Kübler-Ross death grief cycle, and no reason is more valid than another.

1. The Unfairness of Death

We generally find the following situations totally unfair:

- Children and young people: when they die, they haven't had a chance to live a full life; we feel the loss of opportunities.
- Young children and pets: we empathize with their innocence. Most people are more upset about the death of children or pets, than of adults.
- When relatively young people leave behind orphaned children or inconsolable spouses
- When someone has an accident that could have been avoided
- When someone has had to suffer throughout a lasting disease
- When someone is murdered. We usually focus our negative energy on blaming the killer.
- When a person who used to have serious problems (drugs, finances, etc.) was finally mending his or her ways at the time of death. Again, we deplore the missed opportunities.
- When an adult child dies before his parents. We expect older generations to die before younger ones.

2. Our own Mortality and Fears

Those fears are quite natural, and spiritual beliefs are usually helpful in dealing with them:

- We fear what is awaiting us after death. Hell? Nothingness?
- We fear the suffering and uncertainty of going through death. What really happens? We are profoundly affected by what we have seen in movies.
- We think “it could be me” or “it could be my own child.” It reminds us that everything has an end, or at least a change of state
- We fear the change and the need to adapt to a new life that, from now on, has to be lived without the person

3. Guilt Feelings and Unresolved Issues

Those are the psychological reasons, the confusion we feel about past and future issues. We sometimes need some sort of “therapy” – I am using this word loosely – to deal with those reasons:

- What we could have done differently, the things we said or didn't say.
- Missing the chance to forgive or to ask for forgiveness
- Thinking “I should have been there” or “I could have done something”
- The guilt of causing the death, intentionally or not
- Our self-blame and remorse in the case of suicide
- The relief experienced after a sick or unpleasant person passes away can cause guilty feelings.

4. The Actual Absence

Those reasons are mainly related to habits and senses:

- Missing the physical presence, with all the senses: sounds, smell, touch, etc.
- Missing the comfort of what is familiar, even if it was horrible
- Knowing it is all over, the “never again” realization

My Own Story

When I lost my brother, I felt the unfairness: it was unfair that someone this young would have to leave behind three young children, an adoring wife and a loving family, after losing the fight against a lengthy and painful disease. However, except for the fact that I was spending my life so far away from him (I live in Canada, while the rest of my family lives in France), I didn’t have unresolved issues or guilty feelings. I would never see him again, true, but he wasn't part of my daily routine. Even though I was very sad, I recovered relatively quickly.

Exactly 92 days later, came my father’s death. It was awful. I adored my father, and had missed him very much since I had left the country. We had a tremendous amount of unfinished business. For more than a year after he passed on, I had nightmares every night, dreaming of him, his disease and his or my death. While the dreams gradually became less frequent, for more than 10 years afterwards, the same nightmares kept coming each time I was going through a lot of stress.

Most of the healing occurred when I decided to write him a letter telling him about my pain and my confusion, and asking him questions. I wrote 14 pages straight, without lifting my pen! I think the answers were in my subconscious mind, waiting to be poured out on paper. The exercise proved very effective. Now I rarely dream of his death. I occasionally dream of his life, which is a lot more pleasant.

My cat Candy
My cat Candy
Two years ago, I lost Candy, my 20-year-old cat. Candy had been my companion, helping me through deaths in the family, through therapy and recovery from childhood trauma, through my divorce and through the turmoil of subsequent relationships. She was only a cat, she couldn’t talk, she puked and pooped a lot, she left hair everywhere, and she liked stinky food. But she was always there, a safe harbor in the middle of the storm.

Because she was 20 years old, her death had to be expected. There was no unfairness. She was only sick one night before she passed away. Since I had always been an exemplary mother to her, there were no guilty feelings or unresolved issues. So why was I so upset?

The big problem was her absence. I thought I was seeing or hearing her everywhere. I missed touching her fur or hearing her purr. I would wake up in the morning and start crying when I realized my comforting habit of 20 years wasn't there any longer.

My Discovery of Death Grief

Then, one morning, I woke up and didn’t cry. I analyzed my feelings, recognizing I was still missing her, but the main difference was that, as I awoke, I was already aware of her departure. In my sleep, I knew it already. My subconscious mind had finally registered her death, and the pain of regularly getting re-acquainted with her absence was gone. This was it!

The Role of the Subconscious Mind in Death Grief

Even though things never go back to the way they were before the death of a loved one, the unbearable pain of death disappears when the subconscious mind has achieved the learning process and is finally in sync with the conscious mind. Death grief is actually the period needed by the subconscious mind – i.e. our emotions, automatic reactions, habits, dreams, and everything we do without consciously thinking of it – to learn that something has changed.

Of course, if there are unresolved issues or fears, these need to be dealt with in due course. But once the subconscious mind knows, the intense suffering stops because there is no more gap. This is what Seneca meant when he said “Time heals what reason cannot.”

Years later...

I will always miss my brother, my father and my cat, and I still get emotional when I start focusing on their absence, but understanding the process of death grief has been instrumental in helping me deal with any loss I have suffered ever since.
I hope it helps you too!

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