My first experience with death was when my paternal grandfather passed. But I wasn’t close to my dad growing up, so I hadn't seen my grandfather since I was really young. My second experience was when my maternal grandmother passed. She was instrumental in raising me, so her death hit me pretty hard.
Before she died in 2015, we believed our family was invincible. Death was a foreign concept to us. But after her passing, everything changed. I went from being unacquainted with death to seeing it often. In less than two years after my grandmother’s death, I lost my great aunt, two friends, and, most recently, my aunt. My aunt’s passing came unexpectedly, but I was fortunate enough to spend significant time with her in her last days.
That was a first for me. I’d never held the hand of a dying person before, and it was painful to see her so different from her usual vibrancy. However, the experience brought me some understanding of death. While I’m far from a pro at handling death, I’m not as terrified as before. Dealing with loss is hard, but there are ways to grieve for your loved ones in a healthy way.
Constance Siegel, Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW) and lead assessment coordinator at Mayhill Hospital, assesses incoming emergency room clients and determines whether they’d be best assisted with inpatient or outpatient programs. According to her, most people actually neglect the grieving process, which can make it more difficult to cope.
“Grief is a process. It comes in stages. There may be a denial, there may be anger, and these feelings may come separately or all at once. But, death is a process before the acceptance comes.”
This is something I’ve learned firsthand and over time. Although death is no welcome friend, I know that I must grieve. These are the ways I’ve learned to better cope with death.
1. Take your time to mourn
It always takes a while for me to accept that loved ones are gone. It’s been less than two weeks since my aunt's passing, and it hasn’t fully set in. I now know this is perfectly OK.
“Grief has a variety of variables including age, duration of the relationship, and the type of death (traumatic, natural, sudden, etc.) that play into how one processes death,” says Siegel.
In other words, we all face different circumstances with loss, so it makes sense that we take different amounts of time.
For me, I eliminate some stress by not setting a time expectation for “acceptance.” Death is scary because it’s surrounded by mystery. It’s helpful not to put a time limit when you find yourself dealing with a loss.
2. Remember how the person impacted your life
When my aunt and grandmother passed, I took comfort in knowing they had shaped the person I am. Growing up, I spent weeks at a time at my grandmother's house, and many of my views on the world come from those interactions. But most importantly, she taught me to believe in myself. My aunt inspired me to see the world and always emphasized the importance of nutrition. I have so many memories with each of them, and I know they played huge roles in shaping my identity.
As cliché as it sounds, I believe my loved ones live on within me. I’m grateful for their influence and know that I have the opportunity to pass their messages to my son so they’ll live on in him as well. Remembering this lifelong impact they’ve had on my life gives me something positive to focus on in times of grief. I can’t bring my loved ones back, but they’ll never truly leave me. Knowing this is comforting.
3. Have a funeral that speaks to their personality
When we picked my aunt's final outfit, we chose a beautiful pale pink dress. It was bright and beautiful like she was. Those of us closest to her refused to wear black to her funeral. At first, we felt like we were breaking some unwritten rule. But we knew that someone as vibrant and carefree as she was deserved utmost beauty at her service. Nearly every remark that day was one of humor instead of sadness because she was a person who loved to laugh. Everything about her funeral, from the decor to the venue, honored her memory. It comforted our family to know that her service aligned so well with her core values.
4. Continue their legacy
Living a life that furthers the missions of your loved ones is a wonderful way to honor them. Both my aunt and my grandmother believed education was important — particularly for women. So when I was in school, I worked hard for myself and for them. In adulthood, I learned that my aunt was cultured from traveling the world. Now that she’s passed, I plan to continue her love of travel and see many of the places she saw, plus some she didn't. I believe there’s no better way to understand a loved one than to live some of their experiences. So, I plan to do just that.
5. Continue to speak to them and about them
“Talk about the loved one, how much you miss them, and your good memories of that person,” advises Siegel.
Just because we can’t see our loved ones after they’ve died, doesn't mean we can’t speak to them. When my grandmother passed, I continued speaking to her. When I’m confused or just plain overwhelmed, it makes me feel better to talk to her. There are many belief systems that emphasize the importance of communicating with your ancestors, and it’s a lot less strange than it might sound. I even wear a few of her clothes when I feel especially down. Siegel says practices like these are the right idea.
“I don’t suggest rushing through getting rid of your loved one's belongings. Take your time to process, so you don’t inadvertently give away something you may wish you had later.”
While my grandmother may not respond, I know she’s always with me. And I believe she’s still guiding my steps.
6. Know when to get help
Coping with loss can be challenging. It may take a while, but we learn to adjust to reality without our departed loved ones. Allowing yourself time to heal is one of the most important steps. Know the signs that you need help. For those with a history of depression, the grieving process may be more challenging.
“If a person had depression before a loved one passes, they’re more likely to experience ‘complicated bereavement.' This was removed from the last Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but once embolizing grief goes more than six months, it truly is depression,” says Siegel.
Some may even experience depression for the first time after a loved one passes. If you need help, reach out to friends, family, or professionals who can provide you with options. There’s no shame in getting the assistance you need. You simply need to ask for it.
Truthfully, death will continue to be a presence in my life, as it will be in yours. Losing someone will always be painful, but I know that it can get easier over time. I’ve learned to grieve without avoidance, and this is how I cope with death in the healthiest way I know how.
What advice do you have for accepting death? Please share with me in the comments below.
Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a freelance writer specializing in health, sociology, and parenting. She spends her time reading, loving on her family, and studying society. Follow her articles on her writer's page.