Changed by Death: How willing are you to be transformed?

“Healing through grief does not mean remaining unchanged.”

~ How to Survive Your Grief

photo of a caterpillar.

The capacity and willingness to be changed by death may be the distinguishing characteristic between those who heal from loss and those who don’t.

In end of life care, we often talk about how people die the way they have lived. Those who have embraced life fully often meet death as the next great adventure while those who have lived more cautiously often experience tremendous fear.

For those of us left behind, the willingness to be transformed by the experience of death and grief can open new pathways into life, a life quite different from the one we lived with the person who died, but life nonetheless.

A certain amount of resistance is normal and to be expected when faced with the monumental changes brought on by the death of someone we love. This is especially true and quite normal in the first few months following a death but when  resistance is extreme or prolonged, intractable grief is often the result.

None of us really likes change especially when it means we must go on without someone we counted on to be there, but some of us embrace it better than others.

In many ways the capacity to change, or not, is a personality trait that existed long before we were confronted with death. A death just brings our capacity for change (or lack thereof) to the surface, and with it a huge opportunity for growth (yes, I know it sucks).

It’s okay if that growth is accompanied by a lot of kicking and screaming as long as we don’t just dig in our heels and refuse to meet the challenge.

 Some signs you might be resisting change…

1. You’ve never done well with change even before this death occurred.

2. You think this death was wrong, wrong, wrong.

3. You insist you’ll never get over it…not ever.

Disclaimer: During the first few months it seems unimaginable that you will ever feel any better. That’s normal. What’s not normal is feeling that way years later.

4. You resist any suggestion you might need some help.

5. You think the real problem is that no one understands.

6. It’s been years and you’re still in unrelenting pain.

Some ways to expand your capacity for change while grieving…

 1. Be gentle with yourself.

Grieving the loss of someone who died is probably the hardest thing we humans ever have to face. Self compassion is essential.

2. Allow yourself to feel the feelings without judgment or fear.

The feelings of grief are often scary, conflicting and incomprehensible. Many feel they are going crazy. Trying to be strong in the face of this tsunami of painful emotions always makes it worse and leads to prolonged and unresolved grief.

3. Keep breathing. 

Focusing on the breath grounds us in the present moment. Yoga or meditation are great ways to release the breath you’ve been holding. Massage is another. Just taking a moment while stopped in traffic to become aware of your breath can calm you.

 4. Stop trying to be strong. 

 Just stop it. Grief does not require us to be strong it requires us to be vulnerable. (I know I don’t like it either but there you have it.) Opening your heart to the pain is the pathway out.

 5. Examine any ideas you have about death being a mistake.

Not just this particular death but death in general. Death is as much a part of life as birth even when it happens to someone we love. Just because we don’t like it does not necessarily make it a mistake.

6. Recognize that life is moving forward anyway. 

The question is never whether you will move on but how are you going to move on? See The Irony of Moving On

7. Entertain the possibility that you might heal. 

You don’t have to believe it but I’d like to invite you to crack the window open a bit. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised. The vast majority of people do heal. Yes they heal with scars but they do heal.

8.  Don’t expect this to happen fast. 

Time alone is never enough but assimilating the changes grief brings about does take time.

The changes brought about by death are monumental, many times greater than the other major changes we experience in the course of our lives…moving, changing jobs, getting married, having a child. Yet how we respond to those changes may be predictive of how much we’ll struggle with the changes we encounter while grieving.

Make sense? Let me know what you think below.

Photo Credit:  Andrea Kratzenberg

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