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About Death, Dying & Grief
Approximately 3.3 million people died in the United States in 2020. (1) That’s about 1,000 deaths for every 100,000 people in the United States. Each person that passed away left behind a group of grieving loved ones who had to find ways to cope with loss. In some cases, it’s the dying person themselves struggling with grief as they come to terms with their own mortality.
Death, dying, and grief are enormously impactful subjects that touch on everything from the state of health care and overall wellness to religion and spirituality. Finding healthy ways to tackle these weighty subjects is crucial, but it’s also important to understand that there’s no one right way to come to terms with death and grief.
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Planning for & Dealing With Death
Death comes with a tangle of complicated emotions, but it also comes with a surprising amount of paperwork. Whether someone is overseeing their own end-of-life preparations or caregivers are attending to the personal and legal checklist after another person’s sudden passing, there’s much to be done, including: (2)
Obtaining a legal death pronouncement
Notifying friends and family
Planning for a funeral and burial
Contacting fraternal and religious groups, such as the Veterans Administration (VA) for former service people
Taking an inventory of assets
Sorting through and securing homes and vehicles
Obtaining copies of death certificates
Paying all outstanding bills and canceling subscriptions/other services
There are experts who can help make this process easier, and in many cases, those experts are also required to plan funerals, file and notarize paperwork, and execute wills.
Palliative & Hospice Care
Palliative care is highly specialized medical care for people who are seriously ill. (3) The focus is on improving quality of life. Type of care varies depending on the case, with caregivers often providing people suffering from heart failure, dementia, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and other chronic conditions with everything from medical assistance to support with activities of daily living (ADL).
Hospice care is end-of-life care for people with terminal illnesses. (4) There is no long-term effort put into finding healing, but rather, it's based on finding ways to lessen pain, increase comfort, and attend to the patient’s physical, social, and spiritual needs.
After Death Rituals, Funerals & Burials
Death rites, funeral types, and burial options differ between religions and cultures. (5) Christian practices typically involve burying the body whole to allow for physical resurrection. Islam also believes in physical resurrection, with preparers washing the body, wrapping it in a simple white shroud, and burying it as quickly as possible. Hindus believe only the atman (aka “self”) is reincarnated, so cremation takes precedence.
There has also been a recent trend toward more progressive burial options. (6) For the first time in U.S. history, cremation rates have surpassed traditional burials. Water cremation is making headlines, and environmentally conscious individuals may choose to have a green burial featuring a biodegradable container instead of a classic casket.
Grief & Bereavement Issues
While it’s absolutely normal to experience grief after the death of a loved one, this grief or bereavement period can have a hefty impact on mental health.
Denial: Shock and disbelief that the person is actually gone
Anger: Anger at the individual for “leaving” or even at one’s self for any real or perceived role in the person’s death
Bargaining: Believing that doing something different could save or would have saved the person who’s dying or recently deceased
Depression: Feeling sad, directionless, lost, confused about the future, and unable to concentrate and/or make decisions
Acceptance: Acceptance is not “getting over” the loss but rather learning to live without the person being grieved
These stages are not always experienced in order. Some people may skip steps while others experience multiple stages simultaneously. There are no right or wrong answers to the way a person experiences each grief stage as people grieve differently.
How to Cope With the Death of a Loved One
Losing a loved one can be a tragic, heart-rending experience. Even “typical” grief patterns can negatively impact personal lives and professional obligations, so it’s vital to explore different coping techniques and seek support.
Research shows that one of the best ways to cope with loss is to combine social support and health habits with the natural passage of time. (8) Suggestions include:
Talking about the lost loved one. Discuss favorite memories and share stories, but most importantly, avoid trying to bury the deceased’s life and overall existence.
Acknowledging feelings without judgment. It’s okay to feel angry and exhausted. It’s also okay to still feel happy and experience joy. All feelings are valid when grieving.
Prioritizing self-care. Minding health and wellness by eating balanced meals, sticking to a solid sleep schedule, and getting plenty of exercise can help both the brain and the body heal.
Seek professional support. A licensed psychologist, psychiatrist, or counselor can help the bereaved address grief-related issues and find healthy ways to cope.
How to Help Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One
As challenging as it is to navigate grief first-hand, it can be as challenging or even more difficult to help someone who is experiencing a loss of their own. The best way to support someone who is grieving is to be present and open to whatever they need. (9)
That might mean:
Reassuring the individual that it’s okay to talk about the deceased
Respecting each individual’s unique approach to grief
Being flexible and accepting last-minute schedule changes and mood swings
Using sympathetic language like “This must be so painful for you and your family” rather than judgmental or explanatory language like “It’s not healthy to cry all the time” or “They’re in a better place"
Focusing on small gestures that mean a lot, such as delivering a home-cooked meal or offering to help out with household chores (10)
Calling the deceased by name and recalling shared memories to reinforce rather than erase their existence
Avoiding toxic positivity and swapping out phrases like “time heals all” for language that normalizes grief and related struggles
Anyone struggling with their own mortality or the death of a loved one should know that they can reach out for professional help at any time or look for local support groups for additional empathy and assistance.