The Needs of Mourning

Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt

(Dr. Wolfelt is the Founder and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is a respected grief counselor and author, known throughout the world for his compassionate messages of hope and healing in grief. Visit his website at: http://www.centerforloss.com).

“I have learned that if we are to heal, we cannot skirt the outside edges of our grief. Instead, we must journey all through it, sometimes meandering the side roads, sometimes plowing directly into its raw center” (Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt). 

This article focuses on the six basic needs of mourners. Listing these is not intended to suggest an orderly, systematic journey through grief. Mourners will most likely encounter these needs randomly and probably work on more than one at a time. Understanding these needs is beneficial to mourners and caregivers, providing the mourner with helps for self-care and caregivers with a guide for companioning.

Mourning Need 1: Accepting the Reality of Death

It is possible to know something in the head but not in the heart. Confronting and accepting the reality that someone loved has died is basically a journey from the head to the heart. Acknowledging the full reality of the loss may take weeks or months. It is a process, not an event, that is neither quick nor easy. It may intermittently require attention for months.

Mourners may move back and forth between protesting and encountering the reality of death. To survive, they may push away the reality of death at times. One moment the reality of the loss may be tolerable; another moment unbearable. At times there is the impulse to run away and hide. At other times there is strength to face it head on.

Mourning Need 2: Embracing the Pain of Loss

It is easier to avoid, repress, or deny the pain of grief than it is to confront it, yet it is in confronting our pain that we learn to reconcile ourselves to it. Sometimes we may need to distract ourselves from the pain of death, while at other times we need to create a safe place to move toward it. When energy is low, we are tempted to suppress grief or even run from it. But if we start running and keep running, we may never heal. Dose your pain: yes! Deny your pain: no!

Unfortunately our grief-avoiding culture tends to encourage the denial of pain. In our society those who openly express their grief and tears may be advised, “don’t’ cry,” and encouraged to “carry on” and “keep your chin up.” On the other hand, those who remain “strong” and “in control” may be congratulated for “doing well.” Actually, doing well with grief means becoming acquainted with our pain.

As mourners encounter their pain, the need for nurture and self-nurture is paramount – physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Mourning Need 3: Remembering the Person Who Died

Among other things, memories reflect the significance of the person who died. Photos, souvenirs, clothing, and other objects link us to a different form of a continued relationship. This need of mourning involves allowing and encouraging the pursuit of this relationship.

The process begins with the funeral service. The ritual offers an opportunity to remember the person died and helps to affirm the value of the life that was loved. The memories embraced during the funeral often set the tone for the changed nature of the relationship.

Embracing memories can be slow, occurs in small steps, and may be painful at times. Mourner should go slowly here. Unfortunately, some may try to take memories away. Trying to be helpful they encourage mourners to take down photos or other reminders; to keep busy or even move out of the house. This is not surprising when we remember that our grief-avoiding-culture teaches us to move away from, instead of toward, our grief.

Remembering the person I have loved allows me to slowly heal. Healing does not mean I will forget. Actually, it means I will remember. Gently, I will move forward, never forgetting my past. For it is in listening to the music of the past that I can sing in the present and dance into the future.

Mourning Need 4: Developing a New Self-Identity

Our lives, in large part, are formed by the people around us. Part of our self-identity comes from the relationships we have with others. When someone with whom you have a relationship dies, our self-identity (the way we see ourselves) naturally changes. A “wife” may become a “widow.” A “husband” may become a “widower.” A “child” may become an “orphan.” The way we are defined by ourselves and society changes.

Death often requires mourners to assume new roles, previously filled by the person who died. Someone still has to take out the garbage, pay the bills, repair the car, and prepare income tax returns. A mourner confronts his/her changed identity every time he/she does something that used to be done by the person who died. This can be very hard work, and at times leave mourners drained of emotional, physical, and spiritual energy.

Mourners should take this slowly and when overwhelmed focus on “doing the next thing.” Grief is an assault on one’s self-identity; encourage mourners to be compassionate with themselves and accept the support of others. Grief is often a catalyst for personal change and may force us to get reacquainted with who we are. Mourners may discover things about themselves of which they were previously unaware. This is part of the task of mourning – “searching for who I am without the person I love.”

Mourning Need 5: Searching for Meaning

Death most always brings individual reflection on the meaning and purpose of life. This search may lead mourners to explore their religious or spiritual values, and often involves the questions “how?” and “why?” These questions remind us of our lack of control and may leave us feeling powerless.

The person who died was part of us. Death means we mourn a loss not only outside ourselves but within ourselves as well. Mourners may feel that when that person died part of them died as well and they are faced with finding meaning in going on with life when it seems so empty.

At times, the search for meaning may cause some to doubt their faith and raise spiritual conflicts. Mourners may feel distant from God or even question His existence. This is not abnormal nor an occasion for panic among caregivers.

Spiritual understanding of life and death usually grows at its own pace. Healing usually comes slowly and gradually. Mourners should be allowed to grieve without pressure to have answers. Caregivers should not attempt to answers questions only God can answer – just stay connected and continue to provide emotional support without judging. Frequently, mourners discover the capacity to convert their pain into purpose by helping others.

Mourning Need 6: Receiving On-going Support from Others

The quality of support received by mourners has a major influence on their capacity to heal. No one should ever have to make the grief journey alone. Since healing requires us to mourn as well as to grieve, and since mourning requires the presence of at least one other person, healing in grief cannot be fully realized without support from others.

Mourners should be gently reminded that relying on friends, counselors, and others who help is not a sign of weakness but a healthy human need. Because grieving is a process that takes place over time, this support must be available for months and perhaps even years.

Unfortunately, because our society believes in the nonsensical idea of “closure,” mourners are often denied on-going support. The grief-avoiding messages – “get over it” … “keep busy” … “don’t talk about it” … “its time to get on with your life” – encourage mourners to deny or repress their grief rather than express it.

Mourners need to be encouraged to seek out healthy support and avoid, as best as possible, those who seek to deny permission to grieve. The role of caregivers is to help mourners to see grief, not as an enemy to be avoided but as a necessity to be experienced as a result of having been loved.

“Grief is the price we pay for having loved someone.” (Zig Ziglar)