Very often, in wrongful death lawsuits I represent families who after traumatic loss of a family member struggle with grief. Mourning the death of a loved one is a universal experience that sooner or later befalls all of humanity. But despite the common themes, everyone has a different experience of grief and loss.
I wrote this by the deathbed of my sedated wife of 34 years. Nearing the end of a valiant 29-year battle with recurring brain tumors and two months in home hospice, as she slept, I wrote. It was my way to cope. With time for final conversations in anticipation of her passage from this life, our experience was vastly different from one who suddenly loses a spouse, parent or child in a truck-car crash.
Most people have heard of the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. That is a valuable structure for thinking about how we handle death and learn to live without the one we lost. But we should not view it as a linear timeline for how to cope with grief.
People who are dealing with the loss of a loved one should not be ashamed to consult with an experienced grief counselor, even just as a consultant on how to work through a painful passage in life. A pastoral counselor at my church shared with me John Worden’s outline on the “Tasks of Mourning” from the now-defunct Center for Grief Care and Education in San Diego.
- To accept the reality of the loss.Long after our mind accepts the fact of death, our body and imagination go on living as if the death did not occur. We may hear the voice of the person who has died, feel their touch, see them in a familiar chair. We may buy special foods for them, or mentally recite stories to share with them. Each time we fail to find them, we acknowledge a little more deeply the fact that they are gone and the hold that they have left in our lives. This slow one-day-at-a time work of acknowledging the first task of mourning.
- To work through the pain of grief. Enduring waves of sorrow, explosions of rage, stretches of bleak despair, restless searching, and questioning why are included in the second task of mourning. When a person has been an important part of our lives for many years, the pain of losing them cannot be experienced all at once. Even if our feelings for them were mixed, the years leave their mark. We may feel the pain of loving not only what we had, but what we never had as well.
- To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing.In a very real sense, we face a new and unfamiliar world. We need to adjust, just as an immigrant needs to adjust to the language and culture of his new country. We need to develop and get used to new routines, learn to handle new responsibilities, learn to interact with other people in new ways. This process of discovering what this new world is like and learning how to cope with it is the third task of mourning.
- To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life.No, we do not want to stop loving the person who has died or cherishing the memories. Yet, the fourth task of mourning is to find a place for the deceased that will not impair our ability to give and receive love here on earth. We remain connected to our loved one through our recollections and memorializing acts and are able to simultaneously invest in life. Whether or not we enter similar relationships (such as remarrying or having more children), our task is to discovery people, activities, and causes to invest in, to experience love, and to satisfy our need to be loved. Opening again to loving and being loved is the fourth task of mourning.
This reminds me of one of my maternal grandmother who lost two daughters, at 7 and 14, shortly before my mother was born in 1926. All her life, in their modest mill village house on the wrong side of the tracks in Tuscaloosa, framed photos of those girls frozen in time almost a century ago dominated the living room. All her life, for roughly 60 years after losing them, she would occasionally talk about those girls and weep. But that did not diminish her boundless love for her other children and eventually grandchildren.
While one must find a way to move on after loss, one never forgets. Our hearts are big enough to hold both for the loved one who has died and for the living.
Ken Shigley is a past president of the State Bar of Georgia, a board-certified civil trial attorney, and author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice. He has practiced law in Georgia over forty years.