Category

Grief/Loss

How to Make Up for the Loss of Human Touch During the Coronavirus Pandemic

By COVID-19, Grief/Loss

My first grandchild was born in early 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining momentum. I got a social-distancing, several-feet-away peek at him early on, but then we were kept apart for three long months out of an abundance of caution that his mom (my daughter), 60-something me, and the healthy-but-vulnerable newborn all stayed safe.

As the shelter-in-place weeks slogged by, I found myself more and more impatient to hold the little guy. I wanted to touch his tiny fingers, nuzzle his rose-petal cheeks, and snuggle up with him for a long, cozy bonding session.

And I wasn’t only craving the touch of my grandson. I found myself missing sitting close to friends and loved ones, sharing kisses and shoulder squeezes, hugs and handshakes. Like so many people the world over, I was becoming touch deprived. Even those of us who don’t consider ourselves huggy, touchy people are realizing that we need the physical proximity and touch of other human beings to feel well, especially during times of uncertainty and anxiety.

(Photo courtesy of Dr. Alan Wolfelt)

The power of touch

As a longtime grief counselor and educator, I know that touch helps us feel loved and empathized with. After a significant loss, grieving people who are hugged, touched and visited often report feeling comforted and supported. They also experience that sense of connection that helps them continue to feel meaning and purpose in life.

Since touch is physical, it has bodily effects. When we are touched in comforting ways, our brains are flooded with dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. These feel-good hormones help regulate our mood and make us feel calmer and happier.

When we aren’t touched, on the other hand, our brains suffer from the lack of these chemicals. We may feel depressed, anxious and stressed. We might also have more trouble sleeping.

In addition, touch stimulates the vagus nerve, which branches throughout our entire bodies. Its role is to calm the nervous system, which in turn helps boost our immune systems and can lower our blood pressure and heart rate.

If you’ve been feeling depressed, anxious or stressed; if you’ve been having sleep issues; or if you’ve felt unwell physically, lack of physical touch may be the culprit.

Of course, even before COVID, our culture was becoming more and more socially distanced. Instead of face-to-face contact, we have increasingly relied on technology as a main form of interface. Texting, emailing and posting on social media have become the primary ways of “keeping in touch” — even though, ironically, they involve no touching at all.

The social distancing of the pandemic has only heightened our reliance on technology. We’re grateful, of course, for the electronic means of maintaining connection. Without them, we’d be truly disconnected and utterly separated. But at the same time, we’re realizing their limitations.

Our high-tech, low-touch lifestyles aren’t enough. We need and crave physical human contact. We are skin hungry. We are eye-contact empty. We are touch starved.

Tips for feeding your touch starvation

Tell your family and friends about your need for touch. If you’re sheltering in place with others, talk to them about touch starvation and how you’re feeling. Maybe your roommates are craving touch as well. Depending on your relationships, hugs, shoulder rubs, scalp massages, back scratches, foot rubs, and handholding are possible outlets.

If you’ve been isolated and need a hug, meet up outdoors with loved ones. Then, masks on, share some safe embraces. A 20-second hug is the threshold for alleviating stress and helping you feel calm and safe. Even without hugs, simply gathering outdoors to chat and have distanced face-to-face eye contact for an hour or two can make a big difference.

If you can’t be near your loved ones right now, use video calls as the next best thing. Faces and voices help us feel close and “read” one other. On the calls, tell people how much you care about and miss them. You’ll find that speaking your love out loud releases the same feel-good chemicals that touch does.

Cuddle with your pets. Touch them in the ways they like being touched.

When it’s safe to do so again, consider making an appointment for a massage. Other options: manicure, haircut, or a healing touch or reiki session.

Self-massage also releases feel-good chemicals. Giving yourself an arm rub by rolling a tennis ball up and down your arms a few times a day, or use a foam roller to give yourself a back rub.

Use a weighted blanket when you watch TV or sleep. These 15- to 25-pound blankets press down on the skin, which triggers vagus nerve activity. Choose one that’s about ten percent of your body weight.

Practice yoga. Yoga poses place pressure on lots of different parts of your body, essentially touching you all over.

I’m happy to share that I finally got to hold my grandbaby recently. He’s already a grinning, wriggly three-month-old, and boy did it feel amazing to have in my arms. With my new appreciation for touch starvation, I’m planning on lots of hugs and kisses in the months and years to come.

About the Author

Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is an author, educator, and grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty of the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many bestselling books on coping with grief, including Grief One Day at a Time and First Aid for Broken Hearts. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about grief and loss.

Reprinted with permission of Dr. Alan Wolfelt.

Creating Memorial Keepsakes from a Loved One’s Clothing

By Grief/Loss, Memorial

When we lose a loved one, it’s often difficult to think about parting with their belongings. After all, objects hold memories, stories, and special meaning. While it’s important to sort through your loved one’s possessions and thoughtfully decide what to keep, what to donate, and what to trash, you might also consider making memorial keepsakes from their clothing.

A memorial keepsake may be part of a healthy grief journey for you. A way to honor your grief through creative expression. The keepsake may be long lasting, or it may have a shorter term of use. It may be something you keep for yourself or share with others who are grieving or had a relationship with the person who is gone. The choice is entirely up to you and your wishes.

Creating Memorial Keepsakes from Clothing

Most of our loved ones had multiple changes of clothing so that means you have a lot of material to work with as you create (or commission) memorial keepsakes. Because there’s so much fabric, you could have one keepsake for yourself and an entirely different kind for a relative. This diversity is helpful because you and your family members may value different things. So, let’s get started and discuss some of the options available as you consider whether or not to create a meaningful keepsake from a loved one’s clothing.

Quilt

You can make a beautiful and unique quilt using a loved one’s clothing. You might use smaller pieces and go for a patchwork look. Or, you can use t-shirts to create a quilt that reflects your loved one’s unique style. The style and design are entirely up to you, but just imagine curling up under the quilt on the cold nights and feeling surrounded by love. If you don’t have the skills necessary to make the quilt yourself, there are many websites and services available to commission an expert to create the keepsake for you.

Memory Bear

While many memory animals are bears, you can pick any animal you like. Essentially, using a loved one’s shirt, you make the casing of the animal and then stuff it. If you aren’t comfortable with your level of skill, find a YouTube tutorial, ask a friend who sews to help you, or commission an expert to make it for you. Memory stuffed animals are especially helpful for children and can remain special for years to come.

Ornaments

For those who like to collect Christmas ornaments or call Christmas their favorite holiday, you might consider using fabric from a loved one’s clothing to make ornaments. There are so many ways to do this that all you need to do is pick your favorite and go for it. You could do a folded fabric ornament, a no-sew “quilted” ornament, a Christmas tree ornament, and so much more. Then, every year as you decorate your tree, you will have an ornament to represent the person you love.

Table Runner

If you want to create multiple pieces, a table runner might be an excellent choice for the extra scrap pieces of fabric. You could use neckties or even dresses. Then, when you have a family dinner or your loved one’s birthday comes around, you can pull out your memorial table runner and honor their memory even as you make new ones. If you prefer a table topper, that would work perfectly, too!

Placemats and Napkins

Similar to the table runner, you could also make placemats and napkins. Whether you use strips of leftover fabric or devote particular articles of clothing to the project, both placemats and napkins are a beautiful way to re-use clothing in a meaningful way. This way, every time you use them, your loved one’s memory lives on. You could even create a tradition that you tell a story about your loved one’s life every time you bring them out. If you like this idea, go online, find a pattern that appeals to you, and get started!

Keychains

As with all of these projects, the end product is entirely up to you. If you choose to make keychains or even key fobs, you can select the style and design to suit your tastes or the amount of fabric you have available. Keychains are small and make an excellent, easy-to-keep-track-of keepsake that you could share with the entire family.

Pillowcases

Whether you choose to make pillowcases for sleeping or for decoration, this project will allow you to make some beautiful creations that will bring peace on the hard days. For many of us, there’s something comforting about hugging a pillow tight. In those moments when you miss your loved one most, grab a memorial pillow and hug it close, taking time to dwell on your memories and keep your loved one’s memory alive.

Baby Clothes

A practical option for re-using a loved one’s clothing is to create baby clothes with them. Whether the clothes are for your own child or to give to a shelter or a family in need, there’s something special about knowing that your loved one’s clothing will shelter and warm a young, new life. Though your loved one’s life has come to an end, they can still make a difference in the lives of future generations.

Scarves and Other Apparel

Another idea for creating memorial keepsakes from a loved one’s clothing is to make scarves or other apparel (like jewelry). Every time you wear the scarf, you can feel close to your loved one, almost like they are wrapping you in their love. There are many simple ways to create scarves, jewelry, and other items, so do a little digging and find what works best for you.

Aprons and Other Kitchen Accessories

If your loved one was a whiz in the kitchen, then making aprons or other kitchen items (like potholders or oven mitts) might be a good option for you. Then, you can either keep them or share them with family. Either way, any time you use these practical items, you can take a moment to remember your loved one. You might even choose to wear your memorial apron when cooking your loved one’s favorite dishes or during the holidays, just to feel that extra sense of connection.

All of these projects (and any others you think of) will take time and commitment, but really, they can be as simple or complex as you like. Find the patterns and ideas that work best for you. And remember, if you simply aren’t comfortable with your level of skill, either ask a sewing friend for help or seek out a professional. So, rather than donating or simply throwing out a lost loved one’s clothes, consider whether they can do some good for the future. As memorial keepsakes, they just might help you as you continue to grieve and find a way to move forward.

10 Story Books on Grief for Children Ages 3-12

By Grief/Loss

There’s no denying that grief is taxing, difficult, and stressful, no matter your age. For children, grief can be particularly confusing because they haven’t emotionally and cognitively developed enough yet to examine and name their feelings. When they feel an emotion, it comes out in their facial expressions, their play, or their behavior (crying, acting out, etc.) because they don’t yet know how to identify and deal with their emotions in a healthy way. That’s where you – the parent or caregiver – come in. You can use books and story to help your child name their emotions and begin to process them.

Through storytelling, we can help our children identify their emotions, see themselves in others, and begin to understand complex situations. On top of that, reading books centered on certain topics – like grief – can open conversations that will allow you to talk to your child and educate them on important life topics.

Below we will review 10 different books for children ages 3-12 that focus on grief, loss, and death. These are certainly not the only books available, but they will give you a place to start. Let’s begin!

The Goodbye Book by Todd Parr (Ages 3-6)

Told from the point of view of a fish who has lost his companion, the book weaves a touching story of how to say goodbye. Touching on a wide range of emotions and responses to loss, Todd Parr gently reminds readers that it’s okay to not have all the answers and that you can rely on others to support you when you’re sad.

Click here to view the book.

“There are many little ways to enlarge your world. Love of books is the best of all.” – Jacqueline Kennedy

I Miss You: A First Look at Death by Pat Thomas (Ages 4-7)

If you are looking for a more straightforward approach, Pat Thomas discusses grief and death in a simple, factual manner. Practical at its heart, the book shares reasons why people die, introduces the concept of a funeral, explores how to say goodbye, and assures children that it’s normal to feel sad after a loss. I Miss You will open opportunities for discussion with your child so you can help them understand the difficult topics of death and dying.

Click here to view the book.

The Invisible String by Patrice Karst (Ages 4-8)

With more than half a million copies sold, this picture book has touched the hearts of readers, young and old alike. The Invisible String shares the story of two siblings who discover that there is an invisible string connecting them to their loved ones through life’s hardest situations. The book offers a simple approach to dealing with loneliness, separation, and loss while helping children explore deeper questions, such as how we are connected to each other through love and unbreakable bonds.

Click here to view the book.

Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift.” —Kate DiCamillo

Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola (Ages 4-8)

In his beloved and signature style, Tomie dePaola tells the story of four-year-old Tommy, his grandmother, and his great-grandmother. Through beautiful illustrations, dePaola explores the concepts of aging, compassion, loss, and taking care of our elderly loved ones. Perfect for children who have lost or are facing the loss of a grandparent, they can follow along with Tommy as he learns how to say goodbye.

Click here to view the book.

Ida, Always by Caron Levis (Ages 4-8)

Inspired by two real-life polar bears, this endearing tale is a moving depiction of loss and friendship. With its focus on long-term illness, the words and pictures blend together beautifully to create an unforgettable exploration of the complicated emotions associated with the death of a loved one. Simple, graceful, and gentle, Ida, Always will help you navigate through your child’s emotions and give them the chance to ask their questions in a healthy way.

Click here to view the book.

There is no substitute for books in the life of a child.” —May Ellen Chase

The Memory Box: A Book About Grief by Joanna Rowland (Ages 4-8)

Sometimes the best way to grieve is to remember. Told from the viewpoint of a young child who is afraid she might forget someone who has recently died, this comforting book shares the power of creating a memory box, filled with mementos and cherished moments, to grieve a loss. Whether the loss of a friend, family member, or pet, this book will help parents and their children discuss the complicated emotions of grief while also giving them a practical activity to help process death and loss.

Click here to view the book.

Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant (Ages 4-9)

For many children, the first loss they experience is the loss of pet. In both Dog Heaven and Cat Heaven, author Cynthia Rylant offers comfort and a look into what could be. Each picture book features bright, bold images to show a peaceful and happy heaven where dogs receive delicious biscuits, and cats never lack a soft angel lap for naps. Slightly unconventional in its depictions of God and heaven, the book has brought comfort to many families.

To view Dog Heaven, click here.

To view Cat Heaven, click here.

It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.” —Katherine Paterson

Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen (Ages 8+)

Filled with wisdom, comfort, and practical tips, Tear Soup focuses on assuring the reader that grief is natural and normal. Its pages address the different emotions a child may feel after loss. Additionally, the book offers a cooking tips section that is full of guidance and solid suggestions for processing grief. With this book, you and your child can navigate the grief journey together, giving you the opportunity to sensitively answer your child’s questions along the way.

Click here to view the book.

A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith (Ages 8-12)

Children in the 8-12 age range have most likely come into contact with grief in some way. It could be the loss of a friendship, the death of a pet or loved one, or some other life-changing event. At this age, children already have a foundation for loss. Even so, it’s good to bring in story and books to help them ask questions and process emotions.

In A Taste of Blackberries, the author follows the friendship of two young boys when something terrible happens. Honest and open, this book will be a conversation starter with your child. It will give you the opportunity to explore how we move forward in a healthy way after loss.

Click here to view the book.

Reading is important, because if you can read, you can learn anything about everything and everything about anything.” —Tomie dePaola

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (Ages 8-12)

Another opportunity to learn through story, Bridge to Terabithia is a compelling tale of loss, friendship, and coming of age. Written by Newbery Medal-winning author Katherine Paterson, this children’s classic dives into the bonds of friendship and how people change us in positive ways, even if we only know them for a short time. Its encouragement to deal with grief in a healthy way and to rely on loving family for support will help your child learn how to deal with loss and lean on loved ones.

Click here to view the book.

Now that you have a place to get started, consider which books are most appropriate for your child. Read them, talk about them, and teach your child about grief, loss, and how to honor, remember, and celebrate the lives of those we have loved and lost.

Grief & the Six Needs of Mourning

By Grief/Loss

When we lose someone we love, we experience a wide range of complex and sometimes confusing feelings. These may include sadness, fear, anger, guilt, relief, and shock or disbelief. All of these emotions are normal reactions to loss, and they can vary greatly depending on the person and the type of loss. Having witnessed this spectrum of emotions through his years of walking with families through grief, Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief counselor, author, and educator, has come to identify six needs of mourning. It is only after these six needs are met that we can move toward healing and reconciliation following a loss.

But what are the six needs of mourning, you ask?

The 6 Needs of Mourning

Everything begins with a meaningful, healing, and personalized funeral or memorial service. The more personal, the more healing. Dr. Wolfelt has found that those who take part in a meaningful service have a firm foundation for their grief journey and “through their own grief work and through the love and compassion of those around them, are most often able to reconcile their grief and go on to find continued meaning in life and living.”

People often mistakenly think of the funeral or memorial service as an act of closure. This isn’t the case. In fact, the service is only the beginning of your grief journey. The challenge ahead of you is to walk through each of the six needs of mourning along the way toward healing.

Let’s look at each need individually and discuss what each one may look like in your life.

Need #1 – Acknowledge the reality of the death

When we lose someone we love, our minds naturally rebel against the knowledge. We don’t want to believe what has happened. We reject reality. But in order to heal, we must confront the truth. So, in some way, you must come to acknowledge the reality of the death. This may mean spending time with the body before burial or cremation, attending the funeral or memorial service, visiting the graveside, or something as simple as intentionally using the past tense when speaking about the person. In time, your mind will accept the reality of what has happened, and you can begin to process through the emotions of loss.

Need #2 – Move toward the pain of the loss

Dr. Wolfelt says, “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.” While the funeral or memorial service gives you a start on confronting your loss, it’s up to you to continue the journey. And that’s what it is – a journey. It will take time. It will take intentionality.

Instead of turning away from what you feel, allow yourself to grieve and heal. This may mean talking to trusted friends about your loved one, writing in a grief journal, going for long walks and talking aloud to your loved one, crying in the dark of night, or venting your anger or frustration by going on strenuous runs or using a punching bag. We all deal with our emotions differently, but as long as you aren’t hurting yourself or others, do what you must to face the pain and let the emotions out. Emotions that are stifled or allowed to fester will only lead to pain down the road, so deal with them now.

Need #3 – Remember the person who has died

In order to heal, we must shift our relationship with the one who has died from one of physical presence to one of memory. To do this, it’s important to actively find ways to remember the person who has died and to honor their legacy. In many ways, you do that by telling the story of your life with your loved one. According to Dr. Wolfelt, “the more we ‘tell the story’ the more likely we are to reconcile to the grief.”

So, be intentional about creating opportunities to share and to remember your loved one’s life. Bring friends and loved ones together for a shared remembrance meal. Don’t be afraid to share the stories of your life – growing up, in school, at work, at play, etc. Also, you might choose to create a memorial item, like a scrapbook, photo book, art piece, composition, or whatever else makes sense for you. As you create and design the memorial item, you engage with your memories and find comfort in them.

Need #4 – Develop a new self-identity

To some degree, our relationships give us an identity. Father, mother, sister, brother, friend, grandchild. You may have heard someone say, “I feel like a part of me died along with him.” This is because we gain some sense of identity from those around us. After losing someone we love, we have to step into a new identity, whether we want to or not.

Perhaps we move from a wife to a widow or from a grandchild with living grandparents to a grandchild without living grandparents. No matter the change, coming to grips with our new role – both in our family and in our other relationships – is an important part of the grieving process. In order to move forward with our lives, we must accept our new role and find a way to live it well.

Need #5 – Search for meaning

As part of the grief process, we naturally question the meaning of life and death. Why did this happen? Why now? What happens after death? The answers you find to these “why” questions will decide your reasons for living and contribute to your search for meaning. The death of a loved one confronts us with an inescapable fact: we will die. And because one day we, too, will face death, we must wrestle with how our lives look today. Ask yourself if there’s something you have always wanted to do or be known for. Have you done it? Why not? Is now the time to get started? Write down your thoughts, talk to friends or family, seek out ways to ask the hard questions, and if you do the work of grief, you will find the answers you need.

Need #6 – Receive ongoing support from others

Lastly, we need each other. We aren’t meant to go through life alone. The funeral or memorial service provides an excellent time to give and receive support, but you will still need support far beyond the ceremony. You may be tempted to work through these needs on your own – don’t. There are moments when time alone is needed, but also look for ways to invite others into your life. Find a group to support you – through church, school, or local support groups. The people around you can offer an incredible reserve of strength, kindness, and encouragement.

These are the six needs of mourning. You won’t necessarily experience them in any particular order. In fact, you may experience several at once. For example, you may sit down with a friend and receive support while also talking about your plans to make changes to your life. In this way, you are meeting needs #5 and #6. You will meet many of these needs quite naturally but still be intentional about facing your loss.

And remember – grief is a journey. There’s no hurry. No set time frame. Sometimes you can move forward after three months, sometimes three years, sometimes longer. The time it takes doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are working at it. You are looking for ways to reconcile yourself to what has happened and finding a way to move forward. Those who don’t find a way to move forward often become stuck in their grief, unable to move. Don’t allow yourself to become stuck – do the work of grief and find a way to continued meaning and new hope for the future. You can do this!

5 Tips for Helping a Person with Dementia Grieve

By Grief/Loss

If you are caring for a loved one with dementia, the grief journey for both of you will be a little more complicated. It may be that you’ve lost a mother, but your father, who suffers from dementia, has lost a wife. How do you navigate him through his loss – a loss that he may not always remember – while also walking down the road of grief yourself?

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a nationally respected grief counselor, author, and educator, has helped many families navigate the difficult journey through grief over the years. Because of his extensive background in helping families, he has identified key ways you can help someone with dementia mourn a loss. These helpful tips will empower you to help your loved one with dementia while also allowing you to grieve your own loss.

Dr. Wolfelt states: “For people with dementia, the grieving process grows more complicated. Their brains, the traffic control centers for thoughts and emotions, literally become clogged, creating dead ends, jams and crashes. Grief is a physical, cognitive, emotional, social and spiritual journey, yet the brain is where all those aspects of the self originate and traverse. Grief is always difficult, but when someone’s brain is no longer working well, it is even more challenging, both for the person with memory loss and for his or her family and caregivers.”

5 Tips for Helping a Person with Dementia Grieve

1. Interact with Empathy

Every person’s journey with dementia is different. As you help someone with dementia grieve, remember that their cognitive and physical condition, their personality, as well as the circumstances surrounding the loss will all factor into the process. That’s why it’s important to operate in empathy.

It is easy to become frustrated or stressed when caring for a person with dementia, but what they really need is your compassion, your kindness, and your willingness to try to understand reality from their perspective. Don’t worry about trying to say the “right” words – your empathetic presence and your support are more important than any specific words you may say.

2. Realize that They May Mourn Differently

Through his experience helping thousands of people through the grief process, Dr. Wolfelt has identified six needs of mourning: 1) acknowledge the reality of the loss, 2) feel the pain of the loss, 3) remember the person who has died, 4) develop a new self-identity, 5) search for meaning, and 6) receive ongoing support from others.

Now, in many cases, a person with dementia is no longer capable of addressing these six needs on their own. That’s where you – their caregiver and loved one – come in. For example, they may not always remember that someone has died, but in certain moments, they may recall it perfectly. When those moments of clarity come, allow the person with dementia to talk about the loss and share their memories, even if they are sharing those memories for the hundredth time.

Any expression of their inner thoughts and feelings is good and helpful, though it may be difficult for you to see. They may exhibit delayed reactions or sudden emotional outbursts. If this happens, try to remain calm. These reactions may be the only way they can express what’s happening on the inside, so witness their emotions and accept them. Above all, actively listen and affirm your loved one with dementia. This is how you can show your support.

3. Include Them in the Funeral Ritual

Whether you have a funeral or memorial service, a graveside service or a scattering of ashes, don’t be afraid to include the person with dementia in these symbolic events. If it’s appropriate, you can even include them in the funeral planning process. Tell them what choices are being made. Encourage them to share any memories they may recall and consider incorporating them into the service. Additionally, while the person with dementia may not remember attending the visitation, service, or gathering, the familiar rituals can offer comfort and support. Consider asking a family friend to sit beside the person with dementia during the funeral events so that immediate family members can focus on their own grief.

On the other hand, if the person with dementia is unable to attend any of the funeral events, there are other options available to help them understand the reality of the death and work through their grief. For example, you can arrange a private viewing. Or, schedule a short service at a place where the person with dementia can attend (their own home or an assisted living facility). You could also take the person with dementia to the cemetery, columbarium, or other final resting place. The more you include them, the more likely they are to retain the knowledge that a loved one has died and can grieve for that loss.

4. Pay Attention to Their Feelings

Because long-term memory is the last to be affected by dementia, your loved one may act as if the person who has died is still alive. When this happens, it’s okay. Consider it part of their memory at work and actively join them in reminiscing. In some moments, they will be completely lucid. In these moments, try to discern any emotions they may be feeling inside and compassionately name them. For instance, “It looks like you may be feeling….” This is a form of empathy and will help them feel understood and cared for.

5. Incorporate Practical Tools

There are intentional acts you can do to help a loved one with dementia through the grieving process. For instance, introduce items that belonged to the person who has died. Allow the person with dementia to handle the items. If their response is comforting, leave the object. However, if they react negatively, remove it and try another one.

Other practical tools are:

  • creating a display of photos they can look at and interact with
  • using the past tense when referring to the person who has died
  • recounting stories that may trigger memories
  • listening to music associated with special memories of the person who has died

By including these practices, you help your loved one with dementia do the work of grief.

Helping Them Helps You

Helping a loved one with dementia grieve will not be easy, but it is beneficial. Dr. Wolfelt believes: “Patience, honesty, and, most of all, empathy and love are the keys to helping a person with dementia after someone loved dies. Always remember that though dementia may destroy a brain, it cannot destroy a soul. The soul is where love and grief live, and any efforts you undertake to help the person express what is in their heart and soul will honor what has been most meaningful in their life.”

And while helping a person with dementia grieve may seem like a daunting task – something that takes away from your own ability to grieve – remember that as you help them grieve, you will also do the work of grief. Talking to a person with dementia about the reality of the loss will help you accept it yourself. Sharing memories about the person who has died will help you remember them, too. Witnessing the painful emotions your loved one with dementia may exhibit will help you to face your own pain at the loss. And so on.

Grief is the natural consequence of love. It is exhausting, physically and emotionally. But thankfully, there is no time frame and no deadline for “getting over” a loss. In fact, it’s not about “getting over” a loss – it’s about finding a way to move forward. And that takes time. So, as you help a loved one with dementia process a loss (and as you process your own feelings of loss), don’t feel pressured by an imaginary timeline. Instead, breathe deeply and take the time you need. There’s no rush.

*Source: Supporting Mourners with Dementia, Dr. Alan Wolfelt, August 2019

Helping a Friend Grieving the Loss of a Pet

By Grief/Loss, Pets

In so many ways, pets are family, too. Because we have the ability to create such deep connections to the animals we love, their loss affects us deeply. The more you lean on a pet for stability and companionship, the greater you feel their loss. For those who put a lot of time and energy into a pet, that loss can create an empty hole in that person’s life. So, as a friend, what can you do to support someone who is grieving the loss of a pet?

Realize that every grief journey is different

We grieve many things throughout our lives: loved ones, pets, relationships, jobs, etc. Each time we feel any type of loss, grief is a natural consequence. The grief may vary in its intensity, but it’s still there. So, even though you may not understand or perhaps you’re not really an animal person, realize that your friend’s grief journey is very real. For them, it’s deep and true and difficult. Accept the complexity of what they feel and look for ways to support and walk alongside them. They need friendship, kind actions, and a listening ear for the road ahead.

Allow them to express their feelings

When we feel loss, many emotions get pent up inside, so let your friend express their feelings without fear of judgment. You may not fully understand the depth of their emotions, but that doesn’t matter. This isn’t about understanding; it’s about sympathizing. Be a safe place. Be ready to hear and recount stories. Show compassion and a willingness to listen. You may hear the same stories again and again. That’s okay – telling the “stories” is a way of grieving and may be exactly what your friend needs.

Don’t try to fix it

Grief is not something wrong that needs to be fixed. Grief is the natural consequence of love. For so many of us, grief has almost become a negative emotion, but in reality, grief is beautiful. It means that we truly loved, that we felt deeply, that we were able to open up our hearts to someone or something. So, don’t try to fix your friend’s grief; allow them to experience it so they can truly heal. Some ways that we may try to fix grief are:

  • Suggesting they get a new pet right away
  • Minimizing the loss through words or actions
  • Brushing over their feelings

Instead, let them embrace the pain. Only by confronting our pain can we begin to process it and find the healing we need to move forward.

Help them celebrate and remember their pet

There are many memorial options for remembering and celebrating our pets. For a few ideas, read 7 Pet Memorial Options. Or, if you have young children, go to 10 Family-Focused Pet Remembrance Ideas. The point isn’t to forget and move on. The true end goal of grief is to learn how to incorporate the loss into your life, reconcile yourself to what life looks like now, and find a way to move forward. So, help your friend find ways to grieve in a healthy way by celebrating their pet and never forgetting the incredible impact pets can have on our lives.

Look for ways to let them know you care

It’s really the little things that mean the most. A quick phone call to ask how they’re doing. A sympathy card with personal comments about their pet and how he or she will be missed. Sending a bouquet of flowers to bring a sense of cheer. An invitation to go on a walk to enjoy the pleasant weather. Or, send in a donation to an organization that benefits animals in remembrance of your friend’s pet. All of these things (and more!) will let your friend know that you truly care and want to stand by them as they mourn their loss.

While grief for a pet may be short-lived for some, it may be a much longer road for others. Grief doesn’t have an expiration date or a time frame. It takes the time it takes, so be ready for the long haul. Check in with them regularly. Allow your friend to feel what they feel. And be a friend always.

10 Helpful Tips When Grieving a Loss

By Grief/Loss

Today, grieving can be difficult. Those who grieve often feel like they must “be strong” for others, whether it be family members, co-workers, or even strangers. We live in a world that encourages us to hide our pain and appear like we’ve “got it all together.” Many of us even shy away from our own pain, fearing that if we let our feelings have free rein, we will be seen as “out of control.” Our minds rebel against the idea of anyone seeing our pain, how deeply affected we are, how not okay we feel inside. But expressing our grief is the first step on the road to healing.

Grief is the natural result of love. When we love deeply and wholly, we open ourselves up to the grief that will come when the person we love dies. And while death is a part of life, the certainty of death doesn’t make it any easier. Did you know that the word “bereaved” literally means “to be torn apart”? So, by that definition, when we are grieving, we are being torn apart inside. It’s no wonder that we can become so tired, withdrawn, and quiet during times of loss.

The simple truth is that it’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to NOT “be strong” in the face of loss. It’s okay to give yourself permission to grieve, to give outward expression to the internal anguish of your soul. We need to be free to express our emotions, not hide from them or feel ashamed of them. They are what they are, and they are a natural response to what we’ve lost.

It will take time and intentionality to come to grips with everything you think and feel. The following grieving tips are meant to assist you and give you useful tools for navigating through the ups and downs of the coming months.

10 Helpful Tips When Grieving a Loss

1. Anticipate feeling a range of emotions.

People experience a wide spectrum of feelings at the loss of a loved one: shock, numbness, denial, confusion, yearning, anxiety, fear, guilt, sadness, relief, and more. You will certainly feel some – if not all – of these. It’s normal and natural to do so.

2. Don’t be afraid of your feelings.

You feel what you feel. It is what it is, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with the emotions that may be coursing through you. We all feel loss differently, and there is no comparison because every person and individual relationship is unique. Try not to stifle, ignore, or stuff down your feelings. Instead, accept that you feel what you feel and it’s okay.

3. Give yourself time.

Grief is a journey, not an event. You will need time to come to grips with what life looks like without your loved one. You aren’t necessarily going to spring back into life the way it was. It’s okay to give yourself a little space and take more breaks. Grief is hard work, and you need time to work through it.

4. Find ways to express your grief.

What you do is going to depend on your personality. For some, it’s helpful to go into the backyard and chop wood or go to the batting cages and just whack the balls over and over again. For others, creative expression is helpful. Many times, journaling, creative writing, painting, drawing, arts & crafts, or other types of self-expression help us make sense of the seemingly senseless feelings going on inside. And if you are a person of faith, prayer, meditation, or worship, these activities can help you express your grief.

5. Take care of yourself.

Most people feel more tired and less energetic when they are grieving. For this reason, it’s important to get plenty of sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping, stay hydrated, limit your caffeine intake, and sleep with your bedroom dark and relaxing. Additionally, eat healthy foods and participate in some kind of physical activity on a regular basis.

One thing to watch out for is numbing activities. It may start out as a coping mechanism but beware of allowing numbing activities to distract you from dealing with your grief. Common numbing activities are food, alcohol or drugs, anger, excessive exercise, TV or movies, books, isolating yourself, shopping, or losing yourself in work. While these may help you cope, they won’t help you heal and move forward after a loss.

6. Allow others to walk alongside you.

You don’t have to walk this road alone. In fact, it will be much less stressful if you do accept help from others. There’s an incredible scene in The Return of the King, the third installment of The Lord of the Rings. Throughout all three movies, Samwise Gamgee has faithfully walked alongside his dearest friend, Frodo Baggins. Together, as they seek to destroy a powerful ring and save all of Middle Earth, they face danger and hardships, feel lost and hopeless, and at one point, Sam even fears that Frodo has died. And then, the moment comes. Frodo is so near the end of this incredibly taxing quest – this journey that has sapped him physically, mentally, and emotionally – and he says, “I can’t do this, Sam.” After some fortifying words, Sam says, “I can’t carry it [the ring] for you, but I can carry you!” This is why we need friends along the hard journeys in life. They can’t carry our burdens for us, but they can help carry us along; they can provide the support we need to move forward and find new life and new meaning.

7. Take time to talk about your grief.

Sometimes it’s helpful to talk with a safe person about the emotions swirling around inside you. If you aren’t much of a talker or aren’t ready to be vulnerable with someone, write your thoughts down. However, if talking to friends and family simply isn’t working, then consider the benefits of a grief counselor. Sometimes the grief we feel is so incredibly deep that we need help getting back onto solid ground. If that’s you, it’s okay. You aren’t alone, and there is help.

8. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.

During times of grief, we often turn our focus inward. While this tendency is natural, it may also lead to feelings of isolation and intense, singular focus on the loss we have suffered. Cultivating a lifestyle of gratitude can help you better process a loss by moving your eyes beyond your pain, allowing you to see the good things in life that still remain. Gratitude increases positive emotions and overall well-being, improves sleep, and fosters resilience.

9. Keep your loved one’s memory alive with traditions.

While death deprives us of a loved one’s physical presence, that doesn’t mean we’ve lost everything we love about that person. Our relationship becomes one based on memory rather than physical presence. So, use traditions to keep a loved one’s memory alive. Our personal traditions encourage us to remember. They comfort us and give us a sense of familiarity and peace. For example, if you and your loved one watched a certain movie every Christmas or birthday, keep the tradition alive as a way to feel close to them.

10. Treasure your memories.

Write them down. Tell the stories to others. Share the essence of the one you loved with those around you and keep their legacy alive. Your memories are your own to cherish forever and will be a continual reserve of peace and comfort. The grief journey is a meandering way, filled with many steps. And part of the journey is traveling back into your memories in order to move forward toward reconciliation. Your loved one may be gone, but their memory need never die.

6 Ways to Use Photos to Honor a Loved One

By COVID-19, Meaningful Funerals, Memorial, Technology and Grief

With the current guidelines on social distancing, we must find ways of honoring and memorializing a loved one other than gathering together for a funeral or memorial service. Consider these ideas for using photos to honor and remember your loved one’s life together, even if you have to be apart for the time being.

1. Personalize a Memorial Website with Photos

Sometimes, we aren’t all able to come together to honor a loved one’s life, which is why online options are perfect for those who can’t attend a funeral because they live far away or are dealing with unexpected circumstances. With a memorial website, you can personalize the look with meaningful photos and invite others to leave comments, stories, and their own photos of your loved one. If you’d rather not create a memorial website, you can create a memorial page on Facebook (or another social media platform) instead.

2. Make a Tribute Video

With a tribute video, you can use photos, audio clips, video clips, favorite quotes, and so much more to create a truly personal account of your loved one’s life. Whether at a memorial website or other social media platform, a tribute video adds a meaningful element. A video allows family and friends to reflect on their memories, receive comfort, and laugh or cry as they remember a loved one. Additionally, a tribute video can be a special keepsake to be watched for years to come.

3. Distribute a Sharing Link for Photos

Another way to include others in honoring a loved one digitally is through a photo-sharing site. In other words, create a place where people can view your photos and share their own. For instance, you can use Flickr, Dropbox, Facebook, or even Instagram (using a personalized hashtag) to facilitate photo viewing and sharing. By sharing photos in this way, you invite others to discuss their own memories of your loved one. As an added bonus, you get to see moments of your loved one’s life that you may never have known. Together, everyone will have a more complete view of your loved one’s life and can honor its significance.

4. Order a Memory Book

Memory books can be easily created online using apps that lay out your photos into a book format. You can either request that the photo book service arrange the book for you or you can personalize it yourself. Whichever option you choose, a memory book is a wonderful keepsake gift. You can create it simply for yourself or you can make it available to other family members who would enjoy it. A few popular services are Shutterfly, Snapfish, and Mixbook. If you’d prefer to create a scrapbook instead, feel free to do that as well!

5. Print Photos on Canvas

Another wonderful option for a memorial keepsake is to print some of your favorite photos on canvas. There are many services that will create a personalized canvas print for you. Simply put in the order online and wait for your print! Once the print arrives, you can place it in a special place in your home. Also, you might consider printing photos on canvas as a wonderful memorial keepsake or gift for loved ones.

6. Frame a Collage of Prints

Alternatively, you can order prints online and frame a collage of photos of your loved one for yourself or for a family member. This special remembrance will help you continue to honor the memories of your loved one in a very special way. And again, you can present the collage to family and friends as a keepsake item. Or, you can get together, in person or online, and each create your own photo collage. In this way, you can honor your loved one’s life while also sharing memories with those you love.

Whether you implement one or all these ideas, photos are an excellent way to personally and meaningfully honor a loved one’s life. After all, your loved one’s life is as completely unique as every photo that records their extraordinary life.

For ideas on how to use photos to personalize a funeral service, click here.

Grieving a Coronavirus Death: Help for Special Circumstances

By COVID-19, Grief/Loss

If someone you love has died of the novel coronavirus, it is likely that you are facing a number of challenging circumstances. Grief is always difficult, but it is especially difficult whenever a death is sudden, unexpected, and unfolds in ways that violate our expectations and put up barriers to the cultural grief rituals that help us through.

I have been a grief counselor and educator for over forty years, and this pandemic is unlike anything I have encountered. I am sorry you have been so deeply affected by this hardship.

First, it is important to understand that grief is always normal and necessary. It is part of our love. But in complicated loss situations, the grief that follows often gets complicated, too. It is essentially normal grief in an abnormally challenging loss situation.

If this is where you are finding yourself right now, I hope this article will offer you some affirmation, comfort, and hope in the weeks to come.

If you couldn’t be with the person who was dying, or if you couldn’t view or spend time with the body after the death

In most cases, infectious-disease protocols are keeping loved ones apart from those who are critically ill or dying. Whether you were across the country or just down the road, you probably felt frustrated and maybe even distraught that you couldn’t be by your loved one’s side. While the enforced separation may have been necessary, you may understandably feel cheated of precious last moments and goodbyes.

Sometimes hospital caregivers have been able to use technology to help families communicate with loved ones dying of COVID-19 (or other causes during this period of restrictions). I hope this was true for you, but I also realize that these measures are not the same as being there.

Holding the hands of the dying and spending time with the body afterward are ways that we as human beings acknowledge the reality of a death and begin to embrace the pain of the loss. These are two essential mourning needs that will be naturally more difficult for you to meet in the weeks and months to come.

I encourage you to talk out your thoughts and feelings about these circumstances with people who are good listeners. When the time is right, I also encourage you to reach out to the hospital and/or funeral home staff who cared for your loved one and ask them to tell you anything they can. If you can reconstruct what happened even a little bit, you will likely feel better. Often our minds are searching for a few details and assurances, and when they’re provided, we can rest a little easier.

If a funeral wasn’t possible or has been delayed

Funerals are essential because they help us begin to meet all of our mourning needs. The mourning journey often takes years, and a good funeral sets us off on a good path.

Funerals help us acknowledge and accept the reality of a death, share memories, convert our relationship with the person who died from one of presence to one of memory, give and receive social support, express our grief out loud, consider the meaning of life and death, and help us start to think about how to live life forward with meaning and purpose.

Yet I realize that in this pandemic, many gatherings have been rendered impractical or impossible. I’ve been encouraging funeral directors and families to try to have a brief immediate ceremony, even if only by Zoom or Skype, followed by a larger memorial service once the restrictions are lifted. Some people have also been holding an informal, intimate service in their own homes to mark the death and honor the person who died.

Please know that it’s never too late to have a ceremony, and especially if you weren’t able to be with the dying person or the body afterward, holding several ceremonies is a good idea. Ask a clergyperson, celebrant, or friend to help you. You will find that people who were unable to support you at the time of the death will want to provide you the support you need and deserve. And inviting friends and family to support one another is something you will always be glad you did. To achieve the goal of multiple ceremonies, you might have an immediate candle-lighting service in your home, a graveside or scattering service as soon as possible, and a tree-planting ceremony on the anniversary of the death, for example.

Essentially, ceremony and ritual have the power to partially fill some of the holes created by the COVID-19 death circumstances. And it’s never too late to use them.

If you’re separated from your support systems

While most of us are sheltering in place, we’re apart from the people we would normally talk to, hug, and hold close during a time of great loss.

If this is true for you, I urge you to use all the technology tools you can to reach out to the people you care about. Video calls are probably the best substitute for face-to-face conversations. Voice calls come second. After that, emails, texting, and social media work too. And don’t forget the power of the handwritten letter! The point is to stay connected as much as possible AND to be open and honest in those communications about whatever it is you are feeling or struggling with at the moment. Your candor will encourage others to be honest as well, creating the opportunity for mutual support and kindness.

In addition to creating a lifeline in the time of separation, these tools will help you maintain and build your important relationships so that when gathering and travel restrictions are finally lifted, you will have the strong connections and good momentum you need. Everyone will be on the same page and ready to support one another in person. You can even use this homebound time to plan ceremonies, build online memorial pages, and gather photos, video footage, and memorabilia of the person who died.

If you’re angry, anxious, self-blaming, or feeling guilty

In complicated grief circumstances, these feelings are especially common. They’re normal! Feelings aren’t right or wrong—they just are. Please don’t make it even harder on yourself by judging your feelings or thinking that you’re abnormal.

Maybe you’re angry about how the person who died contracted coronavirus or was cared for while ill. Maybe you feel anxious that you or someone else will get the disease (and perhaps die), or maybe the death has given rise to anxiety about finances and other life realities. Maybe you blame yourself about some aspect of what happened. And maybe you feel guilty that you are still living while your loved one is not.

Again, these and other feelings are normal and common in grief, and especially in complicated grief. Whenever you’re having an uncomfortable or “stuck” feeling, the key is to express it as much and as often as it takes for it to begin to soften. You express it by sharing it with a friend, writing about it in a journal, or talking about it in a support group or to a grief counselor, for example. Expressing your grief is called mourning, and mourning is how, over time, you step one day at a time toward healing.

I understand that right now, the traumatic nature of your loved one’s COVID-19 death and your thoughts and feelings about it may color every aspect of your grief. It is part of your grief, but it is not the totality of your grief. Other factors that contribute to your grief include the nature of the relationship you had with the person who died, your unique personality, your religious and cultural backgrounds, your gender, your age, your previous experiences with loss, as well as others. Your grief is a complicated blend of thoughts and emotions, most of which stem from your love for the person who died. Over time you will come to find that your grief is as much or more about the life than it is about the death.

If you are able to muster the courage to actively mourn and use ceremony, over time you will find a path to a renewed life of meaning and purpose. Remember, you are not alone, and there are no rewards for speed. I hope you will share your coronavirus story and grief tips with me at drwolfelt@centerforloss.com.

About the Author

Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., is an author, educator, and grief counselor. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty of the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many bestselling books on coping with grief, including Grief One Day at a Time and First Aid for Broken Hearts. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about grief and loss and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.

The COVID-19 Mourner’s Bill of Rights

By COVID-19, Grief/Loss

The pandemic has created unusually complicated death and grief circumstances for many people personally affected by COVID-19. If someone you love has died from the novel coronavirus, you have certain “rights” that no one can take away from you. This list is intended both to empower you to heal in ways that work for you, and to decide how others can and cannot help.

1. You have the right to experience your own unique grief.

While many people are experiencing COVID-related loss, no one else will grieve in exactly the same way you do. So, when you turn to others for help, don’t allow them to tell what you should or should not be feeling.

2. You have the right to talk about the death and your grief.

Talking about the death and your grief will help you heal. Seek out others who will allow you to talk as much as you want, as often as you want, about what happened. If at times you don’t feel like talking, you also have the right to be silent.

3. You have the right to feel a multitude of emotions.

Shock, disbelief, confusion, anger, fear, and guilt are just a few of the feelings you might experience as part of your grief journey. Others may tell you that some of your feelings are wrong or not helpful. Don’t take these judgmental responses to heart. Instead, find listeners who will accept your feelings without condition.

4. You have the right to be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits.

Your feelings of loss and sadness will probably leave you feeling fatigued. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. Get daily rest. Eat balanced meals. And don’t allow others to push you into doing things you don’t feel ready to do.

5. You have the right to experience “griefbursts.”

Sometimes, out of nowhere, a powerful surge of grief may overcome you. This can be frightening, but it is normal and natural. Find someone who understands and will let you talk it out.

6. You have the right to make use of ritual.

Death rituals such as funerals not only help you truly acknowledge a death and express your necessary feelings, but they also bring friends and family together to support one another. Funerals are especially important in circumstances in which you could not be with the dying person or view the body. If pandemic restrictions prevented a meaningful funeral shortly after the death, you have the right to have one or more gatherings in the months to come.

7. You have the right to embrace your spirituality.

If faith is a part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs. If you feel angry at God, find someone to talk with who won’t be critical of your feelings of hurt and abandonment.

8. You have the right to search for meaning.

You may find yourself asking, “Why did he or she die? Why this way? Why now?” Some of your questions may have answers, but some may not. And watch out for the clichéd responses some people may give you. Comments like, “It was God’s will” or “Think of what you still have to be thankful for” are not helpful, and you do not have to accept them.

9. You have the right to reach out for support.

During the pandemic, many families and close friends have been separated from one another. This has made death and grief even harder than they already are. You have the right to reach out for support with video calls, phone calls, and other forms of technology every day. You also have the right to gather in person as soon as it is safe.

10. You have the right to move toward your grief and heal.

Your grief has been complicated by extremely difficult circumstances, and reconciling it will not happen quickly. Be patient and gentle with yourself, and avoid people who are impatient and intolerant with you. The more you actively embrace and express your grief—bit by bit, day by day—the more momentum you will achieve toward healing.

About the Author

Dr. Alan Wolfelt is an author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many compassionate, bestselling books designed to help people mourn well so they can continue to love and live well, including Understanding Your Grief, The Mourner’s Book of Hope, and Grief One Day at a Time. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about the natural and necessary process of grief and mourning.