Meeting the needs of mourning

JUNE 23, 2024 7:00 AM

When we started this initiative back in 2015, I liked what we chose to name it — “Learning to Live: What’s Your Story?” What I didn’t know then was how I would grow to appreciate that choice, and also appreciate applying those words in my own life.

Learning to live is exactly what we have to do after we’ve experienced the loss of a loved one. To “learn” means to gain knowledge or understanding through study, instruction or experience. Grieving and mourning are about gaining knowledge and understanding. At times through study and instruction, and mostly through experience. One way we do this is by sharing our stories, like in this column.

Since my dad’s death three months ago, I’ve been paying close attention to how I’m learning to live. For the most part, I feel like I’m learning by meeting Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s “Six Needs of Mourning”:

Acknowledge the reality of the death – This takes place a little bit at a time. From the time I spent with my dad after his death and before Koch Funeral Home took him into their care, to the conversations I continue to have with myself and others, I process what his death means each day. The reality continues to sink in. At the beginning, I found myself wanting to say to people, “My dad died.” Those words were hard to speak but helped me accept the reality. Now help comes from things like recognizing my dad wasn’t physically present for the first time this Father’s Day.

Embrace the pain of the loss – As Dr. Wolfelt wrote, “… doing well with your grief means becoming well acquainted with your pain.” I’ve become well acquainted with my pain, again in bits and pieces. When the pain comes, I do my best to open and allow it. Initially, I was surprised with the amount of fatigue I experienced. These days the pain comes mainly in moments of recognition that my dad isn’t here to smile, laugh, and give me his love, or to enjoy new life events, like the birth of a fifth great-grandchild.

Remember the person who died – It is healthy to continue bonds with deceased loved ones, as long as we don’t get stuck there and stop engaging with life. Thinking about my dad and including his name is a daily occurrence. Sometimes these thoughts bring grief, but more often lately, they bring gratitude. I recently read about the concept of relocation. My dad isn’t gone, he has relocated to my memories, my heart, and to his essence that surrounds me.

Develop a new self-identity – Our identity and roles change after a death. As with the other needs, I’ve found my experience of this one shifting over time. Shortly after my dad’s death I found myself wondering, who am I now that he isn’t here? I also found myself somewhat overwhelmed taking on new roles in the handling of his finances. Today I feel myself settling into this new identity with more and more frequent feelings of empowerment.

Search for meaning – At certain times, this need is about asking the why questions surrounding a death. I’m not burdened with these types of questions. My dad lived a long life filled with adventures, family and love. At other times, this need is about checking in with our own spirituality. That has definitely been a part of my grief journey. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Where there is sorrow there is holy ground. Some day people will realise what that means. They will know nothing of life till they do …” Although I’m not grateful that my dad died, I’m grateful for the places his death has been leading me in my spiritual life.

I actually struggle a little with the title of this need. We talk a lot about meaning in our world and I’m not convinced of its necessity. I am not a believer in “everything happens for a reason,” but instead like what the title of author and American Franciscan priest Richard Rohr’s book says, “Everything Belongs.” So, for me this need about searching for meaning is exploring my own spirituality and making my dad’s death belong in my life.

Receive ongoing support from others – I consider myself very fortunate because this need continues to be met over and over again. Between my family, friends, and the many grief education and support gatherings I facilitate, the support I receive from others is endless. I recognize how fortunate I am.

Learning to live after my dad’s death is exactly what I’m doing here by sharing my story. What’s your story?

Jackie Naginey Hook, MA, is a spiritual director, celebrant, and end-of-life doula who facilitates the Helping Grieving Hearts Heal program through Koch Funeral Home in State College. This column is coordinated by, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

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