by Lou LaGrand

Everyone makes mistakes or fails in their attempts to grow and meet the challenges of daily life. Without these miscues little would be learned and growth as a person would be limited. In short, failure is a key ingredient for success and should be looked at as a resource for moving forward, not a behavior to be despised.

There is one exception to the above observation: when someone makes a mistake, refuses to learn from it, and keeps repeating the same error expecting positive change to occur. This easily happens in the emotional turmoil of mourning the death of a loved one. As a counselor, here are the negative repeats I see most often and what you can do to move past them.

1. Mourners grieve according to the agendas of caregivers. It is not uncommon to be told by well meaning friends or family that “you shouldn’t cry so much” or “you should be over it by now.” After all, it has been three months since your loved one died and you should be acting like your old self.

In reality, grief is not time bound. Each person’s grief is one of a kind. And, grief revisits for months and years later. Go with your gut. Grieve as you see fit. This does not mean you should ignore the input from a wise friend in some instances. Always consider the experience and insight of others. But in the final analysis, make decisions based on what you believe deep within is right for you.

2. Mourners do not accept and grieve secondary or associated losses. All major losses involve secondary losses such as finance, companionship, wise counsel, and inspiration, to name a few. Loss of meaning, future dreams involving the deceased, and losses occurring months or years later (when a child graduates or a grandchild is born and the deceased is not present) are all strong secondary losses for many people. These and numerous other very personal secondary losses need to be openly recognized, faced, and mourned. Here is where a wise friend who is a good listener can be of great assistance.

3. Mourners isolate themselves from others. Grief itself is often a self-isolating process because the big three-anger, guilt, and depression-tend to drive potentially helpful people away, if they do not understand the nature and purpose of these emotions. Once more, the mourner often deliberately avoids contact with others and stays isolated for long periods of time. However, taking action to make connections is an absolute necessity for successful grief work. A social network inevitably is a hope resource; it is our interaction with others that brings glimmers of hope that we will make it through the ordeal.

4. Mourners do nothing about finishing unfinished business. It is very common to look back and wish you had said or done something else for the deceased when he/she was alive. Or, perhaps there was something the deceased had not accomplished or did wrong and you were unable to resolve the issue. Unfinished business is a fact of life that can become a major source for increasing the intensity and length of grief work. You may believe nothing can be done now that death has intervened. Nonetheless, many mourners have written a letter to the deceased or “talked” to the deceased to lay out their feelings and to offer or seek forgiveness. Allow the past to stay in the past. Say what you must say, realize we are all imperfect, and then focus your attention and energy on a plan to answer the important question “Where do I go from here?”

5. Mourners believe that smiling, laughing, or taking a break from grieving by accepting an invitation for dinner with friends, is demeaning to the memory of the deceased (“I should be sad all the time”). Nothing could be further from the truth. No one can grieve nonstop without becoming ill. Everyone needs respite for minutes, or more appropriately, hours. In fact, it is critical that you plan for diversions for the benefit of your body as well as your mind.

Do something that you enjoy that will alter the condition of your emotional life. And, don’t feel guilty. Make a list of things you enjoy. This will take some time, given your present frame of mind. But build your list and refer to it every day. Call it your Balancing List. Don’t let a day go by without doing something from your list just for you.

6. Mourners refuse to recognize that the death of their loved ones means they have to start a new life. This is a very difficult concept to accept and hard to accomplish. Yet, a part of you has died; that part that interacted with the physical presence of your beloved. Each time you routinely do something where your deceased loved one would have been present, will be a new part of your life. In order to start that new life, one of your tasks of grieving, will be to accept new routines that you alone develop.

Acceptance of the new is like the elephant in the room. You can’t afford to ignore its importance as a major goal in grieving, since without it you cannot reinvest in life. You will be stuck indefinitely. Over time, those new routines and connections will become habitual and like the old.

7. Mourners seldom are aware that it is nearly impossible to love someone, and when they die, not feel guilty about something in the relationship. Often the guilt has to do with the medical treatment received by the deceased and the survivor’s perceived (most often a false perception) lack of action in obtaining better care. Or, there is something else they should have done better or more frequently. Maybe they should have gotten the person to stop smoking. This is commonly called neurotic guilt and has to be tested by asking one simple question: Did I deliberately do what I feel guilty about? The answer is almost always a “no,” if they are honest with themselves.
Finally, what is the overall solution to these very common mistakes? One word says it all: persistence. Persistence will pave the way to focusing your attention on the next chapter of your life. When in doubt, take action and do something to challenge the thinking behind the negative thought. You already have the wisdom within to know what has to be done. Good grief is all about good choices, choices you can make.

Dr. LaGrand is a grief counselor and the author of eight books, the most recent, the popular Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved. He is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (after-death communication phenomena) and is one of the founders of Hospice of the St. Lawrence Valley, Inc. His free monthly ezine website is
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