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Thinking Out Loud: Top mistakes people make when mourning

By John T. Catrett III
ONHL Hospice Chaplain

Everyone makes mistakes in their attempts to meet the challenges of daily life. Without these miscues little would be learned and growth would be limited. In short, failure is a key ingredient for success and should not be a behavior to be despised. This easily happens in the emotional turmoil of mourning the death of a loved one. As a chaplain, here are the negative repeats I see most often and what you can do to move past them.

Mourners grieve according to the agendas of caregivers. Well-meaning friends or family often suggest that "you shouldn't cry so much" or "you should be over it by now." In reality, grief is not time bound. Grieve as you see fit. You should ignore the input from a wise friend, but in the final analysis, make decisions based on what you believe deep within is right for you.

Mourners do not grieve secondary losses. All major losses involve secondary losses such as finance, companionship, wise counsel, and inspiration. Future dreams involving the deceased and losses occurring months or years later (a child’s graduation or a grandchild is born) are strong secondary losses for many people. These and numerous other secondary losses need to be openly recognized, faced, and mourned. A wise friend who is a good listener can often assist.

Mourners isolate themselves from others. Grief itself is often a self-isolating process. Anger, guilt, and depression-tend to drive potentially helpful people away if the nature and purpose of these emotions is misunderstood. The mourner is often driven to self-isolation for long periods of time. However, taking action to make connections is absolutely necessary for successful grief work. It is our interaction with others that brings hope that we will progress through the ordeal.

Mourners do nothing about completing 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. Unfinished business can become an added source of increasing the intensity and length of grief work. Many mourners have written a letter to the deceased to express their feelings and to offer or seek forgiveness. Allow the past to stay in the past. Accept your imperfections and focus your attention and energy on a plan to answer, "Where do I go from here?"

Mourners believe that joy or taking a break from grieving is demeaning to the memory of the deceased. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one can grieve nonstop without consequences. It is critical to 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. Build your list and refer to it every day. Practice daily doing something from your list just for you.

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. The part that interacted with the physical presence of your beloved has also died. To start a new life apart from your loved one’s presence, one of your tasks of grieving will be to accept new routines that you alone develop. Acceptance of the new is essential since without it you cannot reinvest in life. You will be stuck indefinitely. Over time, those new routines and connections will become habitual.

Mourners seldom are aware that it is nearly impossible to love someone and not feel guilty about something in the relationship after the death. It can have many sources, such as the type of medical treatment received by the deceased, the survivor's perceived (most often falsely) lack of obtaining better care. Maybe they feel they feel they should have gotten the person to stop a bad habit -- commonly called neurotic guilt. It has to be tested with one simple question: Did I deliberately do what I feel guilty about? The answer is almost always "no."

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. Take action and do something to challenge negative thought patterns. You already have the innate wisdom to know what has to be done. Good grief is all about good choices, choices you can make.

John T. Catrett III is chaplain for ONHL Hospice. He can be reached at (918) 352-3080 or