A Year of Firsts – helping the family through the first year

The first year after the death of a loved one is particularly difficult. Inevitably, there are new reminders of the person who is greatly missed. Feelings of loss surface often, and the pain seems to last forever. The first year after a loss is filled with memories and experiences which are not very pleasant. Each situation is new because the family must face the loss on that particular occasion. You must learn how to face things such that it does not becoming a traumatic experience every time a new situation arises.


Following re-entry into normal life after the death of a loved one, the family has to make major adjustments. The loss has to be integrated into their lives. It takes a long time for the family to adjust themselves. It is important that the first year after the loss be a strong foundation for the years to come. Excessive grieving and falling apart on facing new experiences will only make the task harder. The following points will help the family in their adjustment after death. 1. Sameness and Stability – If possible, do not make any other changes in your life during the early months of grief. Some people believe that they can move on and grieve faster if they make changes in another part of their lives. They hope to keep busy with the change, and let it divert them from their feelings of pain and sorrow. Actually, the process of grief – necessary for healing – is compounded and slowed down tremendously when we start to cope with additional stresses or changes. Sometimes there may be no alternative to change. It may be necessary to move, change jobs etc. but remember that this means you will have to deal with several losses at the same time. Provide sameness and stability in as many areas of the family’s life as possible. Predictable routines and a stable environment are key components for healing from grief in the first year. There is great comfort in knowing that you will have the same house, the same school, job etc. when the rest of your life is in turmoil. 2. New traditions for meaningful times – Important occasions are the most feared events in the first year after the death of a beloved family member. We cannot remove these important occasions from our calendar, or ignore their existence. We will have to prepare as best we can for the emotional peaks and valleys we will experience at these significant times. Family members fear upsetting each other, especially children. Try not to overcompensate for the loss. There is no need for extra gifts and treats than normal. Loved ones need extra time and attention at such times. Don’t try to change or diminish the occasion. The celebration may not be as joyous as in previous years, but altering family tradition will compound the grief. Instead, add a new tradition to remember the deceased; a special prayer, a visit to the grave, a donation to some charity, etc. Encourage family members to think about what they might like to do and ask for their suggestions. These special activities will give the occasion a new meaning. 3. Understanding “different” behavior – One of the most challenging aspects of grief is the new and unexpected behavior exhibited by the mourners, especially children. Children who were calm and good natured become surly and overactive, tears and wailing are common place. Others may become quiet, uninterested in life, almost depressed in their moods. These are symptoms of grief, and there is no need to agonize over them.With the natural healing of grief, these symptoms will die a natural death. People feel differently at different times, and all are entitled to their feelings. Sharing of feelings often stimulates participation and discussions of feelings. Upon hearing that adults have feelings similar to their own, children feel reassured and comforted. It is necessary to get a grieving child to talk about his/her feelings. No matter what behavior family members exhibit after a loss, remember it is only temporary. Most likely the symptoms of grief will gradually disappear. These are not permanent personality changes. Be patient, talk to others. If after many months of trying, the symptoms still persist quite strongly, seek outside help. 4. Getting the support you need – Bereavement is a needy time. Mourners are vulnerable in the extreme. A million tasks cry out to be done, and yet the world is crashing in on you. Everything in your life has been shattered. In the immediate aftermath of death, people visit, bring food, call, etc. But after that, many stay away, unsure of how they can help. It is important to talk to others about your loss, about how you feel. Communicate your needs, both physical and emotional. Balance your need for solitude with your need for company. For many mourners, loneliness can be a great problem. Even when they have people around them, the lack of effective communication can create a barrier around them. This only intensifies the grief and slows the healing process. Seek out people who are willing to listen and can understand. Do not rely only on the family, for when everyone is grieving, no-one is strong. Sometimes, expecting a lot of help from your family is just adding pressure to an already stressed out system. Family members may discuss and share feelings, but it helps to seek out others. Death brings out the best in human nature. Often mourners feel recognized and consoled, touched by the sympathy shown by others, shored up by their kindness and concern. Many people have found that the support they receive following a death strengthens their faith in humanity. Under the best of circumstances, the attentions that come to a mourner act as a form of bonding, knitting together the griever with those who see the magnitude of the loss and understand its implications. Although the first year is not without its downfalls, it can be managed with care and sensitivity. It is the strongest period of grief and we would be unrealistic to expect a smooth year. The idea is to handle it as best as possible. Sources: Giving Sorrow words, Candy Lightner & Nancy Hathaway, and The Seasons of Grief, Dr. Donna A. Gaffney.