Heartaches and Headaches

While heartaches take time to heal, the headaches after a loss can be largely avoided by creating an end of life plan

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Chris Haws

Countless old movies include a scene where the kindly doctor lays a sympathetic hand on their patient’s arm and says “It may be time to think about putting your affairs in order, Edgar.”  A clock ticks ominously in the background, as Edgar absorbs the news.  And in some versions of this scenario, a neighbor’s dog howls, or distant thunder rolls.  It’s an unmistakable cinematic signpost that points the audience towards the inevitable deathbed scene, perhaps a funeral service, and occasionally a rainswept graveside tableau.  

We’ve all seen that movie.  Many of us have lived some version of it.  But life is not a movie and all too often the events surrounding the death of a loved one are chaotic, unpredictable, and very definitely not scripted.

Unfortunately, the truth is that not that many people, or their loved ones, have the time, the energy, or the inclination to “put their affairs in order.”  And when the moment of passing arrives, too much else is going on as the maelstrom of anguish, agony, and despair swirls around those who are grieving the loss. 

Which brings me to the distinction I draw, as a grief counselor, between heartaches and headaches.

The heartache that follows from a bereavement is physiologically, psychologically and spiritually devastating.  Our bodies can, and often will, manifest a range of physical symptoms, as our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems struggle to cope with the shock of the loss.  Eating, sleeping, waking, dreaming, breathing – all these physiological functions, and many more - can be disrupted by grief.  Psychologically, our ability to think coherently and stay focused can be severely compromised, temporarily at least.  And spiritually, our sense of what it all means – our notions of purpose and self - can take a beating too.  These are the accompaniments to grief and they will never fully go away.  Time will ameliorate their severity and frequency, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the death of a loved one changes a person. 

As Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler observed in their seminal book “On Grief and Grieving”…  

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”

That’s the “heartache” I’m referring to.  And it’s permanent.

The “headaches” are a different matter.  They too can be acutely painful, generating anxiety, confusion and many sleepless nights.  But they’re not permanent.  There will be funeral directors to hire, wills to retrieve, banks to inform, bureaucracies to negotiate, insurance companies to contact, and lawyers to engage, but one by one the seemingly endless checklist of post mortem tasks will shrink away to become no more than a few grim memories, to be revisited as seldom as possible.  At least, that’s how it can be and should be.  The trick – if that’s the right word – is to prepare for the worst long before it occurs.  There are now numerous online and hard copy products that can help you to organize all the essential documentation that will be needed when you, or a loved one, dies.  

It’s impossible to overstate what a blessing that pre-mortem effort will prove to be.  When the entire world has been turned upside down by a death, whether anticipated or not, some measure of comfort can be gained from the knowledge that not only are the necessary documents readily accessible, but also that the deceased loved you enough to bequeath you a helping hand from beyond the veil. 

Chris Haws is a British born Psychologist and Counselor based in Northwest DC who specializes in bereavement and grief, substance abuse and recovery, and personal development and mindfulness.  For over three decades, his writing has appeared in print, radio and TV around the world.  He is the founder of "Telegrief" and can be contacted at telegrief.com.

Categories: Grief, Planning Ahead

Lantern provides guidance and support for navigating life before and after a death.

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