Acute Loss Period
The goal of our firm is to lead families through the seven phases of the Acute Loss Period in ways that will foster healing for families and their communities at the time of loss and in the days, weeks, and months following. By demystifying the seven phases, we hope we can take the mystery out of what to do when a loved one dies, and focus instead on how to maximize the benefits from each of these stages so you can grieve, grow, heal, and continue to love.
When we hear a loved one has died our body responds to this from the nuanced to the profound, and the response is its attempt to say, "This news hurts, it cuts deeply." There is almost a direct correlation between the traumatic nature of what we hear and the intensity of our physical response to it.
We learn about the death through our senses; we first hear or see the event. Our auditory nerve or optic nerve processes the news and sends a message to our brain that, in turn, releases a series of messages to the rest of our body. Our emotional attachment to the deceased is the central issue we are processing when we hear the news that someone we love has died. The closer and deeper our emotional attachment to someone, the more significant the emotional response to their loss will be.
After this initial response the natural impulse is to suppress what we are feeling as we attempt to regain some emotional bearings and stability. This is especially true for men, many of whom have been trained by society to "be strong" during emotionally challenging life events. Decision-making during this time can be challenging.
Shortly after the Hearing Phase, the second phase of the Acute Loss Period begins. This phase, called the Sharing Phase, starts when we begin sharing the news of our loss with someone else. Usually, we share first with the person closest to us, the person who cares about us the most or the person nearest in proximity. It may be a spouse, child, parent, or co-worker, but most often, it is someone in our closest circle of friends and family. We share with the ones we can be the most vulnerable with and those we know will be the most supportive.
After the first words are spoken, it is not uncommon to sit quietly together, recalling stories and thinking of others (family members, friends, clergy, etc.) who also need to be told. Sharing in the early stage of loss is our attempt to inform others and also begins the journey of engaging them with our feelings. In sharing our thoughts and emotions, we begin to build the emotional support system that will carry us through the months of our grief long after others have returned to their lives and activities. Involving others at the time of the loss allows us to engage them in the future, well after the loss, and keeps us from becoming isolated in our grief. Without sharing, the grieving process can force people into isolation with the false belief that no one understands or cares.
The Sharing Phase is followed by the Seeing Phase. As your friends hear for the first time that your loved one has died, they will begin to share that news with others. One of the first questions they will ask is, "When will the services be held?" They ask it in those words, but what they really want to know is when and where they are going to be able to see you. It is important to understand that 70% of the people who attend a funeral will not have known the deceased. They will come to see you, pay respects to your loved one, and let you know that you matter to them. Seeing you will help to make your loss real to them and provide the opportunity to share memories of your loved one's life. They will share in both your loss and your memories.
The second part of the Seeing Phase is seeing your deceased loved one for the first time. 97% of the families we serve take time for this very important psychological step. Most do this to have an opportunity to share a final thought, a word of affection and sometimes to make peace their past. Seeing our deceased loved ones has been the practice of humankind since antiquity because seeing makes their death real. The phrase "seeing is believing" is never truer than at this time and sets a time and place for everyone in the family to begin their journey to healing together.
The Seeing Phase is followed by the Gathering Phase. The first part of this phase may begin with extended family gathering at a family member's home or at the funeral home. Eventually this will move to the arrangement conference and continue to expand as you progress through this phase of your loss. The old adage "we only get together for weddings and funerals" is true. Between the two, most believe only funerals are mandatory.
At this time you will see relatives you may not have seen in years. They share your loss because they share your heritage and are a part of your family legacy. It will come as no surprise that not everyone will agree on the choices that were made. Because of this, it is important to remember that there is no right way or wrong way to say farewell. Each person's needs are unique and ought to be valued by others.
Those who come to a gathering are responsible for getting there, their task is to be present and by their presence share in your loss. Your task is to connect with them, which leads to our next phase.
The Gathering Phase is followed by the Connecting Phase. This can be the most emotional, challenging, and rewarding phase of the farewell experience. People want to let you know they share your loss and need direction from you on how to do this. One of the most effective ways to connect with extended family and friends is to bring memorabilia from the person’s life to a gathering time. By providing an opportunity to visit, we are really just creating a time and place to connect others to cherished memories; to receive and offer love and support from those closest to us; and enable others to share in our loss.
The Connecting Phase is a powerful way of reminding us in the midst of loss that life will go on, and that we are not alone and will not be abandoned. Failure to plan for a time and place for connecting, indirectly suggests that you do not wish to share your loss with others and can be viewed as a "no trespassing" sign. As such, friends will not know when, where, or how to interact with you. When they see you at the grocery store, post office, or church, they will not know if it's okay to express their sympathy and concern, or if doing so will frustrate or sadden you.
The Connecting Phase slowly segues to the Reflecting Phase. You and those who gather and connect will naturally begin to reflect on the meaning and significance of the life shared with your loved one. As your loved one's life stories are told, your memories will lead you to a place of reflection about their life and your own. How did they impact or influence you? What would life have been like without them? What will I tell my children about this person? How do I want to be like them? For what am I most grateful?
For most, this is a time of life review and can be a transformational experience for many. People who have made poor choices in their lives or postponed painful decisions will often use this opportunity to change their personal habits and behaviors. I've seen survivors lose 50 pounds of excess weight, quit smoking, leave abusive marriages, recommit to failing marriages, forgive a relative or friend, or change their career direction. The life review that occurs at the time of death is profound for many and will need time to fully mature. The death of a loved one shared in the context of a loving family, nurtured by a ritual that attends to emotional, relational, and spiritual needs of each person, serves as the platform for a healthy grieving experience and life transformation.
By celebrating, we recognize the importance of making room for joy in the midst of our sadness. It is during the celebrating stage that you begin embracing both the meaning of your loved one's life and the significance of their death. It is a time to appreciate the greatest and least significant moments of your life as meaningful and a part of who you ultimately become. If you lose your way in life, celebrating those things that matter the most can remind you of what is most important and who you are. Celebrating acknowledges both the significance of human loss and the value of human love. The celebration is inspiring without being festive. It is heartwarming, uplifting, and meaningful to those closest to the loss.