When a Loved One Dies: Stages of Grief

— Written By N.C. Cooperative Extension


He died one year ago.  To many, he was that friendly guy who always said hello with a smile and a wave.  To others, he was a friend.  The kind of friend that you would keep forever, drive 15 hours in a car to visit for a day and call as often as time allowed.  To a fortunate few, he was the perfect dad, husband of 62 ½ years, grandpa who always snuck you candy and the uncle with all the funny stories.  For me, he was my 87-year-old father in law.

We all have experienced the loss of a loved one, friend or acquaintance.  When bonds are broken and people are “lost”, we tend to grieve for what was and/or what could have been.  There is a natural process that occurs within each one of us, at various times and at various levels.  Some believe every death is like a personal hurricane, each of us experiencing different categories of grief.  Regardless, what matters most is to recognize that while what feels like bands of endless storms may initially reign down upon you, trust that the sun will shine brightly upon you again, guaranteed. 

Others experience it differently, feeling the loss of a loved one is more like a roller coaster – with ups and downs of emotion taking hold.  One thing is certain, upon hearing the news of a death there is most often shock, denial and statements or outright denial along the lines of “I just saw him this past Christmas.  He looked fine.  He can’t be gone.”  For those charged with delivering the difficult news to other loved ones, it is essential to recognize the shock this can result in, causing them to cry uncontrollably, feel numb or literally react in a daze of sorts.  Each will need time, love and comfort to get through the entire grieving process.

Whether the death was expected or unforeseen, pain and guilt are often a part of grieving.  Both are tremendous emotions that can often seem unbearable.   “I should have seen him more often.” And “I just can’t live without him!” Family members may experience these on different levels and at different times. Some might feel guilt right away while others may feel more emotion during a holiday, anniversary or special occasion later on.  

Don’t be surprised if anger and bargaining arise during this tragic time.  Family members might ask, “Why him? Why me?” or declare, “I’ll do anything if you will just bring him back.” Others may feel an extreme sadness bordering upon or even leading them into depression.  A song on the radio or picture on the dresser can literally bring someone to uncontrollable and sudden tears.  The realization of the magnitude of the loss can be overwhelming enough to cause loss of sleep, appetite or energy.  Feelings of isolation, loneliness and self-pity may also be experienced in order to adjust to life without the loved one that was lost.

For most, the absolutely finality of the loss is the hardest aspect of all to cope with for those that were closest. With that said, acceptance should come gradually with the passage of time.  There is no specific timeframe or roadmap for making it through this transition.  Death did not end the relationship and sometimes people prefer to continue to talk to their loved one in order to maintain a sense of connection.  They may dream about them and enjoy feeling the loved one is watching over them. 

It’s perfectly okay to go through any of the above at any point in time.  Our family worked through much this past year and experienced a great deal of change.  My 86 year old mother in law has learned that you can still function and go forward despite how desperate things may feel at times.  She has met some wonderful new friends and now looks forward to taking trips with other seniors.  The rest of us have all learned to consider our mortality, stop and smell the roses and see each other as often as possible.  We are looking forward to planting a tree on the anniversary of my father in law’s death this month. 


Rachel Harris Monteverdi is a Family & Consumer Sciences Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension, a division of North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University.  The Family & Consumer Sciences department includes prenatal to end-of-life programs.  Priorities for North Carolina citizens include:  Family & Parenting Education; Balancing Work & Family Workshops; Academic Success; Elder Care; Active Aging; Planning for the Future; Home Ownership & Housing Issues; Conservation & Environmental Issues; Leadership; Emergency Management and more.  Call 252-257-3640, email Rachel_Monteverdi@ncsu.edu or visit https://warren.ces.ncsu.edu for more information.