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The Mourning Handbook

The Most Comprehensive Resource Offering Practical and Compassionate Advice on Coping with All Aspects of Death and Dying

About The Book

Helen Fitzgerald, author of The Grieving Child, has compiled a guide to help readers practically and emotionally grieve the death of loved ones.

No one should be left to grieve alone. Even with the help of friends and family, grieving the death of a loved one can be a complex, sometimes overwhelming, process. The Mourning Handbook is written as a companion to those mourners in need of practical and emotional assistance during the trying times before and after the death of a loved one.

Having counseled thousands of people who have experienced loss, Helen Fitzgerald gives special attention to the complex emotions that can accompany especially traumatic situations, such as when a loved one has been murdered, when there have been multiple deaths, when a body has not been recovered, or when the mourner has been the inadvertent cause of death.

Designed to conform to the special needs of the bereaved, The Mourning Handbook is written and organized in an accessible style punctuated by real stories of people who have experienced every kind of loss. With many subchapters and cross references, it can be consulted for a specific problem or read at length.


Chapter 1


Let's begin by providing you with some basic information that you need to have about this little-understood human experience.

1.1 Definitions


If you are grieving, you are familiar with the feeling, but what is grief exactly? Webster's New World Dictionary gives as its primary definition "intense emotional suffering caused by loss, disaster, misfortune, etc.; acute sorrow; deep sadness."

Grief is the emotion experienced by Darlene, a young client of mine who had flown home for a surprise visit on her mother's birthday, only to learn at the airport that her mother had died a few hours earlier. Darlene's sudden feelings of disbelief, panic, and anger are part of what we call grief, and it is what you may be experiencing right now.


Mourning, on the other hand, is defined by the same dictionary as "the actions or feelings of someone who mourns; specifically, the expression of grief at someone's death." The key words here are actions and expression. When an uncle told Darlene of her mother's death, she fell into his arms, weeping hysterically. She was mourning her mother's death. Her mourning continued as she cried with her family, expressed her anger, discharged her feelings of regret for not coming sooner, and took part in the wake and funeral. When you are expressing your grief, you are mourning.

Although grief is most commonly associated with the death of a loved one, it can be experienced whenever there is an important loss in one's life, such as the loss of eyesight or hearing, a sharp decline in one's health, marital separation and divorce, or the loss of one's job. In all these cases mourning is an appropriate and often necessary response. If you have suffered a particularly severe loss, you may need to mourn just as much as someone who has lost a loved one. While this book focuses on the grief following a death, it can be helpful in dealing with other losses as well.

1.2 When Does Grief Begin?

Grief can begin whenever there is a loss or a perception of impending loss, but the three most common occasions are:

a. the time of diagnosis of a terminal illness,

b. the time of death, and

c. the time of learning about the death of a loved one.

When the doctor says, "I'm sorry, but your husband has brain cancer and it is inoperable," the hope for a cure changes to the prospect of impending death for the loved one, and the emotions of grief are likely to begin.

Sometimes grief begins at the time of death. At the moment that one's wife slumps over in her chair, has no pulse, and fails to respond to resuscitation, the realization that she is dead triggers the emotion of grief.

Grief may also begin at the time one learns about a loved one's death, whenever that might be. A young man whose mother was estranged from the family had rare, treasured contacts with her. Because of his mother's life-style of moving frequently, there wasn't an address or telephone where he could reach her, and he had to depend on her contacting him. When she died in an auto accident, it was several weeks before the family was notified of her death. His grief began when he got the belated news.

1.3 How Long Does Grief Last?

Since grief is painful, you undoubtedly want to know how long you will have to endure this powerful emotion. Pain is generally more tolerable if we know it's going to end sometime.

A shorthand answer concerning the duration of grief is that it will take as long as it needs to take. It will take longer for some people than others, depending on the nature of their relationship to the deceased, the circumstances of the death, their support systems, how they cope with adversity, what else is going on in their lives, and the resources they have available to them.

A young man called me one day to say that he was worried about his mother. His father had died and he was wondering just how long his mother would be acting so upset. I asked him how long his father had been dead and he replied, "Two weeks." When I responded, "That's not very long," he asked, "Well, will she be better in two months?" Once again I had to say, "That's not a very long time." He seemed disappointed that grief can't be put on a fast track.

You may encounter loving and well-meaning friends who hate to see you hurt and want to see your mourning end. They may not understand that the worst thing you can do is to try to shut off or deny these powerful feelings. Often these are people who have never experienced the death of a loved one and don't yet comprehend the function and importance of mourning. If you have friends pushing you in this direction, simply tell them that you can recover from your grief but that you need time to work it out; when you have done so, you expect to be back on track again. (See Chapter 10, "A Friend in Need.")

Although your grief can be expected to last a relatively long time -- from a few months to several years -- it won't always be the all-encompassing feeling of despair that you are feeling now. Commonly grief is sporadic. You will have good days as well as bad days. You may catch yourself laughing, perhaps guiltily, at a friend's joke, and then, moments later, bursting into tears when you hear a nostalgic song that reminds you of your loved one.

At some point your grief will end, but this doesn't mean that there will ever be an end to your sense of loss. A father whose son had died a quarter century earlier said, "If I were an actor on stage and needed to produce tears, I would only have to think of my son to cry." This father is a happy man leading a full and productive life, but the memory of his son and of the pain of his death will always be with him. You can expect your grief to pass, but this won't mean forgetting your loved one.

"Time will heal" is a common saying. Part of it is true, and part is myth. Time will aid in recovery from grief, but it is time that needs to be used well. Time spent frantically running from grief -- traveling, perhaps, or visiting relatives, keeping ever busy with never a moment to think about one's loss -- will not help. Eventually, you will run out of places to go or things to do, and at that point you will have to face the void created by the death of your loved one. On the other hand, if you use your time to mourn your loss, to adjust to a different kind of life, and to get acquainted with your now somewhat altered (maybe greatly altered) identity, healing will occur faster.

You may feel that your grief is unique. You are right, it is unique; the circumstances of your life will make it so. There is no standard recipe for grief that will apply to your situation. However, there are factors that will influence the length of your grief, and you can gain some reassurance from knowing what they are. (See Chapter 6, "Differences That Matter.")

Age of the Deceased

The younger the person is who died the more difficult it is likely to be to mourn that death. It seems unnatural in the scheme of life for a child to die, just as it seems unfair for a young adult to die just when life's adventure is about to begin. On the other hand, when an elderly person dies, one may feel some comfort in knowing that the person had lived a long and productive life. (See section 6.1 for discussion on old age, 6.7 on grandparents, and 6.14 on children.)

Cause of Death

When loved ones know in advance that death is approaching, they may experience much of their grief long before the actual death. Thus, they may actually feel a somewhat guilty sense of relief when the death occurs, and what grief remains may be of short duration. Alternatively, the more sudden or violent the death, such as an unexpected fatal heart attack, car accident, or suicide, the longer one may expect grief to last. Not only will the bereaved person have had no time to prepare for the death or to say good-bye, but the suddenness and possible violence of the death will add to the burden of grief. (See sections 6.1 through 6.5 on different kinds of death situations.)

Nature of Relationship

Was your relationship with the deceased a loving, fulfilling one? Has it left you with a sense of completeness, filled with memories to be treasured? Or was your relationship with the deceased stormy and volatile? The emotions generated by those relationships will play a part in determining the length and intensity of your grief. (See section 7.17 on conflicted relationships.)

Other Events in One's Life

Life following the death of a loved one doesn't always cooperate to allow one to work through one's grief. A very common story goes like this: "Not only do I have to deal with my dad's death, but now my favorite aunt has died, my car has broken down, work is not going well, and I don't know what will happen next or which to deal with first."

Other events in one's life sometimes dictate what must be handled first, making it necessary to put grief on hold. When this happens, the need to mourn is still there and will emerge at a later date, perhaps weeks or months later. Such complications will lengthen your grief and mourning period. (See section 7.1 on other changes in one's life.)

Support Systems

The support and understanding you have around you will make a big difference in how you experience and handle your grief. Do you have a family that has rallied to your needs, or do you feel isolated and abandoned? Do you have care and understanding at your workplace, or are you expected to be 100 percent productive immediately? How about your friends? Are they loving and supportive, or are they making comments such as, "Come on now, put this behind you"? The more support you have, the quicker your recovery from grief will be, but you will still need time to reflect on your loss, to mourn, and to become comfortable with the changes in your life.

Resources One Can Command

Communities are becoming more aware of the needs of the bereaved and are developing more resources to help people like you recover from their grief. If you feel the need of such help but don't have the energy to do the research, ask a friend to seek out the resources that are available to you. Check your library or local bookstore for appropriate books. Watch for announcements of lectures that may be informative. Search out any support groups that would apply to your needs by checking with your local newspaper, mental health center, library bulletin board, library reference desk, church, temple, or local hospice. Support groups are informal gatherings of people who are dealing with similar situations in their lives. It is often very comforting to be with others who can "really understand" how you feel. (For more help, see the Bibliography and Resources at the back of this book.)

One's Coping Skills

As you wrestle with your grief, it may be helpful to reflect on how you have coped with other situations in your life. At times of crisis what was your response? Did you seek out information and help, or did you simply try to ignore what was happening and hope that it would pass? Did you get activated in solving the problem, or did you bury yourself in your work? "Know thyself" is a good rule to apply at times like this. Refining your coping skills can help shorten your grief.

Sexual Differences

"Vive la difference," said the Frenchman about the sexes. But the differences are not as great as some would have us believe. Popular culture allows women to show their emotions and seek support but requires men to be "strong," which is defined as not showing any emotion. Men are expected to make the tough decisions, take on the unpleasant jobs, and never cry. This need not be so. In fact, it is unhealthy for anyone to lock up his emotions; they need to be expressed.

Of course, crying is not the only outlet for one's feelings. Chopping wood, physical exercise, or building a guest room on the house are outlets that may be more comfortable to a man. Years ago the father of two dead sons poured his sorrow into creating a beautiful azalea garden in Washington, D.C., which is visited every year by thousands of admirers.

Also, it is now quite common for men to attend support groups to help them deal with their grief. There they find other men to talk to who share their feelings of anger and remorse. If you are a man struggling with grief, don't let imagined taboos prevent you from mourning your loss; you have just as much right to express your feelings as any woman suffering a similar loss.

1.4 Does Grief End?

Keeping in mind the definition of grief as "intense emotional suffering," you can look forward, at some point, to an end to these overwhelming emotions. This does not mean that you will cease feeling sad or wistful, nor does it mean that you will forget your loved one. However, it does mean that the intense emotional conflicts which you may be experiencing today can be brought to an end as you integrate this loss into your changed life. (See the introduction to Chapter 9 and sections 9.1 and 9.2 on helping yourself and on getting better.)

1.5 Why Must You Express Your Grief?

"Why must I express my grief? Why can't I just ignore it and get on with my life?" are questions you may be asking yourself as you suffer the pain of grief. The answers lie, not in theory, but in observed human experience. People who try to ignore the powerful, deep-seated emotions of grief usually see them reappear later in disturbing forms: physical responses such as rheumatoid arthritis, stomach ulcers, colitis, hiatal hernias, nervous tics, weight loss (or gain), chills, insomnia, back pains, or incessant headaches; or psychological responses such as depression, fits of unexplained anger, interpersonal problems, preoccupation with one's own death, anxiety, or new, unpleasant personality traits. There are no more powerful feelings than those arising from grief--ignore them at your peril. However, by learning to identify these feelings you can learn how to express them and thus avoid all those unpleasant alternatives.

Understanding the Grief Process

There is more to grief than what you may be feeling right now. While writers have approached the subject in different ways, there is general agreement that grieving is a process and that grieving people can help themselves by better understanding what is happening to them.

Writers on the subject of grief have attempted to identify different aspects of the process. In 1969 Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about the five stages of dying. Her book On Death and Dying, although written for the dying person, is really a book on grieving, helpful not only to the dying but to the bereaved as well. Her five stages consisted of the following:

(1) denial and isolation

(2) anger

(3) bargaining

(4) depression

(5) acceptance

In the denial and isolation stage, the grieving person refuses to accept the harsh reality confronting him or her. In the anger phase the person is continuing to resist reality and to ask, "Why me? Why not that old woman down the street?" In the bargaining phase the person tries to reverse that reality in various irrational ways, as in "bargaining with God," promising to do certain good works, perhaps, if God will spare your loved one. For example, I promised God I would say a rosary a day if He allowed my husband to live. The depression stage reflects the person's recognition of reality. In the acceptance stage the person no longer denies reality, no longer feels angry about it, no longer tries to bargain it away, no longer feels depressed about it, but contemplates his death with quiet expectation.

The basic problem with this analysis, as the author herself has pointed out, is the expectation some people have that each of these stages will proceed, in that precise order, and then pass. This expectation has proven frustrating to those who want the grief process to be clear cut and orderly. A young man whose mother was terminally ill told me, "Mother was depressed a week ago, and now she's depressed again. What's wrong with her?" A woman told me, "Janet shouldn't have died yet; she never got to acceptance." Nonetheless, Kübler-Ross's analysis can be helpful if you keep in mind that your case, like all others, is unique.

In his 1982 book, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, J. William Worden wrote about "the four tasks of mourning":

1. to accept the reality of the loss

2. to experience the pain of grief

3. to adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing

4. to withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship

The first task recognizes that the death must become real before you can work through the process of grief. The second addresses the need to do specific things to express those emotions generated by the death. The third stresses the importance of analyzing the different roles the deceased played in one's life and to make those adjustments which will enable the person to build a new life. The last focuses on the possibility of personal growth.

Therese Rando in her 1993 book, Treatment of Complicated Mourning, writes about the six "R's" as she takes yet a different look at the process of grief. Her "R's" include:

1. Recognize the loss.

2. React to the separation.

3. Recollect and reexperience the deceased and the relationship.

4. Relinquish the old attachments to the deceased and the old assumptive world.

5. Readjust to move adaptively into the new world without forgetting the old.

6. Reinvest.

While these analyses vary in approach, each is based on the perception that grief is not static but rather a process leading toward a resolution of the kind of intense emotional conflict you may be suffering at this moment. Once you recognize this, you will be on the path, however slow and winding, to recovery.

Copyright © 1994 by Helen Fitzgerald

About The Author

Helen Fitzgerald is an author and lecturer certified in thanatology by the Association for Death Education and Counseling. For twenty-three years she was the coordinator of the Grief Program for Mental Health Services in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she conducted many groups for adults, as well as for grieving children ranging from preschool age through the high school years. In July 2000 she retired from that position and then served as the director of training for the American Hospice Foundation. Her books include The Grieving Child, The Mourning Handbook, and The Grieving Teen.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (October 1, 2013)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476764481

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Earl A. Grollman author of Living When a Loved One Has Died I recommend The Mourning Handbook to any reader in search of a path out of the wilderness of despair. It is a compass, pointing the way to recovery.

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