Behind Our Grief Door

By Barbara Karnes

Posted: October 25, 2016


I received a letter that had the following concern and I want to address it, “My father-in-law died a few months ago. I’m not thinking about him as much as I am thinking about my mother and brother who died years before.”

When we experience the death of someone we know, that death opens the door to our grief. Behind our grief door are all the emotions and thoughts we have for everyone we know who has died. Everything resurfaces.

The intensity of our grief is generally in proportion to the intensity of the emotional relationship – positive or negative. You may not have had a strong emotional tie to your father-in-law but his death brought to the surface feelings and thoughts of your brother and mother’s deaths and your relationships with them. You probably had strong emotional ties with them.

Reflect on what your thoughts and feelings are about all the deaths you have experienced. Take a deep look at each one individually. If it appears you have some unfinished business (and we all do with most people who are gone from our lives) then write that person a letter. A letter from your heart, saying everything you would like that person to know but didn’t have the opportunity to tell them.

After the letter is complete do something special with it. Burn it and scatter the ashes or maybe you want to save it in a box with dried flowers. The idea is to clarify those thoughts and feelings and then let them go. Thinking about and talking inside your head with a person who is dead is perfectly normal and natural. When you take a pen and paper and write, that process makes you be more specific, more detailed than just random thoughts. It is a releasing, purposeful action.

Death touches us all at some point in our lives. We will all experience grief. We don’t recover from grief, we don’t get over it, we don’t even heal from grief. The best we can do is learn how to live with it. And understanding our feelings, our reactions to the relationship that is now gone, will help us live our best life without the people we care about physically in it.


Barbara Karnes

About the author

Barbara Karnes, RN, is an internationally respected speaker, educator, author and thought leader on matters of end of life. She is a renowned authority to explain the dying process to families, healthcare professionals and the community at large. Barbara has held both clinical and leadership positions, including staff nurse, clinical supervisor and executive director at Hospice Care of Mid America in Kansas City, Missouri, as well as Olathe Medical Center Hospice and Home Health in Olathe, Kansas. An award-winning nurse and end of life educator, Barbara received THE HEART OF HEALTH CARE AWARD from Kansas University Nursing, THE HORIZON AWARD for Education from Nebraska Methodist College and THE INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN WOMAN OF THE YEAR 2015 from the World Humanitarian Awards. She is the expert that hospice and other healthcare professionals count on to teach them how to explain the dying process to families.

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