Do we still feel pain after death?

To face death Farewells are part of life


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If you lose a loved one, the world collapses for you. Literally, because we define ourselves to a large extent through our relationships with parents, partners and children. But whoever mourns changes.

Status: 06/21/2016 | archive

As the psychoanalyst Collin Murray Parkes put it, grief is the most intense stress a person can ever experience. The Swiss psychotherapist Verena Kast writes that we define ourselves through our bonds - the death of a loved one therefore shakes our self-image. As we mourn our loss and deal with it emotionally, we change. Grief changes: We go through life more consciously, maybe apply completely different standards to our everyday life, develop a view of what we see as essential.

Everyone mourns in their own way

Each individual experiences grief in their own way and at their own pace. Mourning affects the soul and body: Mourners suffer from loss of appetite, sleep disorders, nervousness, deep exhaustion, headache and heartache. Your immune status is poor and your vitality is reduced.

Mourners wander through emotional states of emergency of all kinds after the first shock - deep despair, pain, anger, loneliness, fear, feelings of guilt, total hopelessness and joylessness.

The different stages of grief

Psychotherapy has long assumed that grief goes through in different phases, the duration of which can be of different lengths. The Swiss psychotherapist Verena Kast developed one of these phase models in the 1980s, based on a model by the psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, with which she described the processes of dying:

The psychologist J. William Worden, on the other hand, does not assume phases of grief, but describes four "developmental tasks" that mourners have to solve for themselves in order to cope with the loss. The American grief researcher George A. Bonanno classifies grief as a stress reaction:

"Stress reactions are not even or static. Permanent grief would be unbearable. Grief is actually only bearable because it runs in a kind of wave motion. We oscillate back and forth emotionally. We focus our attention on the pain of the loss, its scope and meaning - and then we mentally turn back to our immediate living environment, the other people, the processes in the present. Our mood is temporarily brightened and we come into contact with our environment. Then we dive again and continue our grieving process. These short-term Swings in mood provide temporary relief from our pain. In this way, they help us gradually get used to the loss. "

Grief researcher George A. Bonanno

The tasks of mourners:

  • Recognize the loss as a reality
  • Experience and endure the pain of grief
  • Adaptation to a world in which the deceased person is absent
  • Detachment from the deceased and openness to new bonds

When despair doesn't end

When your child dies, it is extremely difficult to return to life.

In the past, the year of mourning was considered a socially acceptable time to say goodbye. Especially around the date of the first day of death, the feelings of sadness in the bereaved can break out again violently. There are certain conditions that make mourning more difficult and can greatly extend the time it takes to mourn:

"The main risk factors for a complicated course of grief include the death of a child, a sudden death, several bereavements within a short period of time, and death from suicide."

Palliative medicine specialist Gian Domenico Borasio in 'About dying', Munich 2011

Complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder

One speaks of this when the mourner is dominated by the same emotions 13 months after the death as shortly after the loss: The deep emotional pain does not subside, the despair over the loss does not decrease. The mourner has an insatiable longing for the deceased and is unable, even for brief moments, to enjoy what is happening in the present. People whose grief is prolonged often experienced insecure attachments or early losses in their childhood. Many had a particularly close and exclusive bond with the deceased.

Traumatic grief

By this, grief counselors and psychotherapists understand the phenomenon when grief is overlaid by traumatic experiences - i.e. when flashbacks occur again and again with stressful images, for example of the dying process, the mourner is constantly tense and irritable and he shows avoidance behavior or repetitive behavior: That is, he either avoids everything that reminds him of the deceased or he is constantly looking for it. This form of grief can only be treated by special trauma therapists - but often only months after the death.

No form of extreme mourning is currently classified as a mental illness - but experts are discussing whether this is necessary. The aim is to provide the bereaved with the support they need in good time.

When does grief turn into depression?

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has a clear stance: In the USA, it determines when the diagnosis of depression is made in the case of symptoms such as sadness, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating, lack of energy. Two years ago, a mourner was only diagnosed with depression after a year with such symptoms. According to the current rule, the mourner has two months to mourn, after which he is considered depressed. The draft for the new diagnosis catalog stipulates that the mourner in the USA becomes sick after two weeks. Psychotherapist Verena Kast is outraged:

"I find that absolutely outrageous, because it is completely past life and is inhuman. The deadline has to do with the fact that we want people to function again very quickly."

Verena Kast, Swiss psychotherapist

Mourning is vital to the survival of those left behind

Man has to mourn. Only those who consciously mourn a loss can be healed and at some point participate in life again. The pain of the death of the deceased will remain, but the pain changes, it becomes weaker. Today, society allows mourners only a short period of time until the mourner is expected to "function" again. But that should change. Because those who suppress their grief may later be overtaken by the past:

"In the treatment of depressive illnesses I have noticed time and again that experiences of loss are not mourned enough. Mourning is a topic that is neglected, measured against the great importance it has for our mental health."

Verena Kast, Swiss psychotherapist

Books and Link Tips:

  • Verena Kast: Mourning - Phases and Chances of the Psychological Process (Zurich 1982). Almost a classic for people who have lost someone close to them. Shows psychological background that is understandable for everyone: Grief is a living process with many changing emotions.
  • George A. Bonanno: The other side of grief. Overcoming the pain of loss and trauma on your own (Bielefeld 2012). A current book by the renowned trauma researcher. Interesting illustration of how and why people overcome crises.
  • Beatrice von Weizsäcker: Is there anyone? God and my doubts (Munich 2012). When her brother dies of cancer, Beatrice von Weizsäcker doubts God. A very personal book about life before and after the death of a loved one.
  • Reiner Sörries: Heartfelt condolences. A cultural history of mourning (Darmstadt 2012). The central thesis: grief is culturally determined. An interesting book about today's commercialized society.