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Helen Fitzgerald

Certified death educator, author and lecturer

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Helen Fitzgerald on Grieving

Helen Fitzgerald on Grieving

When Helen Fitzgerald’s husband died in 1974, leaving her as a young widow with four children, she decided there had to be a better way to help people through the grieving process. Fitzgerald worked for 23 years as the coordinator of the grief program at Mental Health Services of Fairfax County, VA, where she pioneered the nation’s first grief program in a community mental health center. A certified death educator, author and lecturer, she authored The Mourning Handbook, The Grieving Child and The Grieving Teen. She is currently the director of training for American Hospice Foundation. Fitzgerald lends her expertise on how to handle the first 30 days of grieving the death of a loved one.

What immediate feelings do people have when dealing with the death of a loved one?

People feel vulnerable and scared; they might not know where to go for guidance. I tell them not to think ahead too far, take one day at a time—or even one half-day at a time. Focus on the present and some things will begin to fall into place. In the first 30 days, they could also be in shock and feel numbness. They may be wandering around dazed and might need people to help direct them. The reality begins to hit a little later.

Describe the phases people experience during the first month of grieving.

A state of shock or numbness, especially if the death is unexpected. If a person knows death is coming, they can do some of the grieving in advance and they can do a lot of crying beforehand. I think when someone has been sick for a long time, there’s also a sense of relief because, as a caregiver, you’ve been in “Limbo-Land” and the death releases you to get on with your own life. The grief process is really different for everyone.

How can people work to overcome that overwhelming grief they experience?

Well, before the emotions arrive, they can read books on grief, but they must realize that everyone’s path is unique and different. People will experience what I call “grief attacks”—and they never know when they will happen. Grief attacks can happen anywhere, even while people are doing normal things; for instance, when you’re going to the grocery store and all at once something reminds you of your loss and you’re back in the throes of grief. I think to read about grief helps to normalize our emotions; it gives us an assurance that we’re not going crazy; and, after that, a level of functioning can return. I think it’s also important to understand that grief comes with any loss experience. It can come with losing a job or when our kids leave home. Grief is something we all experience—it’s a part of life.

What are some of the most important things to do during the first 30 days of grieving?

Remember to eat. Seriously, people sometimes forget to eat. Let friends or other support systems know what you need from them. Sometimes it’s just someone to sit there and hold your hand. It could be functional tasks, such as organizing your kitchen. Open up and ask for help. You might even keep a list of things—a job jar for example—and pull a task from the jar when a friend asks if they can help. If you’re a friend, then tell the person, “I have X amount of time, tell me what to do,” and help them with whatever they need.

The effects of losing a loved one are lasting. What can people do to make sure they make it through this?

Find out what support is available in the community. Support groups and other resources will be useful later when the person grieving really feels the loneliness. Again, I think reading about grief helps to normalize it. Some books are hard to get all the way through, so I suggest finding one with a detailed table of contents and going to the part that’s useful for you and your situation. Another thing is to get support in place for the long haul. In the first 30 days, people have the tendency to think that things will be fine and things will go back to how they were. It might also be helpful to give yourself something to look forward to. Give yourself some rewards along the way, too.

What can someone do after the first 30 days to continue adjusting to the death of a loved one?

After the first 30 days, your friends and family calling and coming to see you might dwindle. The month anniversary is a very powerful time. Have patience with yourself—grieving takes a long time. I don’t know if we ever “get over it.” We learn to live with it, manage it and we become the people we are because of it. Keep the good friends around and eliminate toxic relationships. You want people who will listen, call and have patience with you. I can’t say enough about how important it is to have support.


What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?

I draw upon my father’s wisdom and philosophy. When my husband died, I remembered walking in a cornfield with my father that had been all hailed out. My dad said, “Okay, so this has happened now the only thing left to do is to decide what to do about it.” I always look at change as when one door closes, another opens.

The best thing about change is...

…it can be personal growth if we allow it.

What is the best change you have ever made?

My career. I went from being an illustrator to the work I’m doing helping people with grief. Also, getting married again. Change has a way of affecting you in a ripple effect.

For more information on Helen Fitzgerald, visit www.americanhospice.org.

Posted: 11/19/07

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