Good Grief

Dealing with the grief that follows after death is something that can never be understood unless it has been experienced directly. I see so many people who feel a sense of guilt because they are still grieving only three months after a loss when, in reality, grieving takes a long time, and sometimes may even last a lifetime.

A dictionary definition of grief is….

Intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death

Grief comes from a French word ‘Grever’ meaning ‘to burden’. We might, therefore, consider grief to be a burden that we carry. We have finished our grieving when we are able to put the burden down.

I am forever surprised at how ill prepared we are to face death, both our own and of those people, family and friends around us. It is the most certain thing that faces all of us, we will all die.

The attachment of emotional elastic
In my book “what colour is your knicker elastic” I explain that the emotional connections that we make between ourselves and others is like a piece of emotional elastic. At a point of loss, when that relationship comes to an end, the emotional elastic is severed and we are hit in the face by the emotional energy that is remaining in it, unless we are prepared for it.

The loss of a parent
We had an email from a listener this week who has been facing the death of a parent and is trying to come to terms with the hurt and the loss. I am not sure if this is true for us all, but for me the loss of those that we truly love is possibly the worst pain that there can be. The only loss greater than that of a parent is that of a partner or child. It may seem like an easy thing to say but the reality is that, at some time, most of us will face the loss of those people that we care about. The pain of this loss, we call grief.

Relationships are all different and the nature of the emotional elastic will vary. It may be thick and strong or thin and weak. Because of this the level of emotional rebound and grief that we experience when the elastic snaps will be very different. I have seen situations such as when someone’s mother had died. The person in this case showed little or no emotion and took the morning off to deal with it and arrange the funeral before returning to their work. Two weeks later they took a few hours off to attend the funeral and returned to their work. Their colleagues observed this and saw it as insensitive, negative and nasty. What they did not realise was that the relationship that this person had with their mother was not a good and happy one. For them childhood had been a difficult time and the lack of support they experienced from their mother had resulted in thin emotional elastic, so thin that when it snapped it had virtually no emotional effect upon them at all. In fact they described the death as a relief not a burden.

Alongside that I have also experienced the people who have been completely devastated and debilitated by the loss of their mother. They have taken weeks, and in some cases months, off work as they have attempted to recover. For them the emotional elastic was thick and strong and at the point of snapping they were hit hard by the emotion.

Learning to live with loss
When I consider the real affects of a death and the cutting of the emotional elastic phrases like…

…‘don’t worry you’ll get over it’ or ‘times a good healer’…

…show a total lack of empathy and insight.

These phrases are often used by those people who have never experienced the grief of a death, or of a significant death. The idea of getting over the loss of someone close could not be further from the truth. It would be more accurate to say that grieving is learning to cope with the new situation that you now find yourself in. Life without a parent, husband, wife, mentor, friend or child can be so completely different to all that went before. Death, loss and subsequent grief is literally life changing.

Life will never be the same again.

Acceptance, a journey
Grief and bereavement are not a thing to get over. They are a process that must be gone through until the reality of the loss has been accepted. This is a journey that you may not want to travel and yet you will, in the end you have no choice. For some of us the journey is short, this is when the elastic is thin. Also it may be shorter if we have had time to prepare. This is what I call pre-bereavement. Perhaps there has been a long illness and a gradual ending that has prepared us for the real end.

For some the journey may take a long time to negotiate with many obstacle to overcome and issues to face. In these cases the elastic is thick and strong. Sometimes the emotions may be so powerful that they will never be resolved and the grief may simply be something that we have to accept and live with. It is as though this loss, and perhaps others that we experience in life, have been woven into the tapestry that is our life. It has now become a part of the picture.

The unbreakable elastic
Some elastic will never break and continues to pull from the other side of the grave. I lost a child, many years ago now. Every time that day comes around it is as though it is live action all over again. I have accepted this as part of the tapestry of my life and no longer need it to be any different. It is a part of my year, it is a part of who I am.

The process of grief
In psycho talk we say that grief will take a minimum of two years to process. The pain of being without that special person can be hard to bear. From the death day we have to live through the first year and all the significant times, birthdays, Mother’s/Father’s Day, anniversaries, and all days of importance.

The first of each annual event is generally the most difficult. So too are the new events, those events that the lost person will never get to see such as a wedding, a new grandchild or a naming ceremony. The feelings and emotions associated with these days has to be borne and gone through.

Avoidance is not always a good idea
A family may decide that they cannot possibly have their normal Christmas, as they have done each year, because it would just be too awful with the lost person not present. The family may decide to go to Honolulu or do something completely different. This seldom works because next year they simply have to face what they avoided last year. In the end all that they have done is delay the process by a year. Grief is when we need to understand that grief is a process not an amount of time.

So in psychology when we say that the minimum period of grieving is normally about two years, we mean each event needs to be faced and processed. This is because from the death day we go around the year facing every special day and anniversary. After one year we come back to the death day, take a deep breath and do it all again. In most cases by the time we have completed the two year cycle we are starting to normalise and accept the change and our loss. However we have to accept that some, or perhaps most, losses will never truly leave us.

Becoming an adult
We are all, or were all, children. All of us were born of a mother and had a father. Throughout our life we are our parents child, until, that is, the moment when they pass on. In reality none of us truly become adults until both our parents have died because up to that point we are someone’s child. We only become adults when we are orphans. Just as this is true for us and our own parents it is equally true for our children. While we live they will always be children, we need to die to allow them to become adults. If you are in your seventies and your parents are in their nineties you may not come to adulthood until late in life.

How long should we grieve
While grieving may take an indeterminate amount of time that may have no limit it still remains a process. Often people will feel guilty for still being upset three months after a loss. In reality the process may take several years. On average we think of two to begin to come to terms with a loss.

The three stages
Grief is often identified as having three distinct phases. These may follow the classic sequence or the phases may come and go over time.

1: Disbelief
The first stage is disbelief. “I can’t come to terms with what had actually happened” I assume that the person will come back and walk through the door, that they will ring or write.

2: Emotional letting go
As emotion is released it may come out as tears frustration sadness or depression. Even when people try to hold it in there usually comes a time when it is released.

3: Anger
Anger is a strange though powerful emotion. At some point the anger comes. We may feel anger with the doctors, the disease, God or the person who has died. When we feel guilty with the person who has died we then often feel guilty for being angry with them and we may spend sometime going round and round until it is processed. Often it is the anger that gives us the energy to move on.

The wonder of birth and the wonder of death
Why do we celebrate birth and not death. In many ways we have lost touch with both birth and death. These great events, that used to take place in the home now happen in hospitals and hospices. Only a generation ago most people would have been born at home and died at home.

With the rise of the medical professional we have de-personalised the process. As we have done this we have also given away our own responsibility and participation in these processes.

Celebrating a life or mourning a death?
My vote is that we use the last funeral rites as a celebration of life, that we change our sadness into happiness and celebrate what that person’s life has achieved.

I shall stop here before this turns into a book.

Wherever you are in the cycle of life, enjoy it and plan your ending with joy.

Take care

Sean x