“No-one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.”
A Grief Observed. C.S. Lewis
One thing we can guarantee in our life is that we will grieve and experience loss at some time. It is a fact of life that neither our education system nor the material society in which we live acknowledge, nor do they help us prepare for this inevitable happening.
Grief comes in many forms and for many reasons. It is not just the loss of a loved one due to death, it can also be the grief of a lost love through divorce or separation. In fact some have said to me that the grieving through divorce or being abandoned can be greater than loss due to death as they feel that the person chooses to leave the relationship, unlike the dead person who usually does not choose this path.
It can come as quite a surprise to people who are suffering the loss of a loved (or indeed, unloved) member of the family, to realise that they have already mourned deeply in that particular relationship, long before the person died. They realise in death that the relationship they mourned never actually existed except in their hearts and dreams. Or perhaps the person they knew and loved was lost in the abyss of dementia.
We can mourn deeply the loss of a happy situation in life due to an illness changing the way we live or it can be due to a positive life-style change which can still mean leaving a way of life or people behind.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote eloquently about grief and described the five stages as being
- Denial: this is the phase where there is a sense that the loss is not real and therefore seems impossible to accept.
- Anger: Bowlby describes this stage as “yearning and searching”. We are pre-occupied with the future we have lost and resentment with this loss can produce the anger that can come from fear. We may also appear obsessed with the person we have lost and constantly look for reminders of them.
- Bargaining: at this stage we are beginning to accept the changes in our lives along with the realisation that nothing will ever be as it was or as we imagined it could be. This can lead to hopelessness and despair as well as anger and questioning.
- Depression: the bargaining stage can lead to feelings of chaos and disorganisation which in turn can lead to a depression as we feel that life can never make sense again. We may withdraw from others too
- Acceptance: In this stage, grief does not go away nor is it fully resolved but it can recede to a hidden section of the brain and heart, where it continues to influence us but is not at the forefront of the mind. Re-organisation of our lives becomes a possibility.
It becomes clear that while grief is unique to each individual, it is also omni-present in life. It takes on many forms and guises and each person has the right, indeed the need, to experience grief in their own way, whatever the cause.
Some can find themselves criticised when they behave in a way which others find unacceptable. It is extremely important that whatever our chosen way of grieving is, it is respected and honoured. As long as it does not cause harm to ourselves or others of course.
Counselling and therapy can be very useful at these times. I have found, without exception, that working with the process of grief, underlying issues have surfaced which have demanded our attention. It is not for anyone other than the sufferer to decide whether a path of in-depth exploration should be pursued, however it can be helpful to acknowledge its existence if only to understand the nature of this particular grief.
After sessions of individual therapy or counselling, it can be extremely beneficial to join a group for continuing support. I have known some people effectively use the support of the group as an adjunct to individual work; understanding without judgement is essential during this process of grief and self-discovery.
A supportive, sensitively facilitated group has proved to be both useful and successful in many situations. It can offer the individual a safe space to name their grief or to say the loved one’s name out loud without fear that they are, as they might believe, boring long-suffering family and friends. Or it can offer family and friends a greater understanding and comfort when someone close is diagnosed with a life changing illness as it supports the grieving process of lives completely changed.
Those around us are often at a loss for appropriate expressions of help and love and will sometimes not want to hear of our pain as they cannot “fix” it for us. Sitting with the person without feeling the need to find a solution or offer advice is a difficult stance for many.
A support group can help us understand and accept just how many forms of grief there are and how we all are entitled to the dignity of our own experience. A client once expressed to me how his inability to grieve resulted in a sense of isolation from the family as he did not even begin to experience his grief for 6 years after his father died.
Being kind, gentle and honest with ourselves is the pathway to acceptance of ourselves and our situation. Acceptance does not mean that we no longer hurt or care, it means that we have found a safe place within us to hold the love and the pain in equal balance so that we can once again find joy without guilt.