Dealing with Grief
However much we try to tell ourselves that it happens to other people and other families and sets of friends, we know deep down that we are not immune from death and grief. Unfortunately, death has become the great taboo of modern life. In a reversal of how it was for the Victorians, people today seem reasonably happy to discuss sex, but not death. This avoidance might have something to do with the fact that the media is constantly pushing images of youth and vitality at us and also with a decline of organised religion.
One day, each of us will have to deal with the death of someone we love. For me, not too long ago, it was my father. He was dearly loved and his loss came at a bad time – a time when I was looking forward to spending much more time with him after moving house to an area much closer to him. I still find his loss difficult, but I have managed to adjust to it.
Issues that Face Grieving People
Coming to terms with grief and allowing time for it can be hard. In order to describe and outline the experience of grief, the Dual Process Model was formulated a decade or so ago. This says that those suffering the loss of a loved one need to engage in two separate tasks: dealing with loss and restoring life. Basically this means that to deal with grief in the best way, a person needs to both work through the pain of the loss and let the emotions be felt; and also start to move on and rebuild life. There can be great vulnerability if only one of the two tasks is attempted. So, for instance, people who try to bury their grief and move on with life are likely to find that the grief seeps out and that they feel a variety of feelings such as depression and meaninglessness. On the other hand, those who feel their pain but find it hard (or avoid) moving on can also suffer a variety of equally difficult problems such as being so overwhelmed that life becomes unbearable and completely without hope or pleasure. It can be hard for any of us to negotiate both tasks. Our feelings, both conscious and unconscious, naturally tend to drive things in grief and so it’s hard to have the strength to get through it all.
Sometimes it is support that people need to move through the two tasks. If family and friends assist with one task but not the other, it can be very confusing and painful for the bereaved person. Working with a counsellor can help at that point because they are trained to help people get through difficult circumstances like grief and to assist their clients in looking at the whole picture so that they may come through things as well as is possible.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross talked about the Five Stages of Grief, which are normally experienced by most people who grieve, though never in the same way. They are – denial, depression, anger, bargaining and acceptance. I have discussed these in a previous article.
How the loss came about can strongly affect the grieving – for instance, a sudden death such as an accident will often cause numbness and shock, but most deaths can create a feeling of unreality and disbelief. The age of the bereaved person can make a big difference too, as can how much support he or she gets. Some men may find grieving hard if they feel that they have to adopt a “male” stiff-upper lip or have been taught that “big boys don’t cry.” In reality that is only likely to make things worse. Trapped grief is much more problematic than expressed grief.
It is quite normal to be angry after a death – angry at yourself for “not doing better whilst the deceased was alive,” at the world or God for allowing it, at health professionals for not doing better or at the deceased for going at the wrong time or for leaving some matters unresolved. The Five Stages of Grief can come around in a different order and some may linger or come back again several times. No one story of grief is ever the same as another and each of us deals with it in our own way, though a counsellor understands the patterns.
It is common for people to have issues of control around grief. For example, a grieving spouse may think that they need to maintain a brave face and be strong so as not to upset their children. The problem with this is that it is a construction. Underneath, the bereaved person might well be feeling desolate and vulnerable – and that can lead to confusion, frustration, and feelings of powerlessness and being overwhelmed. If grief is deliberately held back it can lead to a life of chronic sorrow.
Bereaved people often feel lonely, isolated or unheard and so there can also be social consequences for them. For instance, a grieving spouse may feel that avenues that were open to them when they were part of a couple are now either closed or uncomfortable. They may feel incapable of socialising or that people they know do not want to be reminded of their grief.
It can be a challenge for people when their parents die, not only in dealing with the natural loss but also facing up to their own mortality. When my father died, I became greatly aware of how my own time was hurrying past and how vital it was to fill it with meaning and good things. The death of a loved one alters each of us in difficult ways, but death can at least have one positive side effect – in time, it can encourage us to re-evaluate our life and make sure that we have fewer regrets.
Coming Through Grief
When somebody’s resources to cope are at full stretch it is a good idea for them to find help, whether that is with a friend who understands what they are going though, a GP, a support group or a counsellor. As well as having training for working with grief, most counsellors will have spent time grieving for someone themselves and will have natural empathy for a bereaved person.
No-one ever completely gets over the loss of a loved one. It is important to allow plenty of time and space for grief. We always carry the loss around with us, no matter how hardy and strong we are and no matter how much we process it. However, although people never forget they often do come to an acceptance and rebuild their lives. It takes time for happiness to come again, or to feel that life can flourish - but the message of life is that this is what people often manage to do, especially if they work through their grief properly.
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