If you have experienced bereavement you will know how difficult it is to describe the numbness, pain, conflicting emotions, depression and sadness one feels. If you know a person who is bereft, you know how difficult it is to find meaningful words of support.
While the experience of bereavement is as individual as the person living it and as individual as the person who has died, there are also common themes which apply to us all.
We all move through bereavement stages, not necessarily in the same order or at the same speed. The length and intensity of the overall experience depends on the nature and closeness of our relationship with the person who has died, the timing of death, our support network, our previous experiences of death and loss.
This is not to say that bereavement gets easier the more we experience it. It can remain just as painful and devastating. However, we can develop an inner trust that the pain will lessen with time, and that we can continue to live in the knowledge that we will survive the loss and pain.
What does this mean in practice?
The sensation of bereavement immediately after we learn of the death can be mental, emotional and physical – like an electric shock, combined with feeling sick and breathless. In that moment, which can stretch over days, diminish and return from nowhere, nothing else matters. We do not have room for anything else mentally or emotionally. We are all consumed by the feeling of being bereft and struggling to comprehend or accept the reality of what has happened.
We feel denial; “This cannot have happened; How? It is impossible.” In the world of disbelief we can feel isolated and isolate ourselves from others, who seem to move on, and tell us time is a great healer, that we will get over it, that death is part of life. But at that moment, it seems nothing can help; all feels alien.
We try and make sense of what has happened. We are angry with the person who has died and left us behind. We are angry with others and ourselves. We bargain (and blame), in an attempt to gain some control of the situation: “If only I had… If only he had… Why didn't I…”
We feel depressed: our energy, emotional and often physical strength is weakened, we feel vulnerable and sensitive. Practical issues around funeral and other arrangements can feel overwhelming and cause anxiety. We miss the other, are regularly confronted with reminders of them (photos, smells, clothing, letters, emails, food, a song, a location, a walk, an argument and so much more depending on the nature of the relationship).
Gradually we may start facing up to the reality that the other has died and that we continue living without them. We learn to accept and bear the pain with greater calmness than depression.
Dealing with bereavement can also be very individual, and often people create their own meaningful ways of support, comfort and closeness: visiting a grave regularly, taking a regular walk that would have been shared in the past, speaking with the deceased (in our head or out loud), wearing an item that belonged to them (e.g. a ring or watch), taking an item of their clothing to bed and more. These very personal rituals help us when we are not yet ready to accept and to let go, when we need time to get used to the loss.
Overall, the bereavement journey takes at least one year, while we go through various anniversaries or annual events of meaning to us, which we can no longer share with the person who has died.
Counselling and therapy can help us not to get stuck in any of the bereavement stages (such as anger or depression), but to move through the inevitably difficult passages of time.
Speaking with someone who is independent and listens to us without judgment can provide a great sense of relief and helps reduce the stress we can be under. Meeting in a confidential, safe and regular setting can provide an anchor at a distressing time, when we re-build our lives.