What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of grief? It might bring back your own memories of loss or feelings of pain or perhaps the journey you went through to accommodate it. Some of you will still be on that journey. Wherever you are in your journey I hope these thoughts might be helpful.
Right now much of the world has been influenced by grief; the loss of the world as we knew it with restrictions on travel, the loss of human connection, the loss of financial stability and of having to find new ways of being and doing even the everyday things. After lockdown in Wuhan had ended, we heard of a surge of people looking for divorce lawyers. From March we heard stories of those losing loved ones to COVID 19 or from other illnesses. We saw harrowing pictures of grieving family members without anyone around them to comfort them or attend a ceremony with them. We were told of the increasing daily death toll.
We all will experience grief at some point. It may be the end of a relationship, or the loss of a job, but one thing is for sure, we all experience it differently. There is no right or wrong way to do it or to feel it.
The loss of a loved one
When someone we love dies, often the sense of loss is profound. Loneliness and isolation can take centre stage for a time. We yearn for those who have gone, imagine we have seen them, dream about them, talk to them. The smallest things can set us off and leave us feeling as though we have entered the realms of madness. Early on those feelings of grief can be overwhelming, invading every thought and every minute of every day. An endless onslaught of pain. Some will try burying themselves in tasks, while others will retreat from the world and withdraw into themselves to that place of safety and comfort. Some will cry, but not everyone will. It does not mean the loss is not felt. It might just be being expressed in other ways. If our loved one suffered a long drawn out or painful illness, there may be a sense of relief that they are no longer suffering. Guilt is not an uncommon response and it is always surprising what we can find to feel guilty about. More often than not, the things we wished we had said or things we wished we had done differently.
My experiences of grief
I remember when I lost a close family member in my twenties, I experienced a roller coaster of many differing intense and powerful emotions. I knew death was imminent and thought I was prepared for it. Initially my response was a really calm one and I remember being pleased that I had kept everything together and was so in control. How wrong I was. The reality hit and I realized that it just was so awful I had gone numb and had been in shock. I suppose when I look back, I didn’t really believe what had happened. I hadn’t even begun to adjust. My mind was protecting me from what was coming next. The waves of sadness and desolation could not be held back. I found it hard to focus, my head was constantly churning. It was exhausting. I was angry at everyone around me that seemed to be carrying on with their lives as though nothing had happened when my life had fallen apart. I was so envious of those experiencing normality. I felt really removed from everyone and everything. I remember sitting at the wake and watching everyone chatting away and thinking that the only person I wanted to see was the person who was no longer there. I found myself staring at pictures and reading old letters, desperate to find a way of keeping them close.
Eventually I noticed, after a period of time, those waves pain became less frequent and less intense. I even had periods of sunlight breaking through. That brought a new challenge. I felt guilty that I was starting to move on. I felt that I should be grieving all the time and that my loved one should be centre stage in my mind. Then there were those events in the calendar when we would have all been together. Then the pain came crashing back. It still does from time to time. The loss is always there. But now my life has grown around it and there is more to think about. I have learned to live with the space that was them. I miss them. I always will. But it feels OK now though I do still talk to photos…
Working with those who are grieving and what they have said
As a therapist I have often worked with those who are grieving. It is an area of my work that I really value. Having had the privilege of client’s sharing their experiences with me. I have witnessed those small things that helped them on their way. They are not rocket science but in those moments of intensity they are easy to forget.
First of all, taking care of yourself is a must. You won’t feel like getting out of bed, eating or exercising. It is better if you can try to do these everyday things because your body will already be stressed, and a lack of self-care will stress it even more. It also helps to have a structure to get you through those first days. Exercise can keep your immune system that little bit stronger and it can be good to have something else to focus on when feelings are overwhelming you. Many of my pet loving clients have said that it was getting out with the dog that got them through. Knowing their fury friend was relying on them was what kept them going. That was also true for my journey. I will be forever grateful to my dog Pip.
Some clients have said that talking about their experiences of loss was helpful. Talk about your memories and your feelings if you want to; all of them, not just the good ones include the bad. It helps to keep it real. When we share our vulnerabilities with someone else it can create an opportunity for others to connect with us and keep isolation at bay. You may feel that you do not want to burden other family members with your feelings of grief as you will be aware that they will be experiencing their own. That’s OK. It doesn’t need to be a family member. Talk to someone who you feel safe and comfortable with. Go to a group where others have experienced loss. It can be comforting when you know that there are others who understand what you might be going through. Nowadays there are many support groups on social media where you can reach out. I would try and stick with a closed group. It is important to make sure that you are safe.
Don’t try and resist or avoid your feelings. Squashing them down never really works as they have an uncanny knack of popping out at the most inconvenient moment. In some cases suppressing your feelings can even prolong the healing process because they eat away in the background and unhelpfully influence you in subconscious ways. You may not know how you feel to start with so give yourself time to let your feelings work themselves out. Feelings may even change on a daily basis as will the support that you need. You might find that here are even moments of normality. It is all a process of adjustment that needs to be worked through and there is no designated timescale on how long this should take or which emotions you should be feeling at any given point. My clients have often told me that they felt as if they were trapped in a washing machine full of emotions on full spin. Expect some days to be harder than others and try and be ready for them. Set up someone to talk to or somewhere to go that will help you navigate these more difficult times. If you want to cry then do it. It is not weakness to let your feelings out. It can actually give you a sense of relief and calm you down.
It is so important to be compassionate with yourself. Give yourself the space that you need to accommodate what has happened and come to terms with it. Don’t expect too much of yourself. I have known some clients that feel that they should be able to carry on with life despite what has happened, that not being able to do that was a sign of weakness. It isn’t. Be gentle on yourself.
Don’t hide away from those around you. We generally feel calmer when we have our tribe around us. It is common to feel that you want to hide from the world and withdraw to safety but that never really helps in the longer term. Being with others can stop us from ruminating and solely focusing on the painful parts of our lives. And there are other parts. They may dim for a while but they are there.
Some of my clients have said that they found it helpful in finding alternative ways of expressing themselves, such as writing their thoughts and feelings down or using them creatively, composing poetry, songs or even a physical memorial of some kind. If you have any creative skills what ways could you use them to honour your loved one? Put up pictures of them or make an album. Grow a garden or make a sculpture. It can be a positive focus for how you feel and a lovely way to remember someone. I used to live next door to a cemetery. I loved walking in it as it was a very peaceful place. I liked to see the ways in which people decorated their loved one’s graves with little things that they had made or collected for them or letters they had written. I remember that one grave had a cherry tree with beautiful wind chimes hanging from it.
If you know of someone who is grieving you may be wary of imposing on their grief or perhaps you may worry that speaking to them will remind them of their loss and make them feel sad. As Elizabeth Edwards said, “ You are not reminding them. They did not forget. What you’re reminding them of is that you remembered that they lived. And that is a great, great gift.
If you are struggling with feelings of grief that feel unmanageable you can try talking to your GP, access bereavement counselling or you can try a therapist like me. For those that would like to do that then call 07989 944053 or email me at email@example.com if you would like to arrange a chat. Alternatively, you can contact me via the website. Do read my testimonials on those I have helped with grief.