Death is not our favourite subject but one which few of us can avoid – it is natural part of life. 100 years ago talking about sex was taboo but death was both common place and expected, now it is the reverse. Society does not like death, as surely medicine can cure most things and certainly it is not seen as common place for younger people to die, is it? If only that were true! When it happens, we are shocked and offended by it – no-one talks about it and even the word ‘dead’ is replaced by a whole range of potentially confusing alternatives. This can be a particular problem if you are a child and someone tells you a significant person in your life has ‘passed’, ‘gone’, ‘has been lost’. Gone where! Let’s find them!
Little wonder then that when it hits we are unprepared and finding real support and understanding from others can often seem elusive. Oh many have good advice on what’s best for you – or is that them – such as ‘time heals’, ‘get a hobby’, ‘don’t just hide yourself away’, ‘get a dog’, ‘go on holiday’ and ‘don’t talk about it all the time’. Feelings and emotions are often neither understood or accepted! You shouldn’t be so angry, you shouldn’t cry so much it’s not good for you, why are you so anxious, why are you not working after all it is a good distraction, why are you still in your pyjamas at 2.00pm, why are you feeling guilty, depressed, morbid, lacking in confidence, confused, overwhelmed, betrayed, relieved or even why aren’t you crying?
Ultimately the thing that most advice is directing you to let’s face it is – for goodness sake ‘move on!’
Does all this sound familiar? This is all part of society’s ‘grief policing’, making sure we do it the normal, right way – not too public and for not too long!
Well the good news, if there is such a thing when experiencing grief, is that there is no right or wrong way. There is no normal, although there exists a paradox that despite each and every person uniquely trying to do grief their way, there are some common feelings, thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Many of my clients describe similar experiences but even these will occur at different times and will affect each client differently.
There are a number of ‘grief theories’ that have been around for some time and these tend to change over a period – personally I am not at all sure that the words ‘grief’ and ‘theory’ sit well together. However, some early writings describe grief as happening in stages on some sort of linear journey with a beginning and an end – well it can be said that there is a well-defined beginning but an end is perhaps less definable – what does the end of grief look like and when might it be reached? Does someone go through these stages in some sort of order and do they have to do them all – shock/denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance? (Elizabeth Kubler Ross)
Another theory looks at grief and says that its size/effect remains the same forever but that we learn to build an increasingly expanding life around it. The Fried Egg model (Lois Tonkin).
Another talks about a duel process model (Stroebe & Schut) where there are two puddles called loss orientation and restoration orientation and the person spends time in each flipping backwards and forwards between the two until ultimately standing in the restoration puddle for most of the time.
My personal view from working with bereavement and loss is that a combination of the above seems perhaps the most appropriate description. Two wheels/carriages moving along a railway track called loss and restoration – the person gets on at the first station of death/loss and moves between the two wheels as they roll down the track, calling at various emotional stations along the way until they finally get off at the last station stop – however they keep their ticket as it has not yet expired and like a yearly pass, they might need to use it again.
Some life, but not as we know it, emerges – a new flower is formed made up of unfamiliar petals. Some clients have described it as an explosion blowing the pieces of their lives over a large area – first you have to find the pieces, then you have to somehow glue them together again but most likely not as they were.
Regardless of the analogy, into the washing machine of doing grief, we can expect to put some, none, all or more of the following: practical issues, pieces of new life, financial worries, burden, anger, guilt, sadness, depression, tears, loss of life’s purpose, irritability, envy, low tolerance of others’ problems, overwhelming, resilient, control, numbness, depression, anxiety, confusion, low self-esteem, lack of focus, betrayal, relief, happiness, euphoria, hopelessness, loneliness, yearning, obsession, nightmares, hallucinations, spiritual awakening, spiritual deadening, rage, despair and much more.
Grief is a natural process but is certainly no picnic and is not governed by any time rules or actually any rules at all. Seek help if it’s what you need but above all ‘Do it Your Way’!