If we had a difficult relationship with the person who has died during the time they were alive, or if they died in a traumatic or shocking way, for example through suicide or following illness, this can further complicate the feelings of grief we experience after they have gone. The loss may be doubly painful if we never formed the relationship with them that we would have wished – for example a parent we longed for a more loving, close and accepting relationship with, or a young child we never saw grow up.
During my work with clients I have been struck by how individual each person’s grieving process is, and how important it is to work with what is happening for a person at the time, rather than trying to adhere to some kind of ‘model’ of the process. The many “I should/shouldn’t be feeling…” statements abound here – one can feel out of control and worried that they are abnormal during the grieving process.
Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross worked extensively on this subject, publishing the well-known book On Death and Dying in which she suggested that a bereaved person, or someone approaching death, experiences five stages of grief as a pattern of adjustment: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Both personal experience and testimonies from others have shown me that grief can entail many varied feelings over different time frames and that in this sense there is an ‘intelligence’ to the process which is unique to the individual. Crucially, it is important to respect and stay open to this, even if we feel ‘better’ one day, and are disappointed to be feeling extremely sad again the next. If we are able to flow with the process rather than resist it, we will usually see that over time there is an upward trend towards becoming fully functioning again.
I think it is also important to remember that bereavement, grief and feelings of loss can be experienced in many more situations than we might first realise. An estranged sibling or parent we are no longer in contact with (though still alive) might trigger feelings of grief, as well as rejection and guilt. The death of a much-loved family pet can feel just like the loss of a person. Experiencing miscarriage can mean not only losing an unborn child, but also all the dreams and hopes we had for the future child and ourselves as parents, grandparents… A person with a degenerative illness such as dementia may experience great changes in personality, and hard as it may be to admit, may not seem like the same person anymore to us – we have lost the relationship we had previously, and are simultaneously being challenged to adapt to a new one. In these complex situations, it is important to offer ourselves acceptance for the process we are going through – these can be just as valid an experience of grief and bereavement as having lost a person in our lives through death. Whatever loss you might be experiencing, or if you are finding yourself having difficulty grieving, therapy can help gently support you through it.
The subject of death and dying has for some time been an interest of mine. I have a sense that we are more ‘aware’ of our mortality on a day to day basis that we are choose to be conscious of – i.e. the smaller endings we encounter remind us on some level of our ‘ultimate’ one. In the Western world generally we are used to experiencing the concept of death as frightening, and aspire towards an increasing array of anti-ageing techniques. However, if we are to live our maturity and our own and others’ deaths well; in a kinder, wiser, more supported and compassionate way, it is crucial that we don’t shield ourselves from the subject until it is forced upon us by circumstance. Furthermore, I think that engaging with the subject can allow us to better appreciate our time on the planet and live our lives in a more satisfying way. There are three books on the subject I have enjoyed reading and which really stand out as being gentle, compassionate and wise:
• Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch (Gecko Press)
A beautiful illustrated short book for children and adults, with a gentle story.
• Living Your Dying by Stanley Keleman (Center Press)
The first few lines of this book read: “This is a book about the experience of dying. But it’s not written for the dying person. Instead, it is intended for all of us who one day will die… What I am trying to say is that dying need not be fearful or painful, either socially or psychologically… We live in a time that denies death, that distorts the dying experience by retaining traditional myths. What we need is a fresh start, a new myth, a new version of maturity and longevity. We are not victims of dying; death does not victimise us. But we are victims of shallow, distorted attitudes towards dying, which we conceive as tragic.” I find this book extremely life-affirming and supportive; a wonderful insight on how to live well (despite the title at first glance suggesting otherwise!)
• Staring at the Sun by Irvin Yalom (Jossey-Bass)
Yalom is an American psychiatrist with a wonderfully candid, compassionate and readable story-telling style. In this book he talks about facing our fear of death and in particular argues that we can lessen these fears by living our lives more fully and satisfyingly.
Thank you for reading. If you would like to get some support for a loss you have experienced please feel free to contact me.