I met recently with an old acquaintance who was bereaved. She made the comment that she thought that she was ‘not grieving’. When I asked what she meant by this, she replied that she had not begun to cry and was puzzled to find herself more angry than sad. This conversation reminded me that we all have different perceptions of what grief is. Such differences can make for misunderstandings of ourselves and others.
Grief is a response, a reaction to loss. As such, it is a resonable, natural and necessary part of dealing with changed circumstances. It is unique, very varied, idiosyncratic and highly personal. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grieving styles even within families can be very different.
Grief is not solely the domain of a reaction to a death loss. It occurs whenever one has to adjust to new demands where one perceives a loss. So it could be in losing a pet, changing jobs, houses, losing a limb, or losing a job. It does not matter it still has a component of grief.
Grief is influenced by a wide range of variables, for example:-
- Religious or philosophical beliefs
- Individual personality
- Previous life experience, in particular previous experience of loss
- behaviour learned from one’s family of origin
- the availability, nature and quality of support and care
- physical and emotional health
- the nature of the relationship with the person who has died
- the nature of the ‘event’
- the meaning or lack of meaning that event has
Grief is a complex phenomenon, and we should rightly be wary of those who might want to make ‘one size fit all’ and offer overly simplistic notions of what happens to us when we are grieving or overly simple advice about what to do to feel better.
Furthermore, we experience grief along all domains of our being, physical, emotional, behavioural, psychological and spiritual.
Physical sensations may include butterflies in the stomach, breathlessness, tightness in the throat or chest, over-sensitivity to sound or light, muscle weakness, lethargy, dry mouth, palpitations or gastrointestinal disturbances.
Emotional responses may include sadness, anger, anxiety, guilt, shock and numbness, yearning, pining, loneliness or despair.
Psychological responses may include disbelief, confusion, memory loss, preoccupation, distraction or impaired cognitive processes such as decision making.
Behavioural reactions may include sleep disturbance, appetite disturbance, absent- minded behaviour, lack of concentration, disturbing dreams, social withdrawal, frequent sighing, restless activity or crying, purposeless activity.
Spiritual responses could be questioning the existence of God, or your belief system, preoccupation with the afterlife, issues related to meaning and purpose.
The above list is by no means an exhaustive one but serves to illustrate the range of experiences that grieving people may encounter.
Many of the above experiences are mainly present in the early days, weeks and months and will naturally and gradually subside as we find out feet in a world forever changed.
Questions of meaning, purpose and identity may span many years. This is often very common following the death of a child which so profoundly violates the natural order of things and may pose many questions about how the universe works.
In the aftermath of a significant loss, we may feel frequently overwhelmed and lost. The world has become a different place, and we no longer feel safe and secure. The world is no longer predictable or reliable as it once may have been. Beliefs and worldviews about fairness, justice and the world making sense in some organised way may be seriously challenged.
In a profound sense, while the acute, intense experience of grief will change and become more manageable, grieving continues to the end of our own lives.
We may rebuild life around the pain of the loss and engage with life but we never stop missing someone we love or when a child dies.
Grieving people need to have this complexity recognised and acknowledged, to be heard and understood in an empathetic and compassionate way that gives permission and time to grieve without judgement and in a way that is right for them.
A recurring theme I have observed in talking with grieving people is that too often this understanding is missing. It is often said to me that ‘people don’t get it’.
It is a very difficult thing to wholly enter into another’s experience and difficult to find words to describe an experience that is so profound. Sometimes it is only other parents who ‘understand’.
After the death of a child, re-entering your previous world may feel strange as you rebuild your life and relearn the changed world. These factors add complexity to grief. Many families at this time need also to deal with perhaps having had prolonged periods away from home, authorities never dealt with before, everyday routines have disrupted and life seems chaotic in the extreme.
Fatigue and stress are daily companions.
All of the above factors contribute to the ‘grief cocktail’ following the death of your child. So, when you are given advice or information about grief and what you should/should not do, or be doing trust your instincts. Do what is right for you, when you are ready.
If it makes sense to your head, heart and gut, give it a go. If not, leave it alone. It is important to note that the “time-frames” allowed to those who are grieving and rebuilding their lives is often disrepectively short.
Being a bereaved parent, sibling, or grandparent is not a club anyone chooses to join.
Experiencing the complexity of grief and the task of rebuilding and becoming accustomed to a life forever changed takes much effort, hard work, time and understanding.
written with thanks to my colleague Vera Russell.