On Bereavement

In Ireland some 30,000 people die each year and it is said that on average ten people are affected by each death, which means that 1 in 10 of the population experience grief each year. That is to normalise it for ourselves. Everyone will experience loss – it is fundamentally a part of life. Everyone has to grieve or else we risk closing ourselves off and becoming hard or numb and then we stop feeling – because feeling is painful. If you are going to keep your heart open, and it is going to be broken, again and again, then you must grieve.

“If we are strong enough to be weak enough, we are given a wound that never heals. It is the gift that keeps the heart open” (Oriah Mountain Dreamer)

The Process of Death

There are three ways of explaining the process of death.

  • Grief: which is the experience of losing a loved one through death.
  • Mourning: the process of adapting to the loss.
  • Bereavement: defines the loss to which the person is trying to adapt.

But it is not only about feelings, there are a full range of reactions: Mental, Physical, Emotional and Spiritual suffering associated with loss of a loved one.

Grief Behaviours: Feelings:

  • Sadness – this is the most common e.g. crying, withdrawing from social occasions and people.
  • Frustration: with everything….lack of control.
  • Anger: a sense of frustration that nothing prevented the death.
  • Justified anger, silimiar to being a child again: “It’s not fair!”
  • Feeling helpless – unable to cope without the person…..often blame/ hostility projected onto doctors, family, friends, God. There is never a good time for someone to die
  • Guilt & Self reproach: something that happened or was neglected.
  • Anxiety: from fear of not being able to cope or go on without the other person.With the death of someone we love, our own awareness of death intensifies. C.S. Lewis said that grief like fear. It is a ‘sensation like being afraid’.
  • Loneliness emotional and social, the need to be touched or held – the loss of that special someone who is there for you.
  • Fatigue: Grief is exhausting and usually self-limiting.
  • Helplessness/ Numbness: you can wander around not knowing what you were going to do. Not knowing if you are hot or cold. Not knowing whether you are hungry or what you might want to eat.
  • Shock: Can be experienced whether the death expected or not – physical and emotional
  • Yearning/Pining: this is a natural response to loss: wishing for the person who is gone.
  • Relief/ Emancipation: this can happen after long illness or a difficult relationship and can be difficult to verbalise due to fear that others might misjudge

There will be good days and bad days. You need time to deal with the loss, and also time to be away from it – to be ‘normal’
There are physical sensations associated with loss. You can experience hollowness in stomach, tightness in the chest or throat; oversensitivity to noise; depersonalisation. A sense that nothing is real, including self, can also experience a lack of energy, a dry mouth.
Real pain can be and is experienced physically. The body is wounded.

Cognition

  • Disbelief – must be a mistake, I misheard, and it can’t be true.
  • Confusion/ lack of Concentration; forget things easily, ‘feel like I’m losing my mind’
  • Preoccupation – obsessed with thoughts of deceased
  • Sense of presence: a sense that the deceased is somehow still in the current area of time and space

Behaviours

  • Sleep disturbances: try not to worry about lack of sleep at this stage, the body will take sufficient naps. Some people fear that they are sleeping ‘too much’ – it doesn’t matter, again the body is in shock and is trying to heal itself.
  • Eating patterns can be affected and result in a loss of appetite or in comfort eating or of just not being able to know what you want to eat.
  • Avoiding reminders: you can find yourself driving different way home or can start avoiding people who might not know the death of the person has occurred. Things that were once a comfort because of association with loss can be too burdensome and sad.
  • Over activity – some people keep busy so as not to be able to think too much. Others experience no energy at all; everything draws from their energy levels.
  • Tears can have potential healing value by removing toxins and relieving emotional stress. It is not known how this works but it does, so don’t worry about crying.

Mourning:

  • Process: Have to accept the one we love is not coming back. A common experience is that you can be walking down the street and you think you see the person and then reality hits again
  • Denial: life plays tricks…again seeing someone/ dreaming/ feeling their presence.
  • Coming to an acceptance of death requires intellectual & emotional acceptance.
  • Rituals – religious, civil and others that surround grief are defences against alienation.
  • Grief can draw together the people who knew the deceased, bonded by the same emotion. Our traditions or religious rituals and beliefs can be of great support and give us hope.

Time:

  • Grief takes longer than we might think. It is usually a minimum of two years, and many people find the second year harder. They can no longer say ‘This time last year…’
  • Time will be different for everyone. Some people appear to be coping really well for a time and then, a year later they are entering the grieving process. They can be thinking ‘They said it would be better by now.’
  • Grieving is a process of adjustment and adaptation. You can never go back to the ‘normal’ before the death and so have to create a new normal.
  • Grief provides a path, albeit a broken one, by which those who grieve can find their way. Grief is not an illness, it is a necessity. Grief is done by a person, not something that happens to a person. It comes in waves, returning and receding as the memories come and go.
  • We cannot compare our feelings of grief to those of others. Each person’s story is unique and of most meaning to them. Another person’s story is not more tragic or more important than our own. It is different because it is our own story, our experience and our loss.

What can Help ?

Support is most important. It can be the support of friends, family, co-workers and neighbours.
Grieving is exhausting. By simply being willing to sit and listen, to just be with the person, to go to the shops for them, whatever. What is important is taking the time to stop and ask how the person is without trying to ‘fix’ them.
We are social beings; we need to feel safe, to be able to talk, to have someone listen to us without judging.
The griever is the expert on their grief, just acknowledge their loss and avoid minimising the loss – this is a hugely significant event in this person’s life.
It is often said women are more emotional than men, that they can express their grief more easily. This is gender stereotyping and not true for all. Similarly, not all men grieve with the ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude, many find it possible to cry and talk openly.
There is a pattern to grieving, but this pattern does not follow one path. Different people grieve differently.
It is reassuring that most people bereaved by the death of a loved one, will, in time, restart their life and find joy and hope in their new way of living.
For a small amount of people, sometimes due to the manner of the death, for example sudden death, cancer, suicide, concurrent losses, the death of a child, the grief will be complicated and difficult and may lead to depression and anxiety.
For these people, help is available. It may be through a Bereavement Group based in their area or from professionally trained therapists.

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