Grief is a measure and a sign of how much we love. It is deeply painful in all sorts of ways – it provokes confusion, fear, sadness, agony, physical pain, insomnia, dread, brain fog – you name it, it’s in there – but the only way we get through it is by going through it, acknowledging it and being gentle and compassionate to yourself. So give in to it – howl, scream, shout, rage, cry, do whatever you need to do.
Death and grieving have been taboo topics for too long and many people feel shame for still grieving many years after a significant death, or for not grieving in what they see as the ‘right’ way. There is no right way, nor does it have to end, but you can change your relationship with it. And that it is important to talk about it.
We all have an internal split between a rational self and a more feeling self. Both are equally important and it’s very much a bidirectional, mutually supporting relationship. The rational self can help pull the flailing emotional self from out of the maelstrom of feelings of deep despair, while the emotional self helps us tune in and connect with the reality of just how deep and raw the pain runs. If we don’t allow those emotions to be felt and expressed, they won’t go away, they will just go underground before coming back in other ways further down the line.
No amount of cognitive understanding will ease the pain of loss. However, it can be useful to let the more rational, cognitive self get a bit of a grip on what is going on, just to let the more emotional self have a bit of a break. Sometimes reading memoirs of others who have been through similar losses to your own can help you reach a better understanding. I do think, however, that finding a therapist or counsellor who can help explain some of what is going on can sometimes be really helpful as well.
The clearly defined stages of grief can feel very limiting. My experience included some of the feelings involved in the ‘stages’ but only as part of a much broader and all-encompassing set of emotions. I often felt as though I was being tossed in a tumultuous ocean, so I kept returning to that image and describing how the ocean felt on any given day. An ocean never sleeps, it’s constantly shifting – sometimes calm, sometimes churned up – and it’s always at the mercy of the wider weather patterns. That was the metaphor I returned to again and again. Grief, for me, felt too messy to be pinned down.
Denial and numbness can actually be hugely protective. They allow just as much pain as you’re able to bear at one time and protect you so you can carry on as normal for a while before you are sideswiped again. Eventually, the pain recedes enough so you can engage the brain a bit more and start to find meaning and solace, but that will take as long as it takes. Sadly, there are no shortcuts.
Depression is a huge part of grieving and is not always something to be avoided. It may be a necessary part of the path. However, if it goes on too long, or becomes too deep and unmanageable then it is always worth finding a therapist or counsellor to work with you on this. There are also multiple specialists in this field who can help children process their feelings.
Try to make peace with the fact that grief is an ongoing process. You’ll never be the old you again, although of course elements of the old you remain and inform the new. I often rely on the analogy of the Japanese art of kintsukoroi, which means ‘golden repair’. When a piece of pottery is broken, it is repaired using a lacquer mixed with powdered gold. The idea is not to ditch the pot, or disguise its brokenness, but instead to highlight the preciousness of the wounds. This putting back together and rebuilding of something shattered doesn’t deny what was there before, it uses it as the base, but creates something new and beautiful from the wreckage of the old.
Anyone who has lost someone should try getting their thoughts down on paper. Writing was a massively cathartic and useful way to therapise myself through my grief and there has been a lot of research to prove that to be the wider case. If writing does not come easily to you then paint, or make music or crafts – do something creative that will help you find your own language of loss which will help you express your pain. Writing won’t always be an easy process – sometimes it caused massive waves of grief to sideswipe me and push me back under – but even then it felt useful, and provided an outlet for the feelings that were in there but needed a bit of a helping hand to find their way to the surface.
All sorts of languages exist through which to express or process your pain. Whether it be music, art, movement, visualisations, dreams, poetry – there are no rules. Even if it’s upsetting to remember the person you’ve lost, it is not a negative thing – it just shows you there’s more pain seeking an outlet. Sometimes it will feel really joyful to remember the good times, sometimes it will feel upsetting – it’s all about your mood of the moment.
When it comes to helping friends or family grieve, many of us often feel helpless. We want to help but we don’t know how. Let your friend be as emotionally chaotic as they need to be. They may swerve continuously from sadness to anger to confusion and back again. Just let them do so, and don’t expect too much coherence. This kind of support is actually far more useful than all the practical help on offer, necessary though that also is. Let your friend tell and re-tell the story of their loved one’s death as often as they need – it can help the incomprehensible event sink in. But don’t force them to talk about it if that is not where they are at. Always follow their lead.
Nights can be the darkest times, so think about whether you should stay over – if that’s what the grieving person wants. Help with the cooking, cleaning, cancelling upcoming work and appointments and even planning the funeral if you feel it’s appropriate. What’s not helpful is trying to cheer someone up or encourage them to look on the bright side. Any of those platitudes like ‘he’s in a better place’ or ‘time heals’ or ‘he wouldn’t want you to be sad’, can show that you haven’t understood how monumental the loss is. Suggesting they will get over it easily and quickly can feel very dismissive – a betrayal of the person’s importance.
After the funeral, when the shock starts wearing off, it can often feel worse. Watching everyone else return to normal life can highlight how different things are for the person who is grieving. Combat this second wave of grief by texting, phoning and seeing them as often as you can. It’s important to remind them you care.
Ritual and the gathering together of loved ones is a massively important part of grief. My heart goes out to all those who are unable to say goodbye in the usual ways right now. It is a particularly cruel by-product of coronavirus. We all have to be very creative in how we find new ways to emulate the in-person events. Zoom and other online platforms allow you to at least have a presence, inadequate though this might feel, but it does mean you can still get together with others and share reminiscences.
The psychology of grief can teach us quite a lot about dealing with the smaller losses in life. By definition, a loss means you no longer have something you valued, however big or small. Comparing or putting those losses into a hierarchy of what is valid or worthy of attention is not useful. This has quite a large bearing on what we are all living through this year with the lockdown. So many people feel they can’t complain because others have it worse, but that dismissal of your own feelings is quite cruel. We are all mourning the loss of our freedom, jobs, friends, shop-bought coffees and a hundred smaller things. Whatever the magnitude of loss, whether it is for a person or a concept, it can lead to many of the same symptoms of grief.
It’s important to be sad and angry about loss so you can adapt to the new reality. Stop ruminating on all the things you haven’t been able to control and focus on what you can. You don’t have to stop being sad, but you do have to stop railing against reality, or fighting for a world that can’t exist. Planning an activity that is lockdown-friendly gives you back a modicum of control and a new purpose. Part of your response can also be to focus on the ‘gems in the rubble’. What are you learning about yourself and about your friends and family during this time? What are you enjoying? What are you pleased to not have to do anymore? Always look for the silver linings.
Languages of Loss by Sasha Bates is published by Yellow Kite. Available here.