Learning to Grieve
No-one wants to grieve. I remember a moment at the hospital with my husband, who had collapsed that morning with what turned out to be a brain haemorrhage.
Things were going from bad to worse, and then worse again; it was becoming clear that he might not survive. My mind rebelled, in advance, against what I knew I might have to go through – the shock, the sadness, the painful work of rebuilding my life. It felt completely daunting and I simply did not want it to start.
Grieving is about coming to terms with loss and change, and we humans are creatures of habit. We prefer things to stay the same, predictable, manageable, even if we don't like the way they are. And yet, looking at nature, change is perhaps the only thing in life we can depend on: nothing stays the same, not the cells of our body nor the air we breathe. But catastrophic change, in the form of bereavement, is both a profound shock and an abrupt displacement into an entirely new universe, which you then have to gradually find your way around. It splits your world open.
People have described grieving as like looking at the world through a thick glass pane – you can see it going on, but you can no longer touch the ordinariness of it. We don't honour grief in our society, and are expected to function as usual within a very short space of time, to 'move on', or 'put it behind us'. As though anything that ever happens to you is not part of you for the rest of your life, like strands that are woven into the ever-thickening rope of who you are. If you love someone and they die, you don't stop loving them or thinking about them; one feeling common to bereavement is still expecting someone to walk in the door long after they have died. My mother died two years ago, after several years lost in the fog of dementia, but I still find myself wanting to pick up the phone and call her.
But any length of time spent seriously mourning is soon easily dismissed as “wallowing", even by those who are doing it. A friend commented to me the other day that she had been devastated by her father's death, but thought she 'should' be feeling better by now. Yet the death of a parent is probably one of the most fundamental losses we will ever face – why would it not be devastating? The famous “Five Stages" model of grief, developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross from her observation of people who were terminally ill, has been misapplied to all grief everywhere, and can even be used as a stick to beat the bereaved with – “have you reached the anger stage yet?" – but grief is a complex landscape which cannot be reduced to a sequence of more familiar emotions. And it doesn't flow in a linear way – you can move in a moment from elation to despair.
The problem with grief is that the only way out is through – you can do your best to suppress it; blot it out with work and 'keeping busy'; try to put on a brave face and pull yourself together; but grief needs to be dealt with, and it is hard, confusing, unremitting work. The process was once described to me as the brain rifling through the filing cabinets of the mind, searching for the 'lost object', and this is an apt description of the sense of bewilderment after a death. It is exhausting, it can make you ill, it can make you feel like you're going mad.
So how can we learn to grieve (which we will all at some point have to face doing, being mortal)? And how can we support those who we know are grieving? Time and acknowledgement are two of the greatest tools we have – understanding that it is not a quick process, and that it is a very complex one. There are many twists and turns on the road – you can feel perfectly fine for a while, and then grief returns in a sudden wave and knocks you off your feet. There is no time frame within which you 'should' feel better – it takes the time it takes, whether this be months or years.
If you have a friend or relative who is grieving, the best support you can give is to stand beside them on their journey, as a witness. We are often so uncomfortable around others' pain that we want to fix it as quickly as possible, to make it go away. Understand this discomfort in yourself and try to overcome your desire to offer solutions, or to 'take them out of themselves'. Practice grieving with them for a while – it will help you when it comes to your turn.