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Bereavement - a personal viewpoint

Interfaith Minister Rev Akasha Lonsdale assesses bereavement and grief. She charts the normal stages and gives advice based on her personal experience.

Bereavement and grieving is a roller coaster ride. Although there are charted stages of grieving, in my own life experience and through my work in supporting the bereaved both as an Interfaith Minister and psychotherapist, the pattern of grief is a lot more variable. It is also unique to the bereaved.

They say that time heals, but I'm not sure it does. What seems to happen is that the degree of pain lessens and the  gaps between bouts of grief get longer - but much depends on the circumstances.

I don't believe that any parent gets over the death of a child, they just learn to live life without that child - the gaps between the pain might get longer, but it never goes away.

Also, for those who lose a lifelong partner, the pain is usually very deep - which is why the partner left behind may often die soon after.

The stages of grief

Although everybody is affected by the death of somebody close to them in their own way, there is a fairly common progression through the stages of grief.

  • Disbelief, numbness, and yearning;
  • Regrets and guilt;
  • Anger;
  • Intense sadness, depression and a desire to withdraw from the world;
  • Renewal and the return of more positive feelings.

Disbelief, numbness and yearning

Bereavement causes different reactions in different people but the most common is that of shock. This too can manifest in different ways.

I remember well the day I was told my mother had been killed in a hit-and-run accident. I heard the words and I felt a sense of deep shock come over me rather like an out of body experience - I was there and not there at the same time.

The next moment, I heard a loud, deep scream and realised that it was coming from me and that I had crumpled on the floor. The following days were a complete haze of disbelief and numbness.

I have heard similar accounts from others who have lost love ones in sudden and unexpected circumstances. The scream is often called 'the primal scream' because it comes from somewhere deep inside.

Whilst the reaction of someone who has lost a loved one who had been ill for a long time might be quieter, it still seems to result in the sense of numbness - especially if the bereaved has been the prime carer of the sick person.

Not only have they lost their loved one but they have lost their purpose in life too.

Once the disbelief and numbness start to thaw, there is often a time of yearning for the deceased. This can sometimes be accompanied by seeing or sensing that the loved one is nearby.

How children react

Interestingly, children often react in very different ways to adults. Frequently, after being told of the death of a loved one, they will say things like "Can I go and play now?" or "What are we having for dinner?"

This of course doesn't mean they don't care. It is their way of dealing with shock and often they will then come back and ask all sorts of questions, which need to be answered honestly.

It is best to talk openly about death with grieving children - they have an incredible ability to understand, and sympathetic explanations combined with loving support really help their healing process.

Sometimes children seem to process grief a lot more quickly than adults but it doesn't mean that if they seem to be ok, that they really are - they too are unique individuals.

It is important to look for any signs that they might need additional support. This can be difficult if you are also grieving and there are no easy answers here. The best thing to do if you feel you are floundering is to seek professional help. 

Regret and guilt

Nearly everyone experiences a heightened sense of regret and guilt after the death of a loved one.

Whether it is feeling that there is something they should have said and didn't; or that they should have visited/rung more often, regret and guilt take on far larger proportions in the early stages of grieving.

I have so often heard people say "if only" - so if there is something you need to say or do, do it now before it might be too late. My grandmother always used to say "treat every parting as if it might be the last" - wise words indeed.

Guilt can also take the form of feeling guilty to be the one still alive. I have heard survivors of the holocaust and terrorist attacks talk of feeling guilty that they survived. "Why me?" they ask.

As part of the grieving process, those same people are particularly motivated to do things to help others.

Anger

Anger is often a part of the grieving process. Anger that it happened; anger that they are alone; anger that the deceased didn't do something in particular or anger that they didn't say whatever it was that needed saying at the time.

If the death is through suicide, the anger might be at the perceived selfishness of the deceased.  However, it is worth remembering that underneath anger is pain and the bigger the anger, the bigger the pain.

Anger is our natural defence mechanism and it tends to be a overt emotion, whereas pain is often more inward and can border on depression.

The period of anger can be moved through much quicker by its safe expression: bashing the bed, screaming in the car, an energetic workout etc. Remember that everyone is individual and will progress at their own pace.

Sadness, depression and withdrawal

When the anger has subsided, sadness, depression and a desire to withdraw from the world can set in. Sleeping might well be difficult and the desire to eat and look after yourself might decline too.

This stage of the grieving process is often one of the worst, because it usually happens after the funeral so there is no 'closing' to bring it to an end. It can also cause a slow and damaging decline in one's mental and physical health.

If you feel yourself going down this route, it is important to select a friend or family member who you can talk to. It may be difficult, but it is unlikely that someone close to you will turn their back on you at such a critical time.

Similarly if you are worried about someone whose sadness and depression shows no sign of getting better, communicate with them to show they are not alone, that you want to help.

Offering to share a cup of tea, going to the shops together or helping them in the garden or around the house can help the grieving person realise that, despite their terrible loss, life indeed, 'does go on.'

It is also important to recognise that sometimes professional intervention in the form of a GP or a counsellor may be needed.

Renewal and the return of more positive feelings

The period of grieving depends on the individual and the circumstances - it can be from a few months to a lifetime.

However, there comes a time where some sort of normality and rhythm of daily life starts to reappear - perhaps accompanied by the desire to eat a bit more; improved sleeping and wanting to go out with friends again.

Renewal can be encouraged by taking up new activities and making new friends. Do not rush into this because if you feel it is the wrong activity, or are disappointed by the people you are meeting, this can lead to longer feelings of isolation.

Recognise renewal as you would the passing of a bad winter and the approach of spring - a slightly lighter feeling with a bit more hope for what lies ahead, but accepting that one or two cold dark days are likely to be ahead of you.

Express emotion 

Because we are all unique and handle bereavement and grieving differently, these stages may well not come in the order listed. But they probably will come at some point.

You may find that you have times - a day, an hour, a week - where you feel fine, only to return to a more unhappy place. You might find yourself laughing and enjoying life one moment and in floods of tears the next.

Grieving is a rollercoaster and my advice is to recognise it, go with it and accept it. The more you block emotions, the longer the process takes.

Often when I go to see a bereaved family to talk about the funeral service, they will say to me "I'm sorry but I might cry". My reply is always: "Why wouldn't you?"

We have such a hang up in the UK about expressing emotion - ‘the stiff upper lip'. This is truly a barrier to healing.

My belief, which is borne out by what I witness in my clients, is that ‘every tear heals'. 

Reverend Akasha Lonsdale is an Interfaith Minister, Celebrant and Psychotherapist who has been effecting change in people’s lives for more than 30 years.   She is the author of the popular self-help book How to do Life - powerful pointers for powerful living and writer/narrator of the CD Bliss Out - serious relaxation.  

Her most recent book Do I Kneel or Do I Bow?: What you need to know when attending Religious occasions is available in the UK and the US from March 2010.  For beautiful, personalised ceremonies visit: www.simplydivineceremonies.com

© Reverend Akasha Lonsdale 2010

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