Living with the death of a loved one

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The death of a loved one is probably one of the most distressing events we ever have to experience. For anyone who has suffered loss, whether recent or past, the pain can seem unbearable. A great big empty space, a chasm so deep that it seems never ending.

If you have lost someone you love, a parent, partner, lover, a pet or a dear friend, or if you have been forced to re-evaluate your life with the loss of a job, illness or divorce, the feelings you experience will be those of grief.

It is a shame that even those close to us do not always know what to say. Sometimes it can feel as if people are avoiding us. The problem is that people find it very difficult to know just what to say to someone who has experienced a deep personal loss. It’s not that they don’t care, but it’s because they feel uncomfortable and think it’s easier to say nothing. Sadly, in doing so, this deprives the person who is grieving of human contact which could actually serve to make their lives less painful.

Here in the western world we are not very good at grief. Organisations will generally grant a day off when somebody dies and another day for the funeral. Compassionate leave is generally unpaid and at the discretion of the employer, particularly with small or medium sized companies in these difficult financial times. After as little as a couple of months people are expected to have “moved on.” Often the ink is yet dry on probate or whatever. But that’s it, that’s your lot mate, time to move on! We are simply not a nation of mourners, unless you count public grief for members of Royalty such as princess Diana. Today, cremations are little more than sanitised affairs, 20 minutes then the curtain comes round and it’s a walk in the garden of remembrance, with a cursory look at the flowers. In countries like Italy, Spain or Greece they have a different take on death. Womenfolk wear black, maybe for twenty years  or more, so that people will know that even in their everyday lives and occupation they are still grieving.

If we are locked in grief, unable to overcome our pain, we are destined to a life of inner sadness. Avoiding all reminders and memories simply serves to fuel a deep sense of sadness and pain. The legacy of our sadness may be passed on and our families may suffer in a myriad of ways. We may indeed hurt those we love as we struggle to rise above the painful memories by avoiding. It need not be like this… grief is both normal and healthy. Often working through the stages of grief can take a long time. In my opinion, we need to come through every anniversary and only then can we begin to let go.

The first stage of grief is often denial; the bereaved person will often go through a very painful time of searching. Next there may be anger, sadness and fear; often guilt may surface and “if only” questions arise. Finally, with time and support we begin to reconcile ourselves to the loss, and begin to come to terms and accept it. This may still be a dark, grey and oppressive time but occasional flashes of good humour and well-being will begin to emerge. There may be guilt at first at experiencing happiness again, but with brief windows of light, life may slowly begin again.

Whether seemingly simple and uncomplicated loss, or more complex grief, sometimes people struggle to move forward. Friends, families and local groups such as Cruse are invaluable in helping people through this difficult time. Counselling and psychotherapy can play an important role in helping the grieving person to come to terms with their loss. Feeling depressed, unhappy and even hopeless after a personal loss is usually a transient phenomenon. Sometimes, particularly in the case of traumatic grief, feelings of hopelessness may be engulfed in despair. This is often a sign of unresolved grief and professional help should be sought. (See earlier post – Coping with trauma).

The following signs may indicate that further assistance may be needed:

  • Relatively minor events serve to trigger an intense emotional grief.
  • Just talking about the loss can provoke feelings of anguish and intense pain.
  • Themes of loss appear everywhere and in everyday conversation.
  • Nothing is allowed to be changed and the environment has to remain lust as it was when the loss occurred
  • The bereaved person experiences physical symptoms similar to those the deceased person experienced.
  • The bereaved person undertakes radical lifestyle changes from which friends and family are excluded.
  • Whether consciously or unconsciously the bereaved person imitates the dead person.
  • Complete lack of emotional responses to grief, as if nothing happened.
  • Rapid changes of mood, with euphoria replacing sadness and low mood.

From a psychotherapeutic perspective Grief has a quality of healing in it that is very deep because we are forced to a depth of emotion that is usually below the threshold of our awareness. (Stephen Levine).

Do you agree with the statement made by Stephen Levine above?

Until next time, Steve Clifford. Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist.

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