This is a specialist area of interest in my work.
Many people come to me for support through the process of grief after bereavement or loss.
This can be an especially difficult, and often complex time, and bereavement counselling can be of great support after someone we care about dies.
Bereavement is a term that refers specifically to the death of a loved one.
Grief can be experienced after any kind of loss, not just bereavement.
‘There is no love without pain; but only love can heal that pain which it causes’ – Father Julio Lancelotti
We all experience loss and we will all be bereaved at some point in our lives.
Like you, I have experienced my own bereavements, and as a counsellor, I have worked extensively with people who have been bereaved.
The death of a loved one can be devastating.
‘How do I get over my grief?’… ‘I should be over it by now surely?’…’How long does grief last?’
These are the kinds of questions that I hear a great deal in my work with bereavement and loss, and as they are so common, it reminds me again and again that we do not talk even nearly enough about bereavement, loss and grief in our families, in our society, or indeed our culture.
These searching questions express to me, the difficult and painful struggle we can find ourselves in when we are bereaved, wanting so much to do what we can to move out of this sometimes unbearable pain, but finding ourselves helpless to do so.
It can feel surreal and disorienting as the rest of the world seemingly carries on as usual, while our world feels as though it has stopped somehow.
Grief can be messy, chaotic, unpredictable, and is certainly not a linear process.
Sadness is an emotion that is universally linked to grief, but grief can feel many things that we can be unprepared for, including paralysing, isolating and frightening.
Grief can be exhausting and we may become forgetful and struggle to concentrate on even the smallest of tasks.
We may feel irritable and angry at times, with others, ourselves and the person who has died. We may feel guilt for having these feelings.
We often experience shock in the initial stages of grief, even when we knew the person was going to die.
Our beliefs, how our loved one died, and our relationship to them, and with them, all inform our process of grief.
Grieving for a child will be different to grieving for an aged parent. Losing someone to illness will be different to losing someone to suicide.
There is often a feeling that grief is like a mountain, or a large obstacle that we just need to climb over and then it’s done, and gone, and we can resume our lives again, ‘getting back’ to who we were before we experienced our loss.
We may feel that we have some sort of control over the process this way, but we cannot control our grief. We can however, do our best to understand our own process, our needs and how we can best meet these compassionately.
...They do not define us
How do we allow ourselves this change when we don’t want it?
We may find ourselves raging against it or feeling crushed or collapsed under its imposition.
The process of grief can take much longer than we realise. I often wonder if this is, in part, because in the initial stages of bereavement, people openly offer their love and support and we have some kind of permission to feel as we do.
Anniversaries and special occasions maybe difficult, both as time approaches these, and the actual time itself.
Our support can often seem to disappear too quickly, and without the tangible support of others validating our on-going pain, we can start to feel as though we shouldn’t feel as we do, and that we should be ‘over’ it by now.
If we buy into this, we are in danger of dismissing and blocking our grief, complicating our process even further.
It can be all too easy to follow this path as we naturally don’t want to feel emotional pain and anything that can help us to avoid it can become seductive.
We learn to manage our emotional pain in childhood, and these patterns of coping can be repeated throughout our lives automatically.
Depending on what we have learned, we may choose a healthy route and talk to others about how we feel, or we may turn to more unhealthy activities such as alcohol or drugs, throw ourselves into our work, and find other distractions to help us convince ourselves that the pain has gone.
We can only cope in the way that we know how.
Our loved ones want us to be ok.
They may not know what to say and stop talking about the person who has died for fear of upsetting us. It is difficult for them to see us suffer, and so we may learn to hide how we are really feeling.
This may feel like the best thing to do in the face of other people’s feelings, judgements or misunderstandings, but it does not make our grief go away.
How our families have historically managed grief will also inform our ways of managing our own.
We learn through experience, both consciously and unconsciously.
Our experience of grief will never be wrong.
It will be unique to us and we need to find ways of safely expressing ourselves so that we can support our own process. Bereavement counselling can often support this process.
The invitation is to be brave, and to allow ourselves to have our experiences, just as they are.
Grief is often referred to as being experienced in 'waves’.
These waves can range from a sense of small, lapping moments to huge frightening tsunamis that threaten to knock us over with their power...and everything in between.
It would simply be too much for us to be with our pain constantly, and so we naturally protect ourselves by slowly adjusting to what has happened, little by little.
We may find ourselves feeling numb as part of this protective process, and patience and compassion for ourselves during this time is sometimes replaced with frustration and anger as we mistakenly feel that we are somehow responsible for slowing things down and prolonging our grief.
Grief Psychotherapist, Julia Samuel (Grief Works) said, ‘Children’s grief is like jumping in and out of puddles. They can be very sad one minute and very happy the next’.
As adults, we too can experience happy moments when we are grieving, and this can sometimes cause confusion and feelings of guilt.
It is important that we allow our children to experience all that that they feel in order for them to manage their grief in a healthy way, and the same goes for ourselves too.
Coping with bereavement
Margaret Stroebe and Hank Schut (1999) developed a dual process model of coping with bereavement.
They identified 2 separate tasks associated with bereavement:
1. Loss focused – Relating directly to the death: ie. crying, experiencing sadness, denial, anger, ruminating or dwelling on the circumstances of the death and avoiding restoration activities.
2. Restoration focused – Relating more to the losses connected to the death such as lifestyle, routine and relationships. These activities include managing changes, developing new ways of connecting to friends and family and cultivating a new way of life.
It is the moving back and forth between both of these ‘tasks’ that is healing.
We learn to endure our pain and then find the much needed distraction and respite from this.
Together, these focuses can slowly help us to face the reality of the death of our loved one and to adjust to life moving forwards.
If a couple, or a family is grieving, one person maybe loss-focused whilst another is restoration-focused, and this in itself can sometimes present challenges and conflicts in relationships.
We all have different needs at different times.
We mourn the loss of what could have been as well as what was. The loss of a potential future that we may have dreamed about or planned.
We may have a sense of an on-going relationship with the person who has died, even though we know that things will never be the same.
We can think that we see them in the street, talk to them even though we know they are no longer alive, and judge ourselves and feel that we are wrong somehow, or going mad for doing so.
Our own sense of mortality can be brought to the forefront when someone we love dies. Maybe at times this is with a renewed sense of personal values, priorities and purpose and maybe at times with a sense of pressure, hopelessness or feelings of anxiety.
All of these things are completely natural.
If we want to support a grieving person we must listen to their pain.
If we are a grieving person, we must try to find the courage to seek out those who are able to hear us, and find validation for our experiences, whatever they may be.
The inner conflicts that can arise from the process of grief can feel very confusing and disorienting. Our hearts can tell us one thing whilst our heads can tell us another.
We want to move on and feel happier, and at the same time we can feel guilty for wanting this.
We may feel a need to stay where we are in our process to somehow feel closer to the person who has died.
We can appear to be managing well at times and consequently be seen as strong by others, whereas by default, we can feel that we are weak and not coping during those times when we are more closely in touch with our pain.
The process of grief is complex and individual.
You may recognise your own experience in some of what I’ve shared with you here, or your experience maybe very different.
Gaining a sense of relief -
When we are able to talk about the person that has died, experience being deeply listened to, and have our own experiences of grief witnessed, we can find a way of allowing the sometimes polar opposite places to coexist inside of us and gain a sense of great relief.
If you are bereaved and struggling with your process of grief in any way, you are very welcome to contact me.