It’s almost certain that at some point in our lives most of us will experience bereavement. It might the loss of our parents, spouse, children, friend, colleague, neighbour or someone that we feel we know like a TV star, celebrity or even royalty. Whoever it is, they will leave a void in our lives consistent to their importance to us.
This article is intended to make some sense of what happens to us when someone in our life dies and the distress, shock and confusion that most of us will feel, but first of all, let’s get the terminology right:
Bereavement is what happens to us
Grief is what we feel
Mourning is what we do
Being bereaved sets us off on journey of transition; from where we were before bereavement, through several stages of change, to hopefully adjustment to the new situation. How many stages of transition after bereavement actually exist is open to debate and varies from therapist to therapist but I opt for nine. These are:
Denial or Minimising
Anger – either at the person who has died or at a scapegoat for causing the death. Guilt that didn’t do something
Grief – physical and mental pain
Consideration of new options
Making sense of what happened
Acceptance - coming to terms with the death
Being at ease with the new reality
Although set out in a neat and orderly fashion above, that’s not usually how we journey through the stages. We can jump forward, skip or return to any stage at any time, like the tide at the seaside, we ebb and flow. However for most of us, we reach the point where we have made sense of what happened and are able to find some contentment with the new situation, sadly for a few it’s not the case. The use of the correct words like `died` and `dead` is important and although this might feel uncomfortable, research has show that using the right words can help the grieving process.
Years ago grief was dealt with very differently and people in mourning could be identified by signs and signals - mourning clothes, stopping clocks and pulling over of curtains etc. These days people in mourning can outwardly look the same as normal but be going through a whole raft of emotions - possible all within one day. As well as emotions, severe physical symptoms of illness can appear. Stress and worry can make you ill and bereavement, especially when the death is sudden can cause all sort of symptoms including numbness that can last for days, tightness in the chest, loss of appetite and insomnia.
Support at this time of course is crucial and often we see families coming together and supporting each other, however some experience detached, slightly cold behaviour from people, for example a neighbour crossing the road to avoid contact. This type of behaviour is often down the person just not knowing what to say, being embarrassed or worried that they will say the wrong thing. Although the bereaved person will usually welcome the chance to speak of the deceased, there are things that are best not said. These include `It’s part of God’s plan.` This phrase can make people angry and they often ask `What plan is that? Also `Look at what you have to be thankful for` is best avoided because they know what they have to be thankful for, but right now it doesn’t help. ‘He’s in a better place now.` The bereaved may not believe this, so keep your beliefs to yourself unless asked. Lastly `This is behind you now; it’s time to get on with your life.` Sometimes the bereaved are resistant to moving on because they feel this means forgetting their loved one and this can feel disloyal or a betrayal of them. Sometimes the deceased can take on the status of a saint in the eyes of those bereaved. Moving on is easier said than done.1
Betrayal and disloyalty also creeps into another area of `moving on` and that is the emotionally charged process of disposing of the deceased’s possessions, like clothes, paperwork and hobby items. This should only be tackled when the bereaved feels really ready and because of the emotional attachment many will feel towards their loved one’s `things` the bereaved should not be pushed or harassed into premature sorting and disposal. When ready the bereaved can decide if they would like to do this with a close friend or family member or on their own, although opinion seems to favour accompanied small steps. For many, the process is fraught with emotional ups and downs; what do you keep? What do you give to charity? What do you throw away? As well as the fear of losing even more of the loved one. It’s here that we occasionally see the seeds of hoarding sown: people just being unable to lose anymore and so they start to build walls of stuff to take comfort from.
One of the most difficult areas of dealing with bereavement is when we have to explain to children what has happened to a loved one and this starts with telling as much of the truth as possible, this means sharing information in doses and gauging what the child can handle by giving information in small bits. Avoid saying things like `Granny is on a journey` or has `gone to sleep` The latter could be worrying for the child because they might think if they go to sleep they may not wake up as well. One child became confused by being told that Granddad had `gone to heaven` because they heard it as `gone to Devon`. This reminds me of the late, great Irish comedian Dave Allen who once said that he attended a funeral when he was young and had misheard what the Priest had said at the graveside. Instead of `In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost` he heard `In the name of the Father, Son and in the hole he goes` This stayed with him for years and years and he really thought that was what a Priest says at a funeral. We may also be tempted to say that we have `lost` someone and children might worry in case they get lost as well. On a popular TV chat show some years ago the host said to a female celebrity `Of course, since we last met you have lost your husband?` `No` replied the celebrity ` I haven’t lost him, I know exactly where he is`.
The truth gives a reason for your upset and tears and your openness can help the child to learn how to mourn. Of course, however you broach the subject the child will be upset and we have to accept their emotions and encourage the child to talk. Also remember that that it’s ok to cry. Often we hear well meaning people saying to a crying child `Now come on, none of that`. This is not about the welfare of the child but more about the adult being unable to cope with the tears and the emotion of the little one and so they try to shut the child down.
A few words about `Impossible tasks` for children who are bereaved might be useful here. Sometimes adults will place huge burdens on these children by saying things like `you’re the man of the house now` or `you must take your Mother’s place in the home` How innocently these things might be said and probably with the best of intentions, but what a burden to pass on to that child. In counseling children are often encouraged through visualisation to stop and unload some of their burden, like leaving heavy baggage on the platform when they board a train, this approach can be very beneficial. Sadness in children at distressing times can be looked on as jumping in and out of puddles whereas in adults it’s more like wading up a river of grief.
As an adult it’s important not to hide your grief from the child. Seeing you grieve will let the child know that it’s normal and healthy to feel sad and be upset. Don't be afraid to share memories of your loved one. Sometimes parents feel afraid to talk about the person who has died. Research has shown that re-living memories or sharing stories actually aids in healing. Don't be tempted to change the subject when your child comes into the room because doing so places a taboo on the subject of death. Instead, modify your wording when a child is present. Children need consistency, so try to keep to your usual daily routines and ensure that your child continues to take part in their regular activities. Bereavement doesn’t put a ban on laughter and as such is a great healing tool; it’s ok to still laugh.
It’s impossible to determine how long the grieving period will be for the bereaved, as we are all unique and handle things differently. However at some point it would be useful to ask yourself these basic questions:
Have I accepted the reality of the loss?
Have I experienced the pain of the grief?
Have I adjusted to the new situation?
Have I withdrawn from my loss and put my energy into a new situation or person?
If the answers lean towards the negative, it might be useful to consider outside help in the form of bereavement counselling. In my own counselling practice I have worked with many bereaved people over the years. A common denominator appears to be the opportunity for the bereaved to talk openly and freely about their loved one without fear of upsetting a family member or friend. This can be a huge release and encourage the healing process. I can offer the confidential, private and comfortable setting of my own therapy room here at Creech St Michael with as many or as few sessions as the client feels are needed, at reasonable cost.
Alternately there are many agencies offering help and these include:
Sue Ryder www.sueryder.org/how-we-can-help
Cruise Bereavement care – Call their helpline on 0808 808 1677 open until 5PM
Somerset Area Cruse - phone 01458 898211 - covers:
Bridgwater and Burnham-on-Sea
Taunton and Minehead
Yeovil and Sherborne The line is staffed from 10am to 1pm, Monday to Friday
Samaritans (Taunton Branch) 01823 288998 (local charges apply) 16 Wood Street, Taunton.
Samaritans (National free number) 116 123
Lullaby Trust (Death of a child) Bereavement Support 0808 802 6868
Bereavement Advice Centre 0800 634 9494 Mon – Fri 9 AM-5PM www.bereavementadvice.org
Whichever path is chosen, it’s important that one is taken if the bereaved person is suffering distress and sees no way out of their situation. Many feel it’s not grief that hurts; it’s not talking about it that hurts.
What To do Next
If you feel Bereavement counselling is maybe what you are looking for, or if you require further information the next step is very simple. Visit the Contact page and drop David a message via email, or call.
To book a counselling session with David, or to request further information, please call in confidence 01823 443022.
© 2019 David Trott
1 American Hospice Foundation