The death of a loved relative or friend can cause a sorrow that leaves deep and lasting emotional wounds. It can be a critical, life-changing experience. You may forget your name or what happened 10 minutes ago but the memory of such a loss is burned into your mind – the date and time and some minute details of the event will be with you forever and the recollection may bring back the emotional upset you experienced. It takes many months, even years, to recover a measure of ‘normality’ after such a loss and in some respects, you may be changed forever. This loss is referred to as a bereavement which relates to being deprived of something precious especially, but not only, by death. Your reaction to a bereavement is known as grief. It is not an illness, though you may feel very unwell and out of sorts. It is actually a normal aspect of life – it affects everyone and invariably happens a few times during your lifetime. Sometimes it will be mild and you recover without much trouble – you may not even recognise the grief for what it is. But then, some losses will be far more significant. The greater the loss the more severe will be the grief reaction. This experience of grief is stressful in itself and an unresolved grief can be a factor in causing stress even many years later. And even when the grief appears to be resolved something may happen to bring the memory to the surface and the loss can once again become an active part of your situation. It has become another stress factor that needs to be assessed and dealt with.
Coping with grief is like going on a journey. It is a slow journey on a winding road and sometimes has sidetracks that take you off course for a while. We will look at what happens on that journey but before doing so spend some time reflecting on the crises that were for you the start of your journey of grief.
What memories have come to mind? Stop for a while and reflect on them. Write about what you recall. If they are significant memories you may find the following questions helpful prompts. The questions are based on the loss being due to death but if your loss is due to another cause adapt the questions to your situation. However, if little comes to mind skip this section.
How were you related?
How old were you?
What was happening in your life around that time?
What do you recall about the circumstances?
In what ways were you involved in the bereavement?
Were you present at the death?
Did you attend the funeral?
Were you told what was happening?
What did you understand at the time about what was happening and why?
How did it affect you emotionally at the time?
How about a few weeks or months later?
Who did you share your grief with?
How did it help?
Or did it make it worse?
Were you able to help them?
What are the most significant memories you have about the bereavement?
You may struggle to remember some details but that does not matter for now. Just reflect on the memories you do have.
There is no training for managing grief (perhaps there should be) so you will learn by experience and all too often will learn from your mistakes. And every mistake in the stressful journey of grief can create even more stress. I am writing primarily about stress and not grief so I am going to emphasise the major stress points in this journey – just in case you have not already found them.
Even if you have not been bereaved by death you will have sustained other forms of significant loss. Did you have a pet as a child that you were fearful had been lost or stolen? Do you remember how you reacted? That was a journey of grief. Pause for thought – what comes to mind? Reflect on it.
Have you been through a divorce or had a breakdown in a significant friendship or had a miscarriage or an abortion? These experiences leave their mark. After such experiences you need to grieve and allow time to recover before moving on, especially into a new relationship or attempt to have another child. Pause for thought – what comes to mind? Reflect on it.
Have you ever thought of redundancy or retirement as leading to grief? In these situations you lose your role in life and possibly your status. The loss may be tinged with relief if the employment had become a burden and you look forward to finding a better job or to enjoy the relaxation of retirement. Once retired the feeling of being on holiday soon fades and after sorting out a few domestic tasks that were waiting to be done you may be surprised to find that there is little reason to get out of bed in the morning. No one seeks your advice or respects your opinion. So you may go through periods of withdrawal and despair. These are all journeys of grief. Pause for thought – what comes to mind? Reflect on it.
A serious illness in which you have lost a significant body part such as the use of a limb due to amputation or a stroke, or blindness that occurs because of an accident or hereditary disorder, results in a loss that causes major life changes. Part of the experience in learning to cope is the journey of grief that is caused by such a significant loss. Pause for thought – what comes to mind? Reflect on it.
And what if the death or severe illness affects a child, perhaps your own child? As much as you may want to, you cannot take over their suffering. Watching them suffer an illness and potentially lose a future that might have carried your dreams as well as their own is heart-rending. Your grief may be compounded by a sense of guilt that you are the cause of some of their suffering if, for example, they undergo a painful operation or are affected by adverse reactions to drug treatment that were undertaken after you gave permission. Pause for thought – what comes to mind? Reflect on it.
A serious assault especially when in fear for your life causes a reaction of grief. And what about a burglary when an intruder invades your home? Apart from the loss of valuables your personal space has been invaded. It is almost as if you have been violated. That can make you depressed, angry, fearful and paranoid. The journey of grief has started. Pause for thought – what comes to mind? Reflect on it.
It may seem surprising but some of the ‘rites of passage’ stages in life are tinged with grief that can be hard to understand and accept. Do you remember being distressed when your child first went to school? That was a grief reaction. Consider further, the experience of leaving the family home and moving to university or into your own home, getting married or moving from one community to another when you had to move school, home or work. The move may have been anticipated and prepared for with the focus being on where you were going. Yet the corollary of the going is the leaving. As you have to develop new relationships and find your way in a new environment so you have to get used to being without old friends, familiar habits and routines. Suddenly and unexpectedly, you can feel lost and confused and have difficulty settling into new relationships, developing new routines and finding your way in a new environment. You may have failed to adapt so returned to the ‘nest.’ All this is to do with grief. Pause for thought – what comes to mind? Reflect on it.
This section has been written to help you learn about grief so you can reflect on your personal experiences. And they will be multiple, some more significant than others, but all are important sources of information so you can discover how you coped. That will help your self-understanding and will be a phase in the onward journey of life, equipping you with the skills and techniques to cope even better with the stress associated with this painful and inherent aspect of life. Some bereavement experiences may have sunk into your subconscious mind and are waiting there to be resurrected by connection with a subsequent experience. As an illustration here is Eleanor’s story.
Eleanor remembers being moved to the top class in her year because she was doing so well. No one asked her if she wanted to move. Her parents were pleased and proud but she hated it. She was separated from her friends and had to relate to a new teacher who she did not like. Worst of all she had lost the teacher she loved. She struggled in her new class and was never far off the bottom. She no longer looked forward to attending school and homework became a chore. Her parents were upset and paid for her to have extra tuition even though it was an expense they could not really afford. She remembers feeling guilty and ashamed that she was letting down her parents. She concluded she was a failure and did not deserve any favours. It was many years later that she realised that that bereavement experience had affected her later educational and employment progress and had spoiled the development of close relationships. She discovered all this about herself when she was in her 40s and was struggling to come to terms with her grandmother’s death. She was persuaded to attend a Bereavement Course. That was when she learned about the stages of grief and was reminded about her childhood experiences. She shared her story with a wise counsellor who listened patiently and carefully. She helped her understand how the childhood experience of grief had stunted the development of her personality, intellectual development and self-confidence. It was also one of the reasons why she struggled to cope with the loss of her grandmother.
Do not hurry through this section. Stop every so often, add to your list more grief experiences that come to mind and reflect how your reading links with your experiences. Some experiences will have occurred a long time ago – even in childhood. Include these. Significant experiences in childhood play a formative role in your attitude to life and relationships. You may not easily see the connection as the details of the experience may be forgotten but the effects are welded tightly into your personality and character.
You may have hazy memories of some events because they occurred so long ago. You may wish to leave them like that but if something about the memory bothers you, you could try to obtain more details by talking to family members and friends who may also have been involved. Of course, they will want to know why you are resurrecting such old memories so be ready to share something of your journey and even invite them to share it with you.
Another issue about old memories is that if the bereavement occurred when you were a child you may not have been informed about the full details. This might, for example, be the death of a grandparent or divorce of parents. If that happened you will have developed your own theory about events. One feature of this is that you may have blamed yourself for what happened and so carry an extra burden of guilt. If this has happened to you there may be extra stress in recovering the memories and discussing what happened with family members. Equally, there may be some relief from doing so when your guilt or self-blame are found to be groundless.
Take time out and write about your experience as your reflections enable you to recall even more details – write a narrative of events or, if it is relevant, write it in the form of letters to one or more people who were involved in the experience. At the least make a list of your life experiences that have featured a grief reaction that you can reflect on when you have an opportunity. If you are aware there are some memories you are wary about exploring set aside a quiet time when you can do to this uninterrupted. They may well be the memories you especially need to explore.
Done that ? Ready to carry on? Welcome back!
If you are going to gain most benefit from this website such time-outs are essential. You need time to reflect on your personal experiences and recover memories that may have been suppressed as they were too painful or were not understood. You will now benefit more from what follows.