The death of a loved one can be overwhelming. I’m starting out with this statement so that if you are feeling or have felt completely overwhelmed by a death then you will know that you are not on your own, and it’s perfectly natural and normal.
Society seems to feel these days that after a couple of weeks of grieving we should be ‘over’ the death of a loved one or ‘getting on’ with life. This kind of reaction can make you feel even more isolated, peculiar, as if you’re going mad, losing control, as if you’re wrong to be feeling your loss so intensely.
Grief is a funny old thing which doesn’t follow a set path or take a set amount of time. It can also be accumulative and reactive, so the death of a person or a pet may also trigger grief from an earlier death of someone who you were close to, creating a double whammy effect. If you have experienced multiple deaths of people and pets then the most recent one can bring them all to mind, and you find yourself grieving them all again. Or you might find yourself grieving for your dog more than your husband, or for somebody you weren’t as close to more than someone you were very close to for example. All of these can make you feel out of control and the negative reactions of people around you only seems to make it worse. Grief is not the same as depression, though you might well experience depression while you are grieving.
Theories about the process
There are many theories about the process of grieving but we’re going to explore one – Worden’s Four Tasks of mourning. The framework he created is intended to help people to understand how we journey through grief and the way that healing happens gradually as we move along it. He is also very clear that it’s not a linear path, there isn’t a ‘correct’ order and we may travel back and forth through them as our own personal path twists and turns.
The first task is accepting the reality of the loss. Intellectually we know that our loved one has died but this is an emotional acceptance which is something else entirely. It can take time to really believe that they have died and will not be returning, the shock can be immense, especially if the death is unexpected. You know those moments when you suddenly see them or hear them, when you’re expecting them to come in or to react as they usually do? That’s part of accepting this reality, and these moments or events can creep up unexpectedly years later.
The second task is working through the pain of grief in all its manifestations. Grief isn’t just one feeling, one emotion, it’s a whole range of them including sadness, longing, emptiness, anger, numbness, anxiety, fear, guilt and nostalgia. And they don’t just present themselves one at a time to give us chance to experience them and to ‘move on’. We get bombarded by them, and they can change in a moment – or they might stay the same and never appear to change at all – as if we’re stuck. Allowing ourselves to feel whatever we’re feeling and to let it go, so that it can move and change can be incredibly difficult.
We might also experience grief as physical symptoms, most obviously lethargy, headaches and nausea but also heart issues, digestive issues, the list goes on. If you are experiencing physical symptoms and are visiting your GP its important that they are aware that you have experienced a death and are grieving. This doesn’t negate the physical symptoms, they are real, but it may be an explanation. It is however also important to get professional advice so that any beneficial treatment can be prescribed, and tests can be conducted. Its really important to see our physical, mental and emotional beings as a whole and not separate.
Sometimes we hold onto an emotion because it seems ‘right’ or we try to supress the ones which we feel are ‘wrong’. If we have had to make the decision to end treatment or haven’t been able to be with them, the guilt can be exacerbated. Even though rationally we may know it was the right decision, the only decision, or that it was out of our control we are reacting from an emotional place not a logical place.
Anger is often directed at people or circumstances that are out of our control as we look for someone or something to blame. We might find ourselves unable to eat, too exhausted and distracted to engage in anything, unable to take care of ourselves or those around us. It’s really important to acknowledge whatever you are feeling, and to know that it will change, indeed its likely to be changing all the time. People often have more than one role in our lives, and so when they die, we lose them in all of these different roles too, which can be unexpected.
The third task is adjusting to a world without them in it – and this can be very painful and too difficult to imagine. Other people’s lives just seem to carry on as if nothing has changed while ours has been changed forever. This is often the point where people might say to a parent whose child has died that they are young enough to have more or at least they have other children! Or if it is your pet, then you can get another replacement one! The trite phrases about them “having a good life” or “ being better off” come out as well. Believe me people say the most appalling things while trying to be helpful!
This person or pet has been part of your routine for as long as you have known them, and having to change that routine when you haven’t chosen to can be difficult. If / when you chose to look for a new addition to your family, or you start a new relationship this can bring feelings of guilt, as if its implying that you are forgetting your ‘old’ one or being disloyal to them. As you start to find your new normality you may feel their loss even more keenly.
The fourth task is finding and experiencing an enduring connection with your loved one while re-engaging with your ‘new’ life. Sometimes there’s a belief that if we are ready to live again more fully then we are leaving our loved one behind. Understanding this connection, in whatever way is right for you, wherever you feel they are, helps us to use our memories of them constructively and more joyfully. We are no longer overwhelmed by seeing their belongings, photos of them or people or animals who remind us of them but can enjoy the warmth of that connection with them.
Give yourself time and space
If you are grieving please give yourself time and space. Find people who understand, who you can talk to about what you are feeling without having to self-censor or hold back because they just want to you get over it. Holding a memorial ceremony or celebration of life ceremony separate to a funeral may gave some comfort as it gives an outlet and a coming together for everyone, a chance to talk freely and laugh as well as cry. Putting together a book / box with photos, memories and mementos can give you a space to feel your grief in safety – so when you get the box out you are free to feel everything, when you put it away you are more able to cope. Writing a diary of your feelings or letters to your loved one can be a good way to express what you are feeling without anyone else being involved – with no judgement and without having to hold back.
Your grief will ease, it will change but it will take time – and there is no magic formula. What has worked for other people might work for you, but it might not – and that’s ok. Remembering them, connecting with them and allowing yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling will always help. When a loved one has been part of our lives of course we are going to feel a hole – and grief is just our love trying to find a way to preserve the shape of that hole, not to fill it.