I was recently asked to write about five things I wish people knew about grief, by the wonderful lifedeathwhatever.com who are working to open up conversations about death and dying. Their campaign, #FiveThings is a collection of the five things that Life. Death. Whatever. collaborators want people to know about life, death and everything in between. It proved to be a fascinating exercise for me and one which I was determined to complete without reading anyone else’s contributions or trying to overthink my responses too much. Here are the #FiveThings that I wish more people knew about grief:
1. Grief never goes away, but it changes over time. Grief is not a linear process, ever. In fact, it’s not even a process. Some days feel like a step forward and others like a hundred steps back.
There are lots of different models of grief by many different experts. The problem with many of the models is that they were written from people’s observations of their own, or other people’s grief rather than from any real scientific research and while they might accurately reflect a snapshot of how people feel and how they behave at certain times when they are grieving, they are often too rigid to really take account of the very individual nature of people, their relationships and even death itself.
2. The best way to support a grieving friend is to be the same great friend you always were, but with 25% more effort.
It’s true that we often don’t know what to say when a friend or loved one is grieving. It’s also true that it’s probably best to say ‘I’m really sorry, I don’t know what to say, but I am here for you’ rather than try to minimise their loss (‘well, they had a good innings’ for example might be quite insulting to someone who has lost their life partner of 60 years), or avoid the subject, or even the person completely. I particularly liked the www.refugeingrief.com cartoon ‘Care and Feeding of Your Grieving Person’ – it covers most of the ways in which we can really help.
3. Grief is absolutely the price we pay for love. If you love someone, you will grieve for them. And we even grieve for people that we did not love if we have a strong connection to them in some other way.
I haven’t very much to add to this really. The only small consolation (if there is one) is that with time, care and support we can move some way from the overwhelming sadness that we almost inevitably feel after a great loss, towards an appreciation of what that person meant to us and what they brought to our lives. This often forms part of our emotional shift towards relocating the person who has died to a person of memory, rather than of presence.
4. All losses are valid, even the ones that other people cannot see or be told about. Your grief is your own and no-one has the right to tell you that you shouldn’t feel it.
Some of the most difficult losses are the ones that go unacknowledged. And some of the most difficult issues in grief are the secondary losses that follow a bereavement – the loss of hopes, expectations and dreams; the loss of our belief that life is predictable and fair; perhaps a loss of faith, or trust. All of these losses are also valid and it is these that make so many of our bereavements so difficult to cope with – we do not only lose the person we love.
5. Grief makes us human. And it makes us vulnerable. By recognising and validating our own grief, we become more resilient, more compassionate people ourselves.
We change after loss. Sometimes we become more cautious, more insular, less able to trust or willing to love. But very often a great loss is a sharp reminder that life is finite and that our relationships and the people we love are a precious gift. Neuroscience tells us that those who give most fully of themselves, their empathy and their care, are often the people who are the most emotionally resilient. In giving our time and care both to ourselves and to the grieving people we come into contact with, we can gain easily as much as we give.
Catherine Betley has been managing counselling services for over 20 years and bereavement care services since 2002. She is currently Managing Director of Professional Help, which provides staff care and counselling services and GriefChat, which offers bereaved people the opportunity to chat directly online to a bereavement counsellor free of charge. Catherine believes that grief education is vital to improving our care of bereaved people and that everyone should be able to access timely, professional bereavement support if and when they need it.
Follow Catherine on twitter at @CathBetley