Even as I’ve been going through it, even when it has hurt deeply, I’ve felt fascinated by the grief process. Grief doesn’t come in a box marked: “Sad all the time. ” In the first few days after my father’s death, when my sisters, mother and I were together, it’s true we did a lot of crying. But we also hugged, smiled and we even laughed. When the minister came round to discuss the funeral and get stories about Dad’s life for the eulogy, we laughed a lot. I feel pretty certain our father would have been delighted with that. And it was healing to laugh, to realise we could still do it.
Most people are familiar with the idea that grief is a process that follows different stages. These 5 stages were identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross way back in 1969. But while we may be familiar with this concept, that doesn’t mean it’s correct. Firstly, Kubler-Ross interviewed people facing their own deaths from terminal illness, not people mourning the loss of a loved one. Secondly, she did not say that we go through these stages in a neat process from beginning to end – denial isn’t always first, nor is it always followed by anger. Many psychiatrists and psychologists, such as Michael Shermer, writing in the Scientific American, no longer think these stages Kubler-Ross identified actually exist. Will Meek, in Psychology Today, writes about what he calls the Real Stages of Grief . And although the title refers to stages, in the article, Meek refers to components of grief. This much more accurately describes the experience of grief as my family have felt it.
George Bonanno has spent many years researching grief and in his book, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, he writes that mourning is an individual experience. I might cry a little every day for weeks while also feeling deep gratitude for my father’s life, and find solace in solitude and in taking time to consider the deeper meaning of life. On the other hand, my mother might keep busy cleaning her house, going for walks and talking with the constant stream of visitors who come to express sympathy. Both approaches are equally valid ways to heal grief.
One component that Meek mentions is traumatic distress, which includes disbelief or shock. This is a common feeling, especially in the early days. Many people I have spoken to recently didn’t realise this is a normal reaction to grief and thought there was something wrong with them for feeling this way. I might have thought so too, if I hadn’t been experienced the same reaction after my daughter was born prematurely, or if a friend hadn’t told that after the death of a friend she kept having the sensation that everyone was pretending. This feeling is probably more intense when the death is sudden, but even when it is expected, the finality can cause shock. It can be a relief to realise that this is normal, and that the feeling will pass if we allow it.
Is this sense of shock and disbelief, the same as denial? I don’t think so. In my experience, the sense of disbelief comes and goes, and we accept that the person has died, we don’t deny it. It just seems so hard to grasp though, that someone could be alive and chatting happily one day, and gone the next. Years ago I read an extract from Shadow Child, a novel by Libby Purves, in which the main character is a bereaved mother. What struck me was the way she goes to places her son had been, such as his university campus, and he was dead there too. To me, this so poignantly sums up the feeling of disbelief or shock.
My daughters and I are due to make visit to my mother, and we talked today about their feelings about the visit, and that their granddad won’t be there. One of my daughters said, “It’s as if he’s somewhere else.” This could be seen as disbelief, but there could also be another explanation. Bonanno says that many bereaved people feel a deep connection to their loved one who has died, and feel as if the person is “communicating from an alternative reality.” He says that in Western cultures we often find this unsettling, but in other cultures it is considered normal. I think it’s quite sad that in Western cultures this does lead to confusion and my experience is that accepting it as a normal part of bereavement would be generally helpful.
Hale Dwoskin, of The Sedona Method, says in the DVD Letting Go that often people hold onto the pain of losing a loved one because they think (or hope) that somehow this will make them feel more connected but that in fact it has the opposite effect, and all we connect to is the pain. That is definitely my experience. I hit a low a couple of weeks ago, and felt deep pain at my father’s death, and the more I clung to that pain, the more I felt disconnected. I felt disconnected not just from my father, but from many people around me. Whereas before and after, I also felt – and feel – intensely grateful for my father’s life as well having that sense of deep connection Bonanno writes about. I’d like to tell you exactly how to let go of the pain and still feel the connection, but to be honest I suspect that for each person it’s individual. Being kind to yourself is definitely part of it. (I reread chapters of Self Compassion by Kristin Neff, and that helped.) Allowing myself to feel the sadness was definitely part of the process – when I tried to stop the feelings they spiralled into something close to depression, and when I allowed them, they eased.
Recently, I was trying to work on an important piece of writing, feeling afraid to do it and trying to force myself through the fear – all along feeling sure I’d never do it. Eventually, I stopped fighting and allowed the feelings of fear and hopelessness. As I did a childhood memory came into my mind, a time my father had expressed annoyance at me for being afraid to do something. Instantly, I could understand his frustration and that he had been trying to show me it was safe. I also realised that he had never meant for me to take it personally, as a sign I wasn’t good enough, although that’s what I’d done. There are myriad reasons why my father felt the way he did on that particular day – reasons I can only guess at now, but that would have been a mesh of circumstances from the past and from that day. Equally there are myriad reasons why I felt the way I did and concluded what I did. But what I sensed on revisiting the memory was that if he could have had that moment over again he would have done it differently. He would have gently encouraged me, reassured. He would have told me we’d do the job together. I knew then that I could also do things differently in how I approached the piece of writing I was working on. I could support myself to do it. And that’s what I did.
It’s tempting to remember only the good times after someone we love has died, but from this experience I’d say it’s important to allow all memories of your deceased loved one to be revisited and to heal those that are less pleasant.
Time does ease the pain people feel, yet in the 7 weeks since my father died, people whose parents died, ten, fifteen and almost twenty years ago have cried as they talked about their own grief. Sure, they don’t feel this way every day, the way we do at the beginning, but it’s clear that the pain is still sometimes there for them. The man who talks with Hale Dwoskin in that DVD I mentioned earlier still felt pain about his wife’s death twenty years before. What Dwoskin also explained is that sometimes we think that by letting it go, by allowing ourselves to be happy we aren’t honouring the person who has died. This is a common feeling, and people often feel guilty for enjoying themselves. I haven’t felt guilt, because I know for certain that my father knew we loved him, and that he would never have felt dishonoured because we were happy, or want us to suffer. He also would understand when we do feel sad.
Guilt often seems to be a factor in grief, and indeed is another one of the components Meek identifies. It’s not one I feel regarding my father, but I did feel it after the death of a friend a few years ago. So if you are grieving, and feel guilt, it might help to recognise that it’s part of the process. It’s okay not to dwell on the things you think you did wrong, okay to let the feelings go. (For suggestions on how, read my post: Let Go of Guilt and Shame.) When someone dies, we might remember things we’ve said or done that we wish we hadn’t – or we might think that we should have done more, that perhaps we should have spent more time with the person we’ve lost, and now we don’t have the chance. These are all the mind’s attempts to go back in time and change something, and of course we can’t ever go back in time and change anything. Guilt won’t get your loved one back, and no matter how much it might seem just and fair to now punish yourself, the trouble is that when it comes to punishing ourselves, most of us mete out punishment that is way harsher than that we’d administer to anyone else.
The other thing about guilt is that it feels so horrible it’s easy to then want to blame someone else, and anger is another commonly recognised component of grief. Again, it can help to realise this, and to allow it, and to be willing to let it go. Sometimes people even feel anger towards the person who died – again this is normal. For some people writing letters to their deceased loved one can be healing, but what helps one person may not help another. Even though there are common components, grief is different for each individual, and as long as we allow ourselves to feel whatever emotions we have and also allow them to go, the pain we feel will ease, and we will become able to remember our loved ones with love rather than with pain.