I was twenty two before I really experienced grief. Growing up in the west of Ireland I was familiar with the rituals surrounding death. I had been to many funerals of neighbours or elderly relatives and had no problem with the Irish tradition of viewing a dead body in a funeral parlour. However, like most twenty two year olds I felt invincible and never gave a second’s thought to my own mortality. So when my friend died suddenly and unexpectedly it took the ground from under me. My friend was one of 31 people who were killed in a fire in King’s Cross train station in London in November 1987. I shared a house with her along with my brother and four other friends. We were the ones who realised she was missing and it took us three days to formally establish that she was one of the victims when we identified her by the remains of her jewellery. The fact that we were thrust into the spotlight in a huge news story added to the air of unreality that I felt at the time. We had reporters following us to the corner shop asking for a photograph of our friend for their papers, it was very surreal.
Several things stand out in my memory of that time. One was that the local catholic priest (who was Irish) made contact with us and was an enormous help to us through the early days of our grief and long after, until we ourselves moved away from London and lost touch with him. Although I hadn’t been a practising catholic I found great comfort in the familiarity of the rituals around death. One ritual that was missing, however, was viewing the body. Because of the nature of her death, Bernie’s coffin was closed. I had never really thought about the significance of viewing a body before this but I found it hard to actually believe the reality of her death in the absence of this ritual. Not seeing her and saying ‘goodbye’ slowed down my ability to move from denial to acceptance.
Death has a different timetable in UK than it does in Ireland. Over here funerals typically happen two or three days after a death. In the UK it can take several weeks before a funeral takes place. We identified Bernie’s body on 20th November and it was over a week before we were able to bring her home to Ireland for burial. Her funeral was enormous as is common in the west of Ireland, particularly when the deceased is a young person. Her brother had died in a road accident the previous year, in fact Bernie died before his first anniversary which was an incomprehensible tragedy for their family. Back home, I once again found the familiar rituals comforting. I think we ‘do’ death very well in Ireland. We give time and space to the rituals around it and we are very mindful of supporting the bereaved through those very early days of grief. An Irish funeral is a very cathartic experience and it sets the stage for the grieving process which continues long after the funeral is over. The English approach to death is by contrast much more formal and detached and is seen as a private family event. In Ireland death is very much part of life and of the wider community and this is reflected in our traditions and rituals.
In the past, those who were in mourning were very visible. They wore their grief publicly in the form of black clothes or black armbands. The close family of the deceased traditionally refrained from social occasions for a period of time after the death. In a way I think this was a nice custom as it told the world that one was fragile and not as able for the expectations of normal life and society for a while, giving one time to recover and get back on an even keel. It’s different nowadays with less external markers of mourning and this can bring an expectation to ‘get over it’ much quicker than is healthy or even possible. In reality it takes time to heal from a death and I would argue that we never fully heal but that we become better at managing the loss. In the beginning it’s all consuming and I think it’s important to know that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and not to expect too much from ourselves in the early days and weeks following a bereavement.
One of the most helpful things said to me in the wake of Bernie’s death was something my dad said. A few years previously his lifelong friend had died suddenly after a brief illness and he had been left bereft . He told me that for about six months I’d feel like I was in a fog and not to worry, that that was normal, but that after six months I should start to notice the fog lifting a bit and that as time went on it would get less and less. That was helpful because those early days my feelings of grief and loss were so intense I could have feared for my sanity at times but knowing it was part of the process and wouldn’t last forever helped me get through, it also gave me permission to grieve–to feel the pain I was going through.
Many years later, in my training as a counsellor I came across a model of grieving that resonated very strongly with me. It compared grief to a rubber ball shoved into a glass jar taking up all the space around it. Traditional models would have us believe that over time our grief shrinks, leaving more room in the jar…like this picture:
However, what actually happens is that the jar (our life) expands as we carry on living and it’s the growth that creates the space in which our grief continues to be part of us but no longer takes up all our emotional oxygen. So, grieving looks more like this:
The grief is still the same size but it’s no longer such a big part of our life.
Grieving is a process and it’s not a linear one. Significant dates like birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries etc can be very painful even years after the event. It takes at least two to five years for normal uncomplicated grief to be processed but when grief is complicated maybe by a tragic death or if your relationship with the deceased was a difficult one it can take much longer to work through it and you might benefit from some counselling to help with it. When a relationship was difficult the grieving process is complicated because you’re mourning for the things you didn’t have as much as for what you did have and you may need help to make peace with your anger or resentment around those issues.
There are a lot of different models about grieving and the one I like best is Worden’s task model of grief. I like it because it’s a proactive model and it gives power to the bereaved person to work through their grief in a structured way (although as I’ve already mentioned, grief isn’t structured or linear as such). There are four tasks which Worden said had to be worked through in order to come to terms with a loss and move on with life:
Task 1: To accept the reality of the loss.
This involves two types of acceptance: intellectual and emotional. Intellectual acceptance can come long before emotional acceptance.Traditional rituals help with this task (funeral, months mind etc).Acceptance can be particularly difficult in the case of sudden deaths especially if the bereaved doesn’t see the body as I found when my friend died.
Task 2: To work through the pain of grief.
To work through the pain you have to allow yourself to feel the pain. Unfortunately the only way around this task is through it. Cutting off feelings or numbing them through alcohol or drugs prolongs this task and can lead to depression.
Task 3: To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing.
There are two types of adjustments; external and internal. The external ones involve changes in roles that can happen as the result of a death eg a father having to take on more of the day to day practical care after the death of his wife who was the stay at home parent. These changes may include a house move or the necessity to learn new skills.The internal ones involve a change to the sense of self or a change in identity eg widow/widower instead of wife/husband or a single person instead of half of a couple. Bereavement can challenge our basic assumptions about the world and life. This is particularly true in the case of a sudden or violent death.
Task 4: To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life.
The final task of mourning is to emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life. This isn’t about giving up the love you feel for your loved one but finding a place for them in your emotional life that recognises that they have died and are no longer physically present.
Grief and loss are a given for all of us at some point in our lives but life events or our own particular vulnerabilities can affect how we cope with loss. It’s a process and it takes time. You need to give yourself permission to take the time you need to make sense of your loss and of the new landscape of your life.
Suggested reading list:
C. S. Lewis “A Grief Observed”
J. Hull-Mc Cormack “Grieving, A Beginner’s Guide”
E. Kubler-Ross ” On Death and Dying”
Jars analogy: emergencybunny.blogspot.ie
Cover photo: www.yogabasics.com
©Marianne Gunnigan November 2016.