Living with Grief
Coping with the loss of a loved one is an organic process that has to take place alongside the practicalities of everyday life. Serena Cook knows how it feels. Here, she shares her own experiences of the grieving process and looks at where you can find help.
I’m sorry you have the need to read this article. I am sorry. ‘Death is a terrible beauty,’ says Father Philip Bevan, a retired Anglican priest in the diocese of Southwark. I’d like to be able to see easily the beauty Father Bevan describes. Maybe you are able.
Perhaps you were a caregiver through a long period of palliative care for a loved one who died. Or you’ve lost someone in a brutal, unexpected way. I know that coping with grief is hard, regardless of the relationship you had with the person, and that you are doing your best to cope.
Most likely you move through many phases of grieving in a single day, confronting the loss, then dealing with daily demands moments later. Getting on with life and getting on with grief are somehow woven together.
My mother died 18 months ago, making me an orphan at 42, a bit of a silly claim, but that’s how I feel. My father died when I was 11, my brother died when he was 33. Accidental death or long-term suffering, having forewarning in essence, does not relieve me of the need to grieve. My response to each of those deaths was different. I spent most of my energy avoiding talking about him when my father died, skipping his funeral, avoiding pitying looks from adults and looking forward to being a teenager. But we must all experience loss eventually. It took me five years to cry a first tear for my dad. For my mom, when she told me on the phone that she had cancer, I wept immediately, the sound echoing down the telephone line.
But whether you’ve suffered bereavement hours, days, weeks or years ago, and whether you want to confront or avoid it, there are people in the community who care and who have been through bereavement too. Whether practical or emotional there are people ready to help. Cruse Bereavement Care was founded 50 years ago in Richmond by a group of widows and is still run by volunteers.
‘It takes courage to call us,’ says Paul Williams from Cruse. He says many people may have only a 10-15 minute conversation. A little bit of help is what most of us need, whether practical like how to register a death or talking to someone independently. Paul describes Cruse’s volunteers as a huge mix in terms of age, race, and social circumstances. These are the people who give their time if you feel you need it. They receive professional development and regular supervision. This quality of care from volunteers is reflected in many of the organisations listed following the article.
When you are ready, if ever, to make contact you will likely experience people who listen really well. That’s a great experience any time.
‘Look after yourself. Though that can be hard to do at a period of high stress like during bereavement. It effects us in different ways over time.’ Paul emphasises there are no time limits to grief; and to avoid comparing as we each react in our own way. Paul describes self-compassion as vital. ‘Be kind, accepting how you are feeling.’ And compassion for others is impossible without first being gentle with yourself. ‘Be understanding of other people. Be gentle of your expectations (of them).’
Julie Stokes is the founder of Winston’s Wish, the leading charity supporting bereaved children. She describes a deep pride in the people who offer support through her organisation twenty years on. When you need support particularly in helping children cope with grief there are effective services to help children build resilience. She describes the helpline staff as sharing ‘warmth and humour’ with those in need.
‘But alongside these moments we are also there to hear the authentic despair, offering solid advice in often complex family situations.’ However she says adults and children alike need ‘space for a shared smile, a moment of lightness.’
There are as many ways of talking about grief as humans on the earth. We each make our own way. The very common theme from the people who help others cope with loss is the encouragement to accept what is happening in your heart and mind.
Julie talks about ‘the rhythm of grief.’ The process is organic and often cyclical, in the morning we may feel the weight of loss, while later in the day we may encounter hopefulness. There will be an ebb and flow of energy as we carry on with the practicalities of daily life.
At times I felt like I was coping well with my mother’s illness and death, at other times I felt like I was failing. My young daughter sometimes stroked tears from my cheek and other times wanted to be babied once more. Julie describes family members subconsciously choreographing their grief. There can be a dance married couples do in order to cope with life and bereavement at the same time. When one partner is coping well with practical things the other may allow grief to overwhelm them for a time, and then vice versa.
‘Be patient with the process that naturally occurs within us,’ says Father Philip. ‘It is a sacred process.’ He highlights that we are also grieving what might have been. No relationship is perfect. People you love die without perfectly resolving the issues of the relationship you shared. Father Philip describes resurrection in terms of the relationship that we will renew, in time, with the person we’ve lost. The relationship will take on a new form. Grief can be confronting those unresolved issues as well as honouring the person who has died. But confrontation takes a lot of energy, probably when you don’t feel you have it to spare.
But sometimes, in the midst of bereavement, you need a break from grief. ‘Refreshment’ is the word Paul Williams uses and Julie Stokes talks about ‘not feeling so isolated and alone.’ Clearly the need to be present to grief also requires giving yourself a chance to take a break from it. And when you are feeling lowest perhaps knowing there are people who are ready to help may be of comfort.
Daytime helpline: 0844 477 9400
Winston’s Wish: www.winstonswish.org.uk
Helpline: 08452 03 04 05