Dealing with grief is different for everyone, but being open about your feelings can help ease the pain.
The writer CS Lewis once said, “The death of a beloved is an amputation”. Anyone who has felt the incredible pain of losing a loved one will understand this idea. When dealing with loss you are not simply going through a process of grief and bereavement, but learning to live without a person you loved and with whom you shared your own life.
There are, of course, many types of bereavement, such as sudden loss, death through illness and what is known as “socially unacceptable death”. Grief comes in as many forms as there are people to mourn. For those left behind, the journey after death is as unpredictable as life itself.
Josephine Lincoln was a bereavement counsellor for more than a decade and now runs the charity Primary Bereavement Service. She echoes the sentiments of CS Lewis when talking about dealing with grief. “People who lose their partners feel as though their right arm has been cut off,” she says. “There are various stages of grief. The first is shock and numbness; that can go on for months. Then when the reality starts to sink in, the pain gets worse because the numbness is starting to wear off.”
Jan was 52 when she lost her husband. “I felt numb,” she says. “Then the numbness was superseded by pain and disbelief.” Her husband died of cancer after a 15-month battle, but knowing it was coming didn’t make it any easier for her or her four children. “Despite knowing the end was inevitable, I wouldn’t know whether you could say it was better for someone to die suddenly or with warning,” says Jan, observing how everyone assumed that because they’d had 15 months they had more chance to prepare.
What made the death of her husband even harder for Jan and her children was her husband’s reluctance to speak about his illness. “People deal with dying in different ways,” she says. “But what kept my husband going was believing he could fight his illness. Therefore, at no time did he ever discuss how he wanted to die, what his funeral was going to be like and what I should do in the future.”
This had a pronounced effect on the couple’s children, too. Jan notes how they dealt with their father’s death in very different ways. “In some, I think the grief was instant; in others it took longer to present itself,” she says. “None of them were living at home, but my eldest came and ran the house for a while so I could concentrate on looking after my husband – which was a huge help, but I also think that affected how she grieved. She felt totally numb, too, but somehow it probably felt like less of a shock because she had been a part of the journey,” she continues. “The other three were unable to return that often, so I think they experienced their grief very differently.”
Lincoln’s advice on how to respect these different experiences of grief and make sure everyone is getting the support they need – both children and parent – is to be open with each other.
“The thing that helps most is to enable people to talk and not to try and find answers,” she says. “A lot of people are frightened of talking about the person who’s died. But, actually, both children and adults can show each other that it’s OK to feel sad. Compare notes, in a way, and you may find that you’re both feeling the same but daren’t say it.”
Jan agrees with this approach, but adds that if family members are struggling to speak to each other in the first instance it may be better to speak to your parents’ or children’s friends, and encourage them to speak to them.
“The worst thing your children’s friends or your own friends can do is ignore the subject completely, which often happens,” she recalls. “Even if they just say ‘I’m so sorry’, or better ‘You must have so many memories’, it’s a million times better than saying nothing at all and lets you know that if you need to, you can talk about it. Rather than just pretending it hasn’t happened.”
What Jan and Josephine both agree on is this: help should be offered directly, so people grieving don’t have to seek it out for themselves. It can sometimes seems easier to not face your grief, so we all need a bit of encouragement to share.
While Josephine’s charitable service requires a referral from a GP, there are many others that don’t. Whatever you think is the right route for you, your loved ones or your friends, there are always plenty of people who can help.