Crazy little thing called Grief

One thing is certain in life.  EVERYBODY is going to experience grief at some point in their lives.  No-one escapes this, absolutely no-one.  If you live in the world and have a family or friends, grief is going to get you one day, if it hasn’t already.  You can deny that and you can put your fingers in your ears till the cows come home, but my friend, it is going to be your turn some-day so you might as well sort out the way you think about grief now.   While we’re on the subject, this is a good time to think about how you can support someone who is grieving.

My dictionary defines grief as “intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death”.  I think that’s a rather narrow definition as I’ve definitely seen real grief after redundancy and grief after the sudden ending of a close friendship.  I know too well that I don’t hold all the knowledge and answers around grief but as both my parents, three boyfriends and my son (without any doubt, the worst of all of these) have died, at the very least, I’m familiar with grief and know some of it’s awful faces.

In 1969 a Swiss-American psychiatrist called Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book in which she introduced for the first time the idea of “The 5 stages of Grief”.  She described them as “denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance”.  Later the wording of the first 5 stages was amended to the more user-friendly “shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression reflection and loneliness and the upward turn”.  Later 2 more stages were added to this list “reconstruction and working through and acceptance”

In my personal opinion the majority of people who have found these “Stages of Grief” useful are other psychiatrists.  Not people who are grieving.  In fact, for some grieving people, these “stages” can be positively harmful.  I’ve lost count of the number of people who I’ve spoken to who are suffering even more anxiety and stress because they don’t know why they seem to be permanently stuck in one of the “stages”, or are somehow in the “wrong stage” and can’t work out why they haven’t got to the correct “stage” yet. 

I say throw out the so-called “stages of grief” and just deal with what you are going through.  Your personal grief journey is going to be just that – it will be personal to you.  A lot will depend on who you are and your circumstances.  A lot will also depend on the circumstances around the death of the person you are grieving for.

A lot of the people I talk to have suffered, as I did, a so-called “traumatic bereavement” where the death was unnecessary and may have been caused by others.  Often this involves long years of campaigning, investigation and further trauma while you try to bring the people responsible to some kind of reckoning/ justice.  Obviously, this is really going to change the way that grief might normally progress, and I’ve talked about in other posts on my blog.

In my opinion, all grief journeys are valid and true – because they are YOUR truth.  There is no right and wrong way of grieving, there’s only your way.  Your journey will have stops and starts, sometimes you’ll find you spend months or years stuck in one place and that’s all normal.  After all, you are not just grieving the death of the person, which is already so agonising and  acute, but you are also grieving the loss of who and how you were in your relationships and in the world.  If anyone is judging your grief journey you should consider why that might be.  Often other people’s judgement of your personal grief journey is so much more about them and how they feel about death and grief, than it is about you.

I also think we should also be talking about the change in our culture around grief, compared to the grief culture we used to have.  My grandmother was one of nine children but only five of them survived to be adults.  Her mother grieved the loss of her four children all her life and no-one thought that odd in any way.  She had buried four beloved children and while she was one of many, many mothers who endured the same, no-one thought it odd that she wore black till her death and showed the pain of her loss every day.  She was part of the generation who saw beloved sons march of to the First World War.  My grandmother used to say that every single family in the street lost someone.  She spoke of the hollow cheering on armistice day and how some families didn’t even come out into the street, but stayed inside with the blinds drawn down, mourning the loss of sons who would never come marching home.  When I was a child, there seemed to be a whole generation of women who had never married.  There was no-one left for them to marry.  No-one talked to them about “the stages of grief” and I suspect they derived some comfort from the fact that so many other people around them really, really understood what they were going through.  The people around them didn’t need them to “get over” or “get past” their grief or compartmentalize it into manageable and explainable “stages”.

But times change and now we live in an age where people need to have a solution for every problem.  Preferably an easy solution.  As the Covid-19 pandemic has showed us, we don’t now seem to deal very well with circumstances we are unable to corral or control.  We live in an age where our success is defined by the number of people who follow us on Instagram and whether or not our bookshelves are colour coded.  Everything we’re supposed to value is about overcoming adversity and sailing off into our positive sunset ending.  Positivity is the rule.  Negative thoughts and feelings need to be overcome and triumphed over, possibly through the power of positive thinking, or maybe just by mastering yoga, clean eating and keeping a gratitude diary.  Anything negative is wrong.  As a result, people suffering with grief often also feel guilty, isolated and unable to talk about how they feel except with other grief-stricken people.   Often these other people are on-line, as opposed to in their real world, and while grief sharing sites can be helpful, they have limitations as the help they give largely depends on if anyone reads your post and replies – and what /how they reply to your posts.

We need to develop a healthier grief culture.  We need to own the right to feel grief and for everyone to acknowledge it’s quite normal.   Grief doesn’t photograph well on Instagram and it’s never chic or colour coded but as we are all going to experience it, we need to accept its truth.  Yes, it’s scary and messy and yes, it can’t be easily controlled but we need to acknowledge that grief is the price we pay for love, it will be a start.  Grief is part of existing in the world and is as real as any other part of life, as real as love, hope and joy.

If you feel able to, perhaps you could contact someone you know who is grieving.  Speak to them in the street, or maybe text them or send them a letter.  Keep it short and remember it’s not about you and how you feel about their loss – it’s about them.  All you have to say is that you often think of them and you also think about the person they have lost.  Say/write the name of the person who has died.  I can tell you that hearing your child’s name said with love and respect is so very powerful. 

All big changes start with small steps. We are all going on a grief journey someday, so why not start thinking about making it a better journey today?

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