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Part 2: The multiple challenges of grief
by Katy Woolf
In the last blog, we saw that grief is not an easy process to pass through, and many obstacles can come up along the way which can make this more difficult. Grief is a normal and expected response to loss, and we can think of it a bit like a wound healing. This takes time, and might involve pain, suffering and patience. However, sometimes that wound can become infected, and its ability to heal can become complicated. At these times we might need to think about how we can help to clean the wound to support it to continue its natural healing process. We may find that seeking extra support at these times can be not only important but very understandable, given what we know about the challenges of grief.
‘Starting’ to grieve
At times, starting the grieving process can be a terrifying step to take, because this very act requires us to accept that the loved one has gone. Acknowledging a loss can be an incredibly painful and difficult task, and can often feel impossible; it is therefore understandable that this is such a common place to get stuck. Our evolved brains have learnt a lot of very clever ways over the years to protect us from pain and suffering. Take dissociation for example- a process in which our mind takes us somewhere else completely in order to avoid facing the horror of the reality of our situation. Our minds are very powerful, and can often ‘protect’ us from feeling the pain of the loss of a loved one by refusing to allow us to acknowledge the death. However, whilst this is our brains best effort to protect us, often this can cause us more pain in the long run, and we can find ourselves stuck, struggling to work our way towards a new future. This may not be a conscious decision, and I have heard people say “I really want to grieve but I just can’t”. This is where we can get stuck with the ‘extra layers’ of judgment and guilt about the rightness or wrongness of our grieving process, and find ourselves trying to grieve in the way we ‘should’. However, having an understanding of the process our brain is taking us through is so important at this time, and acknowledging its ‘protector’ role may allow ourselves some peace from those judgments.
At times, we might make a conscious or unconscious decision to delay or postpone mourning, for example “I can’t mourn yet because I have to take care of the children”. This can be an understandable and at times necessary strategy to adopt, however can also lead us into difficulty at a later date, when we eventually start to grieve, but find that it is more difficult to understand our emotions when they emerge so long after the loss has occurred. It can be helpful to ask ourselves at these times “what will enable me to start safely grieving?”, in order to think about the factors which may be keeping us stuck, and what it may take to allow ourselves to start to open up to the natural grieving process.
Living with the loss
When we really think about the challenge of grieving, it is not surprising that we can sometimes find ourselves stuck in a state of acute grief or intense sadness, struggling to experience the ‘natural conclusion’ of intense mourning. Moving forwards without a loved one and learning to live with the loss and adapt to a new life can feel like an impossible task, and often the challenge of this can cause us to fall back into intense grief each time we are faced with the reality of this. We might find that particular beliefs make this more difficult, such as beliefs about what it means to be mourning. Often we can feel that if we stop mourning, this has implications such as demonstrating that we did not truly love this person, or that we are not doing ‘enough’ to acknowledge their death. We can find then that we hang on to our grief, for fear of what it means if we let go of this. Other times we might find that we desperately want to move forwards, but can’t seem to move away from overwhelming and constant feelings of grief and loss. Perhaps in moving forwards, we don’t need to rid ourselves entirely of the pain we feel, however can soften this pain and make it more bearable. Perhaps asking “how much pain do I need to hold on to and how much can I let go of?” can give us permission at these times to consider a life moving forward. I find that the concept of ‘growing around grief’ (Tonkin, 1996) can be very helpful here. Often the idea of ‘stopping grieving’ feels unbearable, and of course the loss is something you will always have to carry with you throughout life. Perhaps then we can think about how we can carry this grief with us and still move towards a fulfilled future.
When thinking about the process of grief, it is worth mentioning the role of guilt. Now guilt is of course not always an emotion that comes up when we think about bereavement, and may not be an experience many of us associate with loss. However there may be times when guilt plays a very large role in the loss, and when it does it can really halt the mourning process. We may feel guilt for many reasons, warranted or not. We sometimes find that people report feeling guilty for ‘not doing enough’, for not saying goodbye ‘properly’ or for arguments or conversations they had with the loved one before they died, which can at times be caught up with feelings of responsibility and in turn lead to overwhelming suffering. Guilt can therefore be a very common emotion which can be tied up with grief, and whilst objectively we may be able to see that there is no need to feel guilty, often we are left with these feelings regardless. What we tend to see is that guilt following bereavement can be an extremely difficult emotion to heal, and we can hang onto guilt, allowing it to drive our behaviour. If we think about the role of guilt and the natural urges associated with this, we realise that when we feel guilty, we are motivated to make amends. Our body is driving us to say sorry, to make it up to the other person. We can get a bit stuck then, if we feel guilty and an associated urge to make amends, and yet it is impossible to speak to the other person and make amends in the way we feel we ought to. Guilt can therefore keep us stuck in a process of complicated grief, driving a searching and yearning behaviour which cannot be satisfied. Guilt can be a very distressing emotion to carry, and seeking support to work through this can be so important and beneficial in order to move forwards with the grief process.
How can I move forwards?
There is a lot of support out there for helping people through what is a very difficult and complex process. As we have seen, grief is a natural response to loss, and often this is a process which will happen all by itself. But sometimes, for a whole host of reasons, this challenge can be even more difficult and we find ourselves stuck. If you are finding it difficult to move forwards, or are struggling feelings of guilt or judgments about your experience of mourning, seeking support can be helpful to allow you to talk about your loss and expand the world around your grief.
There are a number of services out there which offer support with managing the impact of loss:
Cruse Bereavement Care offer advice and support across the country for people who are going through a bereavement (http://www.cruse.org.uk/).
The Bereavement Centre (http://www.bereavementsupportgroups.co.uk/) offer practical and emotional support within Hampshire.
You can also check out our ‘resources’ page which will offer advice as to services which may be able to support you further.
Rando, T. (1993). Treatment of complicated mourning. Research Press Publishers: Michigan
Stroebe, M., & Schut, H. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Rationale and description: Death Studies, 23, 197-224
Tonkin, L. (1996). Growing around grief. Bereavement Care, 15(1), 10.