As the days draw further in and we gather around festive music it can be one of the harder times of the year for those grieving the loss of a loved one. While grief is not only for Christmas, National Grief Awareness Week is an opportunity to reflect on how to offer support around this topic. Interestingly the subject of grief is one I bring forward in many of my blog posts, as there is a recognition of the symbolic role of ‘living losses’ and these are particularly pertinent in relationship challenges and endings. In this blog however I want to consider three areas around grief as specific to bereavement: Difficulties in Discussion-Why grief is such a difficult topic to approach; A Focus on Meaning- and How one may start a meaningful conversation; and Longer-Term Care- What supports over time.
Noting the scale at the outset, this is an area that everyone will face across their lives. Grief is a core to relationship work as it is the relational core that creates the pain experienced; and impeded or unsupported grief can easily morph to mental illness. The only certainty that we all befall is that of our own, and everyone we know around us’, endings. Having a recognition of this area is hence an important skill for us all to carry and -arguably- one of the most significant topics we will face.
But now to the difficulties..
Difficulties in discussion-why grief is such a difficult area to approach
I) The topic is an iceberg
Bereavement is an existential trigger, our life fabric has been changed, death symbolises our age and ultimately our own mortality. Understandably from this start talking into the topic is going to be difficult- we are having much wider conversations than it initially appears, about who we are, what we want and why we exist.
II) The topic is all or nothing
When we face an ending, our mind can fall prey to a classic trap of all or nothing thinking. We have a final outcome of a bereavement and other topics can become equally extreme in nature. The colour palette of experience can get lost and attempts to support can become stuck and weighted.
III) Emotions are forefront
Those grieving can find themselves on an emotional rollercoaster – numb, angry, upset, anxious- every emotional experience finds home in grief; yet an individual may find themselves unable to articulate this journey.
IV) The wish to fix can be heightened
In navigating the three earlier challenges, individuals can find themselves looking for a fix to the difficulties of grief. This may look like wanting to find one core solution that will explain all issues and solve all problems and enable the emotional storm to be calmed. Finding out that no such fix exists can then dishearten one more than may normally be the case.
V) More than one griever exists
Whether grieving the same person or supporting someone else’s bereavement we are all connected by the journey of loss. This can offer challenges both in recognising where our own and another’s journey begins and ends, in a caution to triggers of our own upset, and to not assume the path is known- as each experience is unique.
A Focus on meaning -and how one may start a meaningful conversation
I) Structure a space around the difficulties
Given the difficulties considered above, a first support to a meaningful conversation may be embracing the understanding of the complexities that can exist. Honour the space needed to talk at breadth and depth to the areas the griever wishes to explore. Try to enable time to talk which is not hurried or interrupted both by your own voice or others.
II) Expect the unexpected and enable varied experience
If someone has been full of rage equally, they may be full of tears or vice versa. Expecting the emotional tone to change is a first attitudinal shift that may help someone struggling with grief. Added to this, naming the variety of experience may help connect to a state someone cannot yet articulate.
III) Listen to hear what is being said
We often listen to speak, offering suggestions and perceived solutions. For grief sometimes problem solving can be appreciated and prompted for all the reasons above. Wherever possible ‘listening twice’ is beneficial, paraphrasing what has been said and checking for clarity on what is felt- as it enables both fuller problem solving, where appropriate, and a felt true understanding to the grievers experience. Many grievers need space to speak alone and feel heard.
IV) Validate the loss and the connection- and caution to not invalidate
To this last point appropriately recognising the loss and the love present is a core to any conversation. The connection to another can cause some of the greatest pain in grief, and cruelly can lead to one of the biggest trip ups in having a meaningful conversation as, to navigate this, individuals helping a griever can sometimes feel a need to lessen either part – either stating ‘at least you didn’t experience this loss’ or ‘at least you weren’t this connection.’ While aimed with good intent, these comments can feel invalidating and cause added grief that a griever may start to feel a shame for grieving in the right way. Instead, one should recognise all loss is important and how there is no hierarchy.
V) Revisit the topic
As there are so many layers, it is important to recognise a grieving conversation takes many parts and many days. There are hence many opportunities to support and to revisit aspects of a conversation that may have felt challenged before, or where perhaps the support in the conversation wasn’t what was needed at the time. Equally, a griever may not want to talk about certain things and grief needs to take that pace. Checking in that you are there to be available as much as to talk now or at another time can be a comfort.
Longer term care -what supports over time
I) Offer other people to listen
People need a village of people in their lives. While an individual may not speak with one person, a different form of conversation may platform a different type of support. Check who may offer that space; and acknowledge groups that specialise in these forms of conversations including professional services.
II) Give permission to living
Grievers can get trapped reflecting entirely on loss or doing too much (an all or nothing trap again!). For wherever a fix may be present, be curious to varied ways and give permission to living. Note how it is ok for both to occur simultaneously, to be in pain and to laugh, to plan a funeral and a trip away. Try where possible to not model one’s own recipe for life- for one person a get together may be ideal, for another time alone may be savoured. Often both will be needed at different times and in different mixes.
III) Recognise the ongoing connection
Another myth can be the perception that at a certain time frame the grieving journey is ‘complete’, and somewhere along the way an arbitrary time frame is ended, with the experience of grief believed to visually shrink back. Instead of this the recognition that the grief remains, yet life builds again around it can be more helpful. This enables a part of life to also be dedicated to honour an ongoing connection with the person who has died. Be that making a memory box or having dates yearly to remember an individual who has been bereaved. Recognising other important dates can be key including birthdays and anniversaries.
IV) Model boundaries for self-care
As noted above, grief is rarely an individual event- and along the journey of supporting another in their bereavement it may be that one is triggered oneself. Being open about one’s own need to step back from a conversation or take time, mirrors in kind that an individual can request these same things for themselves and is far from, as many can fear, a selfish act. Indeed, recognising boundaries to supporting others are critical to continue to offer support.
V) Signpost to resources and services
The journey of grief may need many others to help support around a range of struggles beyond the support of a person alone. Recognising if a person is finding themselves unable to do the day-to-day things they previously did may signpost the need for additional services. This may range from support around practical arrangements that an individual may not have had to face before, e.g. financial arrangements; to wider support around wellbeing as one can both grieve and suffer from mental illness, and/or as I support regularly, difficulties in one’s relationship.
An ending note on grief
I was personally challenged with two close bereavements this year, and while I did not start this blog with this at the fore to in any way take the highlight from any individual experience of grief, I wanted to close with the pandora’s box gift I have found in grieving. This may resonate with some, and is of no cause for judgement if it does not resonate with others. I feel more alive- the pain I wake with has made me more aware of the beauty I have been blessed with for different points of life. Grief can grow you as a person to know yourself more, to set values to live and learn by for what has passed. There will be absent places at my Christmas table this year, but that’s only as my heart holds the space now for them more. I wish every person reading this who has experienced a loss, or is supporting someone with a loss, learnings to lean in to – and hope in the pain. I also include a poem below, something new from any of my other blogs, to set apart to the feeling over the analysis. Accept this for the creative, also come from my pain of the year, again some feelings may resonate, and others may not.
For my grieving space
Let me cry, let me scream,
Let me know when you need to leave,
Sit with me and hold my hand,
Repeat back the thinking I’m finding hard to expand
Be the mind I do not possess,
When I am panicked by a past request
Remember now, remember later,
List things down on bits of paper.
Birthdays, anniversaries and festive times,
These can bring pain behind my eyes,
Or equally on a random Tuesday,
It does not matter if it is a holiday
Know the grief it doesn’t end,
Form one shape or let me fully comprehend,
It stay’s deep rooted in my heart,
Marking the love that set it apart
Please don’t should, or judge, or lead,
Don’t think you can truly conceive,
Each loss is unique to each individual,
Respect the narrative, respect with ritual