Grief is all-encompassing and affects us profoundly and forever on every level of our being. We do not get over grief; we do not recover from it but we learn to live and grow with it.
We know either through personal experience or may have witnessed the many feelings involved with reacting to grief. They include avoidance, putting a stop to connecting with the world. Refusing to shower or be concerned about appearance. Food loses its appeal. Anxiety, fear, volatility increases. In the West, we often see grief as something to get through in a certain amount of time. Our inner voice might tell us we "should" be functional after a fixed period has passed and to maintain control of our feelings, maybe even not to let our emotions overwhelm us.
In my mid-twenties, I lost a colleague. We left for a weekend and on Monday morning learned that Richard, a young man of 26, had died in a terrible car accident driving through some beautiful country lanes in the English countryside.
There was no group discussion, acknowledgment of what had taken place. Only whispers among the office staff and deafening silence. Within a couple of days, they promoted someone to Richard's position, and life went on. We did not address the hole in the office and in our lives at the workplace. There was no community sharing of pain and loss.
I know from a personal standpoint I handled my father's death badly, especially for my children. I was struggling to make sense of the implosion of family relationships and did not take the time to help my children come to terms with the reality of their grandfather's death. It made it even more difficult for them to process it and be able to talk about it.
The five stages of grief are a theory put forward by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, a Swiss American psychiatrist who did pioneering work on death and dying.
The stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are a part of the framework that enables us to learn ways by which we can continue with life after loss. They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. They are not prescribed stops on a timeline. Grief is an ongoing process. We do not advance through it and arrive at a finish line.
Grief ebbs and flows and crashes like the ocean, and then all is quiet for a while until the next storm or trigger.
It is like a figure of 8 continually changing.
In the past, we saw grief as a fixed mass that gradually reduces in size. I heard an excellent explanation by a Hospice nurse in Ireland.
“Imagine grief as a tennis ball in a vase, instead of the ball getting smaller the container gets larger. We grow and expand around our grief.” We learn how to surround it with our own strength and compassion.
We have little time to process and feel the pain: if we are lucky we get 3-5 days off work unless we are the executor of the estate, and then 12 weeks of unpaid leave. When we return to work, often people simply do not know how to approach us, what to say, and so avoid contact. Adults find it difficult to find the words to describe what they are experiencing. For children, it is even more impossible.
In the past people wore black armbands to let others know they were in a time of mourning. We no longer use this as a symbol for letting others know that someone is suffering loss. This has helped to make us less aware of those around us. If someone is suddenly upset, or emotional, or grief-stricken, they often start apologizing and explaining what has taken place in their lives. A black armband was a sign that this person was in pain and suffering and needed extra care and attention. Now we have no outward sign that raises our awareness.
Sobonofu Some from northwest Africa in Burkina Faso writes about her culture and how it embraces grief. She writes that surrendering to your sorrow has the power to heal the deepest of wounds. As a child, she tells of losing a friend at school and the implicit understanding by the village that it took as long as it took for her to grieve. There was no map or marked road for grief. There was no prescribed timeline or expectation of time by when she should be “over” her grief. This was a collective process the community supported her and held her until she was strong enough to move forward in life. This witnessing and validation by the community helps toward the depth of the level of healing.
Sobonofu taught we are born knowing how to grieve fully. Tears flow, and we can unburden ourselves, but as we grow society blocks this ability. We lose our connection to our inner knowing.
In the throes of grief, it can be all-encompassing, and for those facing it from the outside fear-inducing. Thoughts such as "There but for the grace of God.." Is it contagious? Abound. Grief and fear are intertwined.
People become awkward, tongue-tied, doubt themselves in the face of grief. Words become redundant and lacking or otherwise.
Platitudes flow. "I know just how you feel."
"When I lost my ... I was...." "you will feel better soon."
"Time is a great healer," "be strong."
Symbols and actions are often the way to reach across the void to the ones suffering. The power of a hug is immense.
The power of a silent, focused presence and awareness of what is needed such a food, rides to places, help with children, and grocery shopping can make a tremendous difference. There are many ways varying cultures and religions deal with grief through the use of rituals and symbols.
These can include visits to the family, special meals, gathering to pray and remember the deceased. These can stem from religious or community frameworks.
It is important to include children in the circle of life and let them see those grieving and the ritual involved in this time in life. It helps them to understand the loss and demystifies death.
We need to be vigilant during our grief and avoid people who do not make us feel supported and heard. We gradually learn to be gentle with ourselves. If we are dealing with those who are grieving, we need to be proactive and present. It is no good waiting to be asked for help when drowning in grief it is almost impossible to reach out for help.
When Sobonofu first came to the US, she found it impossible to believe that we often end up experiencing grief alone, and that there was an expectation for how long it “should” last. She concluded that modern western culture could learn from her community-based grief from her country.
We now have many ways in the community to support those suffering through grief circles, workshops, and therapy. If we take time to learn about these options before we need them, it will help us in the future.
As a Doula, I have discussions about sickness and dying and this can often highlight the grieving that takes place when having to face a serious diagnosis or life expectancy. The topic will lead to discussion considering the family and friends involved and the plans for after death. If grief becomes inconsolable or impossible to face, then a grief counselor and professional help are required. It is an important part of the Doulas role to understand professional boundaries and know when and where it is appropriate to ask for further help.
To go through grief is a slow, gruelling experience, but to take this journey alone is much harder. We need each other for help and support and for the reminder we do not have to go down this path alone.