My blog this month focuses on grief and bereavement. I’m thinking of those early weeks and months, when the loss of someone close to you is still raw and new.
The term ‘grief’ refers to the intense sorrow and emotional response following the loss of someone or something deeply significant in your life, and can follow a relationship break up, a major life shift, or most commonly, the death of someone you loved and cared about. It engages all our senses, and can affect us socially, mentally, physically and emotionally. ‘Bereavement’ tends to refer to the period during which a person grieves, or a state of intense grief.
No two people grieve in the same way – the unique relationship you have had with the person who has recently died was known and felt by only you two. Even siblings, parents, and children within the family may grieve differently. The pattern of grief you experience will be made up of many things – your relationship with the person, any previous losses you may have experienced, your own personality and background. There’s not really a right or wrong way to grieve.
The period immediately after the person has died can be a very busy time, after what may have already been an exhausting experience leading up to their death. In cancer, although some people have a short illness or die suddenly, many have several weeks or months of declining health – and you may have been heavily involved in physical caring, or supporting them during those last weeks.
Sometimes, in the midst of the immense sadness, or numbness – there can even be some initial relief that now your loved one is no longer so incapacitated, weakened and unwell.
You may have a sense of it all feeling surreal, and not really happening – some people tell me they go into ‘automatic pilot’ and function perfectly well in the aftermath of the loss. Funeral arrangements have to be made, practicalities sorted out, and friends and family may be in close contact at this point. There may be tears, laughter, memories shared, yet a sense that life may never be the same again.
Grief - feelings and physical reactions
There are many physical and emotional aspects to grief. I have listed some of them here – taken from ‘Understanding grief’ (Dana-Farbar Cancer Institute):-
- crying or sobbing
- difficulty sleeping
- loss of appetite
- muscle tension
- heart palpitations
- stomach upsets
- intense sadness
Often people tell me that grief can hit in waves, and it may sometimes be at the point – after the funeral and in the weeks following, that tidal waves of emotion may sweep in. Often these waves be they tidal, or ripples, hit at inconvenient times – a kind word from a friend, a piece of music, a trip to a familiar place, the realisation that the two cups you put out, should now only be one….
Tears can spring easily, or not at all. You may find you’re keeping extra busy to avoid thinking about and processing your loss – and there is often a feeling of exhaustion. Automatic pilot (referred to earlier) may carry on for some weeks/months, and sometimes people worry they’re not grieving ‘properly’ as they’re not crying or feeling consumed with their loss.
For others, even in those early days, the bereavement feels colossal and unmanageable – trying to remember to eat, sleep and look after your own wellbeing may seem unimportant. You may also be worrying about those around you who are also grieving, and that can be an additional stress.
In these early days, you may get a sense of the presence of your loved one – many worry they’re going mad at this point. It may be a scent, or a fleeting glimpse, or a dream that feels very real. It seems to be something that happens as our brain processes the reality…it takes a while for the brain to catch up with the physical loss. Often the loss feels more poignant and real at this point, but sometimes can feel a comfort.
Tips for the early weeks of grief
There is no quick or easy way through grief, but perhaps the following tips will help on the difficult days:-
a) Remember to eat and drink, wash and try to get some sleep if you can. It sounds a bit prescriptive on my part, but you need to look after yourself.
b) Be aware that you may not be concentrating so well, so pay extra attention driving, watch your health and safety, and try not to resort too heavily on coping strategies involving drugs, alcohol etc.
c) Don’t ignore your own health needs. Many bereaved people seem a bit more susceptible to infections, and stress related illnesses.
d) Getting out in the fresh air, and having some exercise can help clear the cobwebs, tire you out for the right reasons, and help reduce the sense of isolation.
e) Be aware your emotions may be on your sleeve – and that you may feel extra sensitive to people’s reactions. It doesn’t help that many people may not know what to say. (Even if they simply acknowledge your loss, and admit they’re lost for words, it can feel supportive). Don’t be embarrassed if you cry.
f) Tending something living – nurturing something, a pet, the family, the garden, gives a sense of purpose and satisfaction sometimes.
g) Your mind may feel chaotic at present – but finding some tranquillity can help – by perhaps lighting a candle, listening to music, reading, relaxation CDs, a relaxing bath.
h) You may find you’re initially inundated with visitors and good intentions…others tell me these calls and visits tail off after a few weeks, leading to a sense of being forgotten. Learning to say ‘yes’ to somethings (trips out, a meal, etc) can help, even if your heart isn’t in it. However, learning to say ‘no’ is important too – you won’t always have the energy to do everything.
i) Support groups, both online and face to face can be helpful. Sometimes in the first few weeks, it’s more about simply getting through, but after a few weeks you may feel you could do with some additional support. Not everyone will need or want counselling, but if the grieving is feeling overwhelming, then talking to family and friends, your GP, local bereavement groups, the hospice, local church, etc can help. Dropping into your nearest Maggie’s centre, or having conversations here online can help, both practically and emotionally.
j) If you’re working, and you need time out, be kind to yourself, and talk with your employers. Even further on in bereavement there may be days when grief has a re-surge, and you may need some leave to rest and recover.
k) Keeping a journal, or writing in some other form, can be a way of putting the emotions, memories and feelings on a page – discharging the build up of stress, hurt and longing.
Others reading this may have ideas, tips and comments about what has worked for them – and what hasn’t. Alternatively you may feel relieved to know that what you're experiencing is normal (although it feels awful at times).
You may also be much further along in your grief, time wise, and be thinking that you're still feeling like this - and that's OK too - grief doesn't have a set time or pattern. Many of the feelings can last months or years. If the intensity is still severe, or you feel ‘stuck’ in your grief, then speaking with your GP or a bereavement counsellor can help determine if you need additional professional support.
Thinking of you today,
How long does grief last - Sue Ryder
Understanding grief - Dana-Farbar Cancer Institute
Get help - Cruse Bereavement Care
Bereavement - Royal College of Psychiatrists
Bereavement - NHS Choices
Bereavement - self help guide - Mood Juice