I know that in some ways I am still at the start of my grief journey, but I have learnt so much about myself and the path of grief over the past two years and I would like to share my experiences with you. You may be grieving yourself or you may be supporting a friend or relative who is recently bereaved, if so, I hope that this will help you understand better what they are going through and how to help them. Of course grief is not just about losing a loved one, you may feel grief after any kind of loss – for example divorce, losing a job, a best friend moving away or moving from the family home.
We are all going to experience grief over losing a loved one at some point in our lives and hopefully it will be the loss of a parent who dies of old age having lived a healthy and happy life. Unfortunately this isn’t always the case, but whatever loss, challenge or trauma you, a friend or relative is going through, there are invaluable tools and strategies of how to carry on. Grief should not be a taboo subject, just because it can’t be seen, the pain is there.
Grief can be defined as a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional pain you feel when something or someone you love is lost. The more significant the loss or traumatic the death, the more intense the grief will be. When a child dies or there is a horrific death, everything you believed in is shattered and it will take longer to rebuild your trust in life.
I have experienced many different emotions on over the past few years, including anger, fear, love, regret and guilt but most of all intense sadness. I thought that the sadness and pain would never pass and that I would have a future with no joy in as I was too emotionally and physically broken. At the beginning I read every book on grief that I could get hold of, desperate for information and advice about what to do, hoping there was a set path I could embark on. I now know that there is no set path and that all of the feelings I felt were normal reactions to what had happened to me. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, grief is entirely individual and every loss feels like the deepest. There is no cure for death and no set time to grieve. Grief is not about forgetting and moving on, it is about remembering your loved one and to do this you must be brave and face the pain and reality of what has happened. I believe there is a healthy way to Grieve Well, which will enable us to have a future without our loved ones in our lives but with them in our heart forever.
Things I have learned about grief:
1. Grief comes and goes – it has been described as a rollercoaster or as waves rolling on the ocean. Whichever analogy you chose, our survival instinct ensures that the pain comes and goes. It enables us to rebuild our lives by allowing us to forget for a while.
2. I am grieving not depressed. Even in my darkest days I know that I am grieving and not depressed, my feelings of grief can come and go whereas depression is a constant. Of course this can change and grief can become prolonged grief. Signs that you need professional help would be shunning support from friends and isolating yourself, lack of energy or motivation and the sadness becoming constant rather than coming and going.
3. You never know when it is going to hit you. You can be having a ‘good’ day walking around the supermarket and BANG there is your husband’s or daughter’s favourite cereal and you end up in a crying mess on the floor unable to move. Unfortunately we can never be prepared for these grief triggers, it could be a movie, song or meal in a restaurant. In the early days we are more prepared for the triggers, but as time goes on and normal life resumes, they take us by surprise.
4. Don’t feel guilty about having a good time. Last summer I had many lovely evenings with my girlfriends sitting in the garden having a glass of wine, talking about Nicko and Emily, and before I realized it I was having a good time. I did feel guilty at the beginning but then realized I had been through something so awful and my survival instinct was allowing me to enjoy myself. These times got me through the rigmarole of hospital and physio appointments for Kit and I and all the admin that comes with the death of a spouse.
5. Grief is EXHAUSING. It is important for you and your family and friends to know this. Be kind to yourself and if you are having a down day, take yourself off to bed after lunch or lie on the sofa and have a snooze. This is especially true at the beginning, treat yourself like you are in intensive care. You are not thinking straight and it takes twice as long to get anything done so just leave it. Hunker down, wrap up, eat well and sleep well (friends and family it is your job to over see this).
6. See a grief councilor or join a group. I refused to see anyone at the beginning as the only thing I wanted was Nick and Emily back and they couldn’t do this. Councilling is invaluable for people going through grief and, like exercise, you will never regret a session. It is great to talk to your friends and they will try their best but they don’t always know what to say and what advice to give. Councilling can help if you are frozen in your grief, it can help you move forward from here to being happy remembering your loved one.
7. Be Prepared. I have learnt that this is vital, and my worst days have been those I haven’t prepared myself for. For example this Mother’s Day, I hadn’t envisaged being a ‘bad’ day because I was still a mum wasn’t I? When the day came it was horrendous as it was so different to mother’s day’s past with Nicko and the kids bringing me some burnt toast and soggy cereal in bed and giving me all their handmade cards. This year I pretty much spent it in a heap crying and reading Emily’s mother’s day cards’ from previous years. If I had prepared myself better, I would have arranged to spend it with friends and even though it would still have been a difficult day, I would have felt loved and supported. Plan ahead to days or weeks you envisage could be difficult and plan what you will do and who you will be with on those days.
The same goes for the funeral and memorial, you cannot prepare yourself enough for these events. Visit the church, speak to the vicar, research the readings, hymns and pictures you want to include. They are both such important events that will be imprinted on your memory for ever.
8. You need tools and strategies for momentous occasions.
The birthday of your loved one, Christmas, wedding anniversaries, Easter, the year is littered by difficult days to get through for the bereaved. Again, you need to be prepared and make a plan of how you are going to spend that day. I spent the first birthday without Emily celebrating as though she was there – we made her favourite chocolate cake and bought her another Ugly Doll for her collection, but this just made the fact that she wasn’t there even more evident. On the second birthday without her, we visited St Paul’s cathedral and all lit a candle and prayed for her. The same with Christmas, it is never going to be the same without them so it may be right to create a new tradition and new memories. Sit down with your family or friends and discuss the best strategy.
9. Face the Pain of Grief. It is important to work through this pain as this pain is honouring the love you had for them, if you didn’t love them so much, you wouldn’t be hurting so badly. Blocking the pain is where the harm is done, facing it will enable you to move forward. Avoid short term pain relievers like alcohol, drugs, shopping, sex or isolation – the pain will be there until you have worked through it.
10. Have a focus to get up and dressed for. There are many days when getting out of bed just seems like too much hard work. Try to have something in the diary every day you must get up for. For me it was getting the kids to school and teaching my training session at 9am every morning. This helped me so much as I didn’t want to let my clients down, really enjoyed seeing them and felt positive afterwards.
11. Do some exercise. I know this is predictable coming from a personal trainer but even if it is going for a walk outside or bike ride, you will always feel better for doing it. Even better if you can push your body out of its comfort zone and release some endorphins, you will be able to cope with the pain of grief so much better that day. I noticed such a difference in my mental attitude on the days I exercised and the days I didn’t, I felt lethargic, unmotivated and very down on the days I didn’t exercise.
12. It is two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes you will feel like you are doing really well and starting to live again rather than just exist, then the next day you could feel so down that you feel worse than you did a few weeks or months ago. This is normal but you ARE making progress.
13. Don’t feel like you have to respond to everyone’s letters/emails/texts. This is a full time job in itself, people won’t expect it and you are trying to take things off your to do list not add them on.
14. You work out who your friends are. For me it was very simple:
- Do I look forward to seeing them
- Do I enjoy being with them
- Do I feel good after I have seen them
It really is that simple. You need to be with the radiators not the drains. Grief is all about you, don’t feel you have to see someone if you don’t want to.
15. Say ‘yes please’ to people. Why is this so hard to say? If someone is offering to help, whether it is to open some mail for you, make supper, take a child off your hands for the afternoon, our immediate response is ‘no, I’m fine thank you’. Well you are not fine, take all the help you can get, and even if you don’t want it, you will make that person feel fantastic. I have a very tall male friend who came round offering help and I couldn’t think of anything for him to help me with apart from changing a light bulb on a chandelier I couldn’t reach, so I asked him to do that. His wife told me he went home, punched the air and said ‘Yes! I just helped Victoria’!
16. Your friends and family won’t know what to say to you and will sometimes get it wrong. This is not their fault, and we must forgive them.
17. It is OK to not talk about it. Talking about your grief is sad, so have a night off sometimes. People will feel better knowing where they stand and you will feel refreshed having time off and hearing what is going on in other people’s lives for a change.
18. You are in control of the conversation. If it is not going where you want it to, take control and lead it where you want it to go. You might want to talk about your grief but you might not, you take the lead.
Advice for people dealing with someone going through grief:
1. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know what to say. Death and grief are uncomfortable subjects, but don’t let discomfort stop you from reaching out. Grief can be lonely and isolating, you don’t need to give answers or advice, just being there is enough.
2. Helpful things to say:
- acknowledge what has happened
- show your concern, say how sorry you are but not in a pitiful way. I felt the head cocked on one side and the touching of elbow pity slightly patronising
- if you feel uncomfortable, say so. It is much better to be honest and say “I don’t know what to say but I care about you and am here for you”.
- Don’t feel you have to talk all the time, silence is fine.
3.Unhelpful things to say:
- “I know how you feel”, you don’t
- “I am thinking or you” or even worse “thinking of you all the time”. I had one friend phone from the airport about to go on an amazing family summer holiday and said the latter. This made me feel angry as it felt so disingenuous, not only did I feel jealous she was going on a family holiday when my family had been ripped apart, but of course she wasn’t going to think about me “all the time”, even I didn’t think about it ALL the time.
- “Do you believe in fate?” after an accidental death
- “at least they had a great life” they may have done but that is not what they want to hear right now
- don’t put your beliefs onto the bereaved, if you believe in life after death the bereaved may not so it is not helpful to say “one day you will see them again” or “they are in heaven in a better place”
- don’t be too dictatorial. Everyone has a view on what the bereaved should be doing but I disliked people forcing their views on me and saying “you should be doing this or that”. Remember our minds are fuddled so try a softer approach, like, “ have you thought about this” or “I could help you do that”
4. We don’t always want to be made to feel better, we may be having a down day and that feels right at the time. Your role is not always to ‘cheer them up’, this doesn’t give us the chance to say what we are really feeling.
5. Offer something specific. Saying “please let me know if there is anything I can do” does not help us, if anything it adds something onto our to do list as we then have to think how you can help. We really appreciate someone dictating to us at the beginning, so say “I am bringing you supper tomorrow night – I will stay and eat with you if you want a friend to talk to or I will leave it for you, just let me know”. Say “I am picking up your son from school, having him for tea and will drop him back later”. Say “I am going to the supermarket, send me a list and I will get it for you”.
6. Grief is all about us. It is not personal if we don’t respond to a text or phone call or if we ask another friend to do something for us – that friend may have called up at the exact moment we thought of the errand, it is not that we like them more!
7. We don’t know how we are going to be feeling. We may feel different day to day, even hour to hour and your role is to understand this and move with our emotions. We may have planned to go out for lunch, but if when you arrive we are in a heap of wet tissues on the sofa so the plan may have to change.