Western culture is in denial and fear about death and dying. We live in a sanitised youth and beauty obsessed culture where we do not want to be confronted with images and experiences of our mortality. As a result most of us have no skills or tolerance in facing and dealing with death and the dying, and when it occurs we often find ourselves in crisis over the bereavement of others close to us.
We lock away our elderly into nursing homes, out of sight and out of mind, we struggle to stay comfortable with a work colleague who announces they have a fatal form of cancer, and we avoid our parents as they age and do not take the time to say what matters, and to heal the unresolved parental-child wounds that keep us separate.
For others their own impending death, which they can no longer deny, brings them into awareness of secrets, offences against others, and their own unresolved issues or longings which they have pushed away for perhaps a good part of their lifetime.
As they say in Buddhism “Next breathe or next life I do not know”, and “that I must die I know, but when and how is unknown”. Carl Jung, the celebrated Psychoanalyst, claimed that the second part of life after age 40 was about preparing for death.
In Western Culture we show this through our denial of death by reacting with more Botox, cosmetic surgery, mid-life crisis affairs and attempts to recapture youth. A healthy sense of self includes coming to peace with the fact that we will die, and to not fear that but embrace that essential part of the human condition.
Buddhists say that it is only through facing and understanding death that we will be able to grasp and use the preciousness of what our human life really is, and treat it as such. This is the antidote for the suffering of complacency we have in the West to ours and others death and dying.
As we age we will naturally be confronted by death, for it is always and ever around us. Sometimes death comes suddenly without warning and we lose someone who we expected would still be there for us or with us. As we age the encounters with death and dying increase as those around us make their own transition from life to death.
Relationships are an essential part of what we, as humans, need to survive, and as we go through life, we will develop strong and significant connections with not just people, but also places and possessions we encounter along the way.
Grief is essentially the feeling of attachment to those places, people and things that we realise are now lost to us in this life. Grief is the emotion we feel when an important relationship ends, maybe not with death, as say in a divorce, but in this life at least, it is ended.
The degree of grief expresses the degree of attachment we felt for that person, place or thing and so some grief is temporary whilst other grief is deep, abiding and affects the rest of the person’s experience of life.
We grieve for all relationships that have meaning and significance, perhaps people we love or admire (family, partners, friends, colleagues), and places or things we visited, experienced happiness in, and now are attached to (a house you grew up in, a photo, a family heirloom). Their loss triggers grief.
Grief as an emotion is not often expressed well in our culture for grief often makes others uncomfortable and the subject of grief, and of death, often disturbs others. For these reasons, and perhaps that the person was conditioned to shut down their feelings in childhood, expression of grief is often suppressed.
As a culture we give a person one day off work to attend a funeral and then “get over it”. Grief is a process, not an event, but we rob people of the permission to take the time to grieve in our society. As a result people often grieve in different ways and for different amounts of time.
Some people grieve publicly and openly with great shows of emotion, others grieve silently and keep their emotions hidden from others. For some people, grief is easily overcome, for others it takes a long time to pass through the grieving process. Each individual grieves in a way which suits them, their emotions, the extent of their loss, and which may conform to others expectations.
Grief is a process that unfolds in stages as we grapple with various parts of us that try to comprehend, rationalise, and minimise the shock of what is happening to us with the realisation that loss has just occurred.
Grief has a beginning and an ending when it is allowed to take its course. Interrupted grieving or its suppression is normally signalled by the onset of an enduring and recycled sadness that never seems to lift. Grief however is a completion, cleansing and integration process.
This does not mean that we stop missing the person or feeling sad when we think about the loss we have experienced; it simply means that we are able to get on with our lives with fond memories of the person, place or object still living inside us.
Various researchers on death and dying, and the resulting grief that occurs, outline 4, 5 or 7 the typical stages of coping with death and loss via grieving. They all include:
1) Shock. The news of a significant loss may cause either an outburst of spontaneous grief due to shock, or a numbing of the system where they go into shock and suppress the crying impulse. The initial reaction is an energetic discharge when there is intense yelling or screaming or crying, or a shutting down when the emotions are swallowed and not felt or discharged. These states normally may last for a few hours at most.
2) Denial, bargaining and Rationalisation. After the initial outcry, people experiencing grief will often enter a period where their emotions alternate between feelings of ‘denial’ (where they do not think about the loss) and ‘intrusion’ (where the loss is strongly felt). In this stage, people often find that their feelings of acute grief are distracted by other thoughts or activities which stop them from thinking about their loss for short periods or moments.
There may be rationalisation of the event and loss by the ego at this stage that also is designed to minimise the devastation that is now more fully being felt. These are usually everyday thoughts or activities, like watching TV or dressing a child. These periods are often interspersed with periods where the loss is recalled and the grief returns in an intensely felt manner.
It is very normal for people to rotate between these two extremes – engaged with their grief and loss at one moment, disengaged the next. This is an important stage of the process, because the distraction and disengagement helps to break up the devastating nature of the grief being experienced.
3) Anger and acceptance. Over time, the oscillating between denial and intrusion slows down and is replaced by periods oscillating between anger and emerging acceptance. The amount of time spent thinking about the loss decreases, and less time experiencing a profound sense of grief over that loss.
During this stage, some anger may emerge where feelings of being abandoned, or blame at the way a person maybe contributed to their own death, or at God, emerge from time to time. People feel less and less overwhelmed by their loss (this might take days, weeks or months to happen).
Most importantly during this stage, people start to work out ways to manage without their lost relationship and start to emerge again – they might start dating again, make new friendships, find new hobbies or spend more time with their family or friends.
4) Completion. At some point in the process, the grieving completes itself enough so that life starts to feel normal again. Memories of what has been lost stay, but the feelings associated with that loss are less painful and less intense – they stop interfering with normal life. We are able to let go of much of the attachment we felt towards the lost person, place or thing and we are able to move on living much of our life in present time.
These stages of grief are not lived in a linear fashion that finds a clean end but rather most people move through the stages but are incomplete in one or more as a result. They then may recommence the grief process again and then process stages in parallel to some extent.
A person who does not know the fate of a missing loved one will find it hard to complete their grieving. This is because there is no resolution for the brain and so the brain cannot bring the grieving to completion.
Sometimes a person suppresses all their grief, or finds they are unable to have completion with their grief. Some people get stuck in their grief and cannot move on in life, whilst others find an onset of recurring sadness takes over which they cannot shift or identify with.
Sudden loss creates a deeper form of grief for many, especially where the loss is with one’s life partner or close parent, or where that loss impacts on lifestyle and the survivor’s ability to remain in whatever role they were in prior to the loss. For instance a housewife may have to re-enter the workforce.
The amount of support received by a grieving person is also highly relevant to the ability of a grieving person to ‘complete’ their grief. Indeed people who are without close social networks often have a much harder time getting over their grief.
The Western avoidance of death means many people are uncomfortable with talking about death or another’s loss as it is disturbing to them. This often leaves grieving people feeling isolated or awkward with others during this time.
It is often recommended that a grieving person reach out to a grief or bereavement counsellor who are trained and comfortable dealing with death and dying, and who can be an excellent way to seek extra support during your grieving process.
Typically a counsellor or psychologist will encourage the grieving person to share their thoughts and feelings about the loss, and encourage them to engage with life in a way which helps them to recover from their grief.
We agree that medication is not an appropriate way to deal with one’s grief as they can interfere with the emotional processing of the loss, as well as create a risk of dependency or addiction. Grief is a natural process and should not be treated as a disease or a mental or emotional disorder.
If you or someone you know is grieving (either from a recent or past loss), don’t be afraid to seek support from IBMP counselling as a way of helping you through this difficult time. Talking through your loss and grief with a professional counsellor or psychotherapist can be beneficial to the grief process, helping you to process the grief and reach completion.