When someone close to you dies, the grief that follows is often a profoundly painful, lonely, confusing and unpredictable experience. Friends and family may struggle to know what to say and how to help. Some people may get uncomfortable when you show emotion, or try to rush in with reassurances that inadvertently make you feel even less understood, and often isolated. Many grieving people find themselves wondering:
Is my grief normal? Am I being weak? Is this taking me too long? Just how should I be feeling?
In this blog, Dr Paul Beadon, Lead Clinical Psychologist at Rowans Hospice, uses the experience of three clients, Lawrence*, Debbie* and Carl*, to look at how grief affects us and consider the question: ‘What on earth does ‘normal’ grief look like anyway?’
*Names have been changed
Lawrence: A part of me died with Maggie
When Lawrence’s wife Margaret died, he described feeling as if his entire world had completely fallen apart around him. “It felt like a part of me died when Maggie died. I know it sounds old-fashioned, but she organised so much of our lives. What’s particularly painful is that she planned when the kids and grandkids would come over for what we called our ‘family days’ – she just did it all. She always joked that I was no good at running my own life”.
Is this normal? Answer: Yes
Our lives are usually built around the people we share them with. We may find that there are parts of our personality that we only shared with the person who has died and it can feel like these parts of us no longer exist when we lose that person.
For the first few months of his bereavement, Lawrence found that getting through the day was just about putting one foot in front of the other, getting by moment to moment, as best he could. Over time he began to notice some changes in his grief. He said to me: “There are some better days and days when it comes and goes, but it’s definitely less raw now. I find I can live with it more and even be happy sometimes too. This summer my daughter organised one of our family days; she’s just like her mum, which makes me smile.”
Over time, grief does become more manageable, less pervasive, and it will begin to give way to feeling connected with the world again.
Debbie: I just crumbled and went back to Square One
Debbie described her “fluctuation” of good days and bad days after she lost her brother Ray. “I was feeling OK, but when things like... what would’ve been… his birthday was coming up, I just crumbled and went back to square one.”
Is this normal? Answer: Yes
Grief is experienced by many as waves of intense sadness and emotional pain that can come crashing down, seemingly out of nowhere. These waves can be triggered by one of a million little reminders; a piece of music, a smell, looking at that plant in the garden that a loved one had cherished, a photograph, or a favourite time of the week.
Debbie’s experience of good days, in which she feels calmer or brighter in mood, and difficult days, in which she finds she is experiencing strong waves of grief, is common. It is normal to find that you can feel better for a day, for several days, or even for weeks, and then find that the grief becomes stronger again. Birthdays and anniversaries are a common trigger for a renewed sense of grief.
This pattern of good and difficult days is entirely normal and could continue for some time – it is not a failure and does not mean you have ‘gone backwards’ in your grief.
Carl: I worried when people saw me happy they'd think I wasn't grieving
When Carl’s father died he told me “I worried when people I knew saw me happy and laughing, they might not realise I’m grieving. My sister would cry all the time, but I could still have a joke. I barely understood why myself. I worried that they'd think I didn’t care! I even asked myself if I ought to be feeling this way – is it alright to actually feel OK sometimes?”
Is this normal? Answer: Yes
Like Debbie, Carl was finding that sometimes he felt more like his old self and was able to have a laugh and other times he felt a deep sense of grief. The key message here: when you’re feeling ok, remember “it’s ok to be ok.”
Grief is undoubtedly a rollercoaster of emotion, involving some combination of difficult days and better days, with waves of very strong grief and feelings of loneliness, confusion, anger and heartbreak. You may actually feel like you’re going mad at times on this rollercoaster… but the truth is, there couldn’t be a more normal feeling.
Be assured you’re not going mad. Grief is one of the most intense expressions of human suffering, yet we consider it a healthy, normal, necessary process.
So, what helps grief?
Acceptance of our feelings: As best you can, accept whatever emotions your grief brings. They can be very difficult but remember that even the strongest feelings of grief will come and go and you will feel some respite.
Time: You’ll soon be sick of people telling you “it just takes time” and this is partially true. However, it’s also about but what people do in that time. So, what can you do?
Talk: It helps to talk, if you’re able to talk in the right way, i.e. with someone who gives you the space to say whatever you are thinking and feeling, and listens in a caring, understanding, non-judgemental way. Such talking can’t cure the grief, but it can help you realise that your thoughts and feelings make sense, and it can help you feel less alone.
This could be a friend or family member, or it may be through talking to a friend of a friend, who can listen without being embarrassed, that you realise some people are just good, compassionate listeners, and you just have to look out for them.
A good approach is to choose someone you trust, someone good at listening, and try sharing your thoughts and feelings with them. Sometimes it helps to say: “I'd like to tell you how I’m feeling. You don’t need to offer solutions or fix it for me, I just need you to listen and understand. That’s enough.”
Be compassionate with yourself: Hearing things from people who don’t understand your grief, such as “you need to get on with life now, you can’t dwell on it” and “you should be doing better by now”, can leave us feeling like we’re failing to get on with life as we 'should'. Such judgements do nothing to help us. It’s far healthier to be kind, patient, and compassionate with yourself. Remind yourself “I can’t ever begin to feel better if I’m so busy giving myself a hard time.”
When you might need extra support
Whilst the pain and confusion of grief is a normal experience, there are times when someone may feel that they have become ‘stuck’ in the painful grief process or find they can’t find someone to talk to who understands their experience.
At times such as these, it can be helpful to seek support from a professional trained to understand grief in all its many guises, who can help you work through your thoughts and feelings in a safe, supportive environment.
Rowans Psychology & Bereavement Services are here to support those who live within the Rowans Hospice area of care who feel they need some additional support. You can contact the hospice directly to ask for support if the person who died was known to any of Rowans Hospice’s services. If they weren’t previously known to Rowans Hospice then you can ask your GP to make a referral to us.
Dr Paul Beadon