Grief is an emotional response to the trauma of loss. It is a spiritual, emotional and psychological journey towards healing and one that, unfortunately, everyone will have to deal with at some point in their lives. It is also a reflection of the power of love.
Given that we are an evolved species, whose capacity for love evolved to further our genetic legacy, it is amazing how deep and wondrous that love is, how much we depend on others in our lives. Grief is a reflection of this.
I remember when I was a young man volunteering in Africa and I was invited to attend a village funeral. I followed an old lady I’d just met there. Around forty villagers where sat around on reed mats on the floor, men and woman in separate groups. The elders were sat under a light wooden shelter, which shaded them from the late morning sun. The mood was sombre but jolly.
The parents who had lost the child were there in a state of pure unadorned grief, wailing and sobbing for all to see. They moved around and the villagers commiserated with them. They were on their knees with great swaths of pain wracking their bodies. In front of everyone they let it all out.
At the time I was only 23. Having since experienced such grief for myself, I have come to realise ‘letting it out’ is as it should be.
My own experiences of grief are as personal as everyone else’s.
I remember my grandfather died when I was a young boy, followed shortly after by the death of a pet rabbit, Paddy. I recall my father crying outside at my grandfather’s funeral. Asking me not to tell my mother, as he wanted to be strong for her.
I remember my relatives visiting as we were burying Paddy in the family garden. That tears flowed. I remember going to my grandmother, shortly after she moved into our home, eyes damp. Talking about the loss of the rabbit. I remember feeling guilt afterwards that I had not mentioned my grandfather, Fred.
Later my brother died. After a struggle with mental illness he decided to take his own life. He did so in a peaceful way, in a car on my parents lawn with a pipe attached from the exhaust to the front window. He did not leave a note. I was away at the time and I did not attend the funeral.
I did not grieve. For the most part I was in denial.
Yet if you cannot grieve, if you cannot ‘let it out’ and I suffered in other ways.
It today’s culture there are few models of grief. We allow little time for it. Most likely because it reminds us of our own mortality, something society seems to try to deny. Not knowing how to handle the pain of grief, we avoid it, not realising it is the pain of loss we are trying to avoid.
Yet those who grieve well, live well. It is the healing process of the heart, souls and mind. It is the path that returns us to wholeness. Until you grieve a loss, you will suffer the effects of that unfinished business.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross spent a life time with those who had lost and her experiences culminated in a book on the subject, which she co-authored with David Kessler and completed just before she herself died.
The five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – which Elisabeth wrote about have become widely accepted. I have even seen them discussed in business seminars dealing with change. Yet they still remain misunderstood.
The Five Stages
Following a trauma of any extent many of us experience these stages of grief. Not everyone goes through the stages, or in that order, and there is no standard response to loss. Nor do the stages last specific periods of time. They are responses to feelings that can last for minutes or hours as we flip in and out of one and then another. We do not enter and leave each individual stage in a linear fashion. We may feel one, then another, and back again to the first one.
Grief is as individual as our lives, but knowing about the common experiences of grief can equip us to cope better when we do experience them.
More than twenty five years since my grandfather died I sometimes ask my grandmother how she feels. Having just turned 80, and having lived a quarter of a century alone, she is still full of happiness and life. When asked you can see the moment of sadness when she reflects on her loss, of what could have been. “You never get over a loss,” she says, “but you do move on.”
Grief: A Personal Affair, Matt, Aug 2016