Dealing With Denial, Grief & Anger Following Bereavement
REVISED & UPDATED 1st December, 2010
I wrote last week about dealing with the shock of losing someone you love and said that numbness is a normal initial response following a bereavement.ï¿½ The loss of a loved one is a traumatic event, and this is the body's defence mechanism kicking in, to ensure that the ill-effects are minimised before they become overwhelming.ï¿½ Gradually, various emotions will then begin to seep into consciousness over a period of time.
GRIEF AND LOSS
It is vital that we understand that the grieving process of mourning, following the loss of a loved one, is not the same for everyone.ï¿½ We have a natural tendency to assume that, to be real, grief must adhere to a certain pattern.ï¿½ï¿½ But looking for a set response from someone is a dangerous expectation.ï¿½ My reactions to grief and loss may be quite different to yours.ï¿½ And your emotions at losing someone you love may be opposite to someone close to you.ï¿½ It is especially important to grasp this possibility in a situation where a husband's and wife's way of dealing with, say, the loss of a child, may differ.ï¿½ If this is to the point that one, wrongly, believes the other to be unaffected, then instead of gaining support from one another, it may, actually, drive you apart.
However, there are aspects of grief which many mourners experience in common with others, though not necessarily in any particular order.ï¿½ Chief among them are:
- Death and Denial ï¿½(Disbelief)
- Guilt and Regret
- Anger and Depression
- Pain and Sadness
DEATH AND DENIAL
To begin with, you may find yourself caught in a complete denial of death.ï¿½ You expect the person youve loved and lost to come through the door at any moment.ï¿½ You may catch yourself laying a place at the table, and experience a sense of unreality when you realise the futility of such action.ï¿½ You imagine that you hear their voice, lift your head to see them, and are surprised to find no one there.
This pattern of death and denial is a normal reaction.ï¿½ When people said nice things to me about my daughter, following her death, I found myself thinking, quite rationally, that Id be able to share them with her; that it would be an encouragement to her to know how positively she was viewed by others.
GUILT AND REGRET
You may have regrets following a bereavement; a sense of 'if only'.ï¿½ If only you had done this.ï¿½ Not done that.ï¿½ If only the deceased had taken more care of himself.ï¿½ If only she'd heeded your advice.ï¿½ Some of these regrets may be completely irrational.ï¿½ Others will be genuine misgivings.ï¿½ Either way, you have, at some point, to come to terms with them.ï¿½ Talking to a friend or counsellor, may help. Alternatively, there are various websites offering help, in particular, the excellent BBC site, Coping with Grief & Bereavement, Cruse Bereavement Care, or Care for the Family's Bereaved Parents' Network, which endorses my novel, A Painful Post Mortem.
Guilt may rise to the surface, with or without foundation.ï¿½ Instead of 'if only' this emotion is dogged by shoulds and oughts.ï¿½ You chastise yourself for your thoughtlessness, real or imagined, your selfishness, your indifference.ï¿½ If you've had a row shortly before a sudden death, you are more than likely to whip yourself with shame and self-reproach.ï¿½ You find yourself going over every detail, every word, every action.
Relief may also give rise to a sense of guilt.ï¿½ When death has occurred at the end of a long illness or disability, the grieving process, in terms of the emotions experienced, may be similar to that of sudden death, but there will be differences.ï¿½ The main distinction is that mourning is done, for the most part, prior to death.ï¿½ If the patient's suffering has been acute - as is the case with many cancer patients - then death may, actually, come as a relief.
The same be true when the life of a loved one has become meaningless to them and an unmitigated burden on the carer - as with those suffering either mental or physical impairment such as dementia or motor neuron disease.ï¿½ In either case, a sense of relief may be mingled with guilt. ï¿½Guilt over the fact that you are glad to be relieved of the burden.ï¿½ Or guilt that you still have life when your loved no longer does.
ANGER AND DEPRESSION
I was fortunate enough to experience neither of these expressions of grief when my daughter died.ï¿½ Research carried out by the Royal Free and University College Medical School in London found that those with a spiritual belief fared better in coping with bereavement than those without.ï¿½ When you have faith to trust that you will see your loved one again, there is little or no experience of anger or depression.
However, early on in my book, A Painful Post Mortem, Claire, the main character, finds herself overcome with anger.ï¿½ The Pathology Report in respect of her daughter has arrived by post.ï¿½ When her husband rings, she admits to being afraid of what it may contain, and he suggests that she wait until his return that evening.ï¿½ It may, he says, be upsetting.
I'm grateful , pathetically grateful, for his insight, and grasp at his suggestion.ï¿½ For some moments after I've put the phone back on its cradle, I continue to sit at the table.ï¿½ My breathing is fast and shallow.ï¿½ Emotion knots my throat.ï¿½ Then my fury explodes into the silence of the empty flat.
Why did you have to die? I shout.
Instantly, I'm enveloped with hot guilt and confusion.ï¿½ I know from a friend who offers bereavement counselling that anger is a normal reaction to loss.ï¿½ Anger against the deceased for letting go of life; for causing pain to those they've left behind.ï¿½ Anger against God, all-powerful and all-seeing, for permitting - or failing to stop - the events that have led to this end.ï¿½ Anger against yourself for your lack of foresight; your stupid, helpless, useless futility.ï¿½ I understand the concept!ï¿½ I've simply never considered that I might succumb.
Claire's anger, though fictitious, is a perfectly normal reaction.ï¿½ So, too, is the lethargy which may follow.ï¿½ Combined with a state of deep sorrow and sadness and a desire to withdraw socially, this may easily lead to depression.ï¿½ Disturbing dreams may add to feelings of despair and helplessness.ï¿½ And fear of a future alone may intensify those feelings.
PAIN & SADNESS
A sense of physical pain and overwhelming sadness is a normal part of grief.ï¿½ When we experience the loss of a loved one, we naturally curve into ourselves as if were suffering the acute stage of a belly-ache.ï¿½ We wrap our arms around ourselves; hug ourselves; rock to and fro.ï¿½ Lying down and curling into a ball - a foetal position - we adopt a childlike helplessness, and behave as if grief were an illness.ï¿½ Because that's how it feels!
Friends may not know how to react.ï¿½ A simple gesture of sympathy, such as presenting a bouquet of flowers by post will provide some comfort. But let no one minimise the depth of feeling experienced by some people.ï¿½ Although these intense emotions will pass and there are things we can do to help, bereavement is probably the most painful experience any of us will ever know.
Next time well be looking at Making Funeral Arrangments - planning a service, burial or cremation.ï¿½ In the meantime:
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Author of a number of books, one a No. 4 Sunday Times Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV.
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