Do Grief & Loss Conform To A Pattern?

Posted at 22:13pm on 18th November 2008

This article was revised and updated on 28th July, 2010

One of the most shocking aspects of attending the funeral of someone you loved is the sense of desolation you may feel afterwards. Everything in you has been working towards this moment, to such an extent that it has emptied your mind of everything else. This, of course, is one of the purposes of such rites of passage. Funeral services help us through the initial stages of shock, grief and loss by concentrating the mind on the details and ritual of the event.

THE SENSE OF LOSS IN BEREAVEMENT

But they do little to prepare us for what is to come. In the busyness of choosing music, prayers, poems, someone to give an address, we’ve given no thought for what is to come. The empty house to which we must return; the silent telephone; the ticking clock; the spiritual emptiness. These are the elements of someone else’s life; nothing to do with me!

The intensity of pain in discovering that this funeral service is not the end, but the beginning, can be all-but overwhelming. The rest of your life yawns before you. There is no end to its emptiness, its anguish, until death – in kindness – takes you, too. Loneliness and loss may be your hated companions – enemies, but impossible to expunge.

DEALING WITH GRIEF AND LOSS

In this forlorn, alien landscape, emotions can go haywire. The tears we have bravely contained in the immediate aftermath of our loss, may now spill from our eyes with a terrifying frequency and passion. Noisy, gulping sobs can accompany them when we least expect it – creating an uncomfortable experience for friends and embarrassing moments for ourselves. People’s kindness becomes something to avoid. In dealing with grief and loss, we feel too tender, too vulnerable, to cope with their sympathy.

Alternatively, we may experience the sort of hysteria experienced by the characters in A Painful Post Mortem. As the author of the book, I drew heavily on my own emotions, when I lost my daughter.

We have been travelling in a southerly direction, down from the moor towards the coast, on a road I’m not familiar with. On each side, the short, cropped pasture of the verges gives way to wiry moor-land grasses bent low by the incessant wind that moans and whines, unfettered, from the open sea. Gorse bushes, a vibrant yellow in full flower, offer little shelter. And among them, heads down, endlessly grazing, are the sheep that roam these parts, summer and winter.

The hearse, ahead, comes to a halt. A tractor blocks the road. We wait for some minutes with the engine idling.

‘We’re going to be late,’ says Rosie, consulting her watch. Our slot at the Crematorium is booked for three o’clock.

I feel the tension building in my neck and shoulders. I clasp my hands together, and stare, resolutely, out of the window. When it becomes apparent that we shall be going nowhere for a while, Steve switches off the engine and gets out of the car to investigate. The wind flattens his hair to his head and sends his tie on a wild upward flight for freedom. He returns a moment later.

‘Looks like someone’s collided with a sheep in the middle of the road, and the farmer’s come to remove the body.’

I begin to laugh. Rosie turns in her seat.

‘Don’t you see,’ I gasp, unable to contain myself, ‘this is exactly what Katya’s life was like. She was late for everything. And she always had some weird and wonderful excuse to explain why. She would have revelled in telling this story. 'Couldn’t even make it on time for my own funeral,' she’d have said. 'Sheep on road.’

I can barely deliver the punch line I am laughing so much and, as I finish, Rosie, too, explodes with mirth. It is infectious: a silly school-girlish reaction that has the two of us convulsed. There might, I admit, be an element of hysteria about it. But I feel the laughter as one would the shock of plunging into a pool after the burning heat of a Mediterranean sun: as something joyful. Fortifying and invigorating.

While the tractor goes about its gory business, and the hearse stands sedately on the road ahead, Steve’s car rocks with the sound of Rosie’s and my laughter. It is a sound of pure exhilaration. And in the face of something beyond their comprehension, the two men look on helplessly.

THE FIVE STAGES OF GRIEVING

The eruption of emotion in these two women may seem inappropriate – even embarrassing – but there is an honesty about it that relieves the tensions of grief. This may not be the experience of everyone, of course. As the authors of The Grief Recovery Handbook (HarperCollins, 1998) are at pains to explain

“no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist, and what are defined as such can’t be called stages. Grief is the normal and natural emotional response to loss.... No matter how much people want to create simple, bullet-point guidelines for the human emotions of grief, there are no stages of grief that fit any two people or relationships.”

That may be. But the point, surely, is that in identifying patterns in grief, we find solace in knowing that we are not alone. Spiritual emptiness is akin to isolation. Healing comes in knowing that our suffering is a shared response; in having the freedom to express our feelings; in confronting our fears in the company of others. The sense of loss I experience may not be exactly what you encounter, but if I can be convinced that it is not outside the normal range of emotions, that is comfort enough, in itself.

Dealing with the death of a loved one is something we shall all go through at some stage in our lives. Let’s not add to the burden of loss suffered by the bereaved, by denying them a sense of identifying with others in the same situation; a sense of belonging to a community that is defined by its affliction.

If you are going through a sense of loss as the result of bereavement, may I urge you to read and meditate on the bereavement poems I included when writing the story of my daughter’s death. Death is but a door is a reminder of the ever present reality of our mortality. And an assurance that it is merely another door in another room in the mansion that is being prepared for us in eternity. Weep for a while re-enacts the story of Noah’s flood, when the earth was devastated, but hope was borne back to the arc on the wings of a dove. May the sentiments of both be your experience, as you seek solace in the midst of your grief and loss.

All Royalties from Mel’s latest novel, A Painful Post Mortem, are for charities benefiting children worldwide. Buy a copy here and help to raise funds for children like Rachel, who, at 13 is mother to 6 kids orphaned by AIDS, or this project, drug-proofing teenagers in the UK

This article may be reproduced in any non-commercial website or blog on condition that it appears unaltered, in its entirety, and that the following copyright line and bio are prominently displayed beneath it.

© Copyright Mel Menzies: USED BY PERMISSION

Author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. This article, in its original form, can be found at http://www.melmenzies.co.uk/

RELATED ARTICLES: Bereavement, Grief & Loss

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