Bereavement: How To Deal With Denial, Grief & Anger Following The Death Of A Loved One

Posted at 15:14pm on 17th May 2020

In these times of Coronavirus, many of us are suffering the death of a loved one. I wrote last time about Looking After Yourself following bereavement, and pointed out - from my own experience - the trauma of having to break the news of that loss to another family member.  Previously, in Coping With the Initial Shock, we saw that numbness is a normal response.  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.  Gradually, various emotions will then begin to seep into consciousness over a period of time.

GRIEF AND LOSS

However, it is vital that we understand that the grieving process of mourning is not the same for everyone.  We have a natural tendency to assume that, to be real, grief must adhere to a certain pattern.  But looking for a set response from someone is a dangerous expectation.  My reactions to grief and loss may be quite different to yours.  And your emotions at losing someone you love may be completely opposite to someone close to you.  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.  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.  Chief among them are:

  • Death and Denial  (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.  You expect the person you’ve loved and lost to come through the door at any moment.  You may catch yourself laying a place at the table, and experience a sense of unreality when you realise the futility of such action.  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.  When people said nice things to me about my daughter, following her death, I found myself thinking, quite irrationally, that I’d 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 & REGRET

You may have regrets following a bereavement; a sense of ‘if only’.  If only you had done this.  Not done that.  If only the deceased had taken more care of himself.  If only she had heeded your advice.  Some of these regrets may be completely irrational.  Others will be genuine misgivings.  Either way, you have, at some point, to come to terms with them.  Talking to a friend or counsellor, or sharing with others on a bereavement support group like Sue Ryder Bereavement Support may help.

Guilt, too, may rise to the surface, with or without foundation.  Instead of ‘if only’ this emotion is dogged by ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’.  You chastise yourself for your ‘thoughtlessness’, real or imagined, your ‘selfishness’, your ‘indifference’.  If you’ve had a row shortly before a sudden death, you are more than likely to whip yourself with shame and self-reproach.  You find yourself going over every detail, every word, every action.

Guilt may also arise as a result of relief.  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.  The main distinction is that mourning is done – for the most part – prior to death.  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 may 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.  In either case, a sense of relief may be mingled with guilt.  Guilt over the fact that you are glad to be relieved of the burden.  Or guilt that you still have a life when your loved no longer does.

ANGER & DEPRESSION

I was fortunate enough to experience neither of these expressions of grief when my daughter died.  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.  When you have faith in God 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.  The Pathology Report in respect of her daughter has arrived by post.  When her husband rings, she admits to being afraid of what it might contain, and he suggests that she waits until his return that evening.  It may, he says, be upsetting.

I’m grateful – pathetically grateful – for his insight, and grasp at his suggestion.  For some moments after I’ve put the phone back on its cradle, I continue to sit at the table.  My breathing is fast and shallow.  Emotion knots my throat.  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.  I know from a friend who offers bereavement counselling that anger is a normal reaction to loss.  Anger against the deceased for letting go of life; for causing pain to those they’ve left behind.  Anger against God, all-powerful and all-seeing, for permitting – or failing to stop – the events that have led to this end.  Anger against yourself for your lack of foresight; your stupid, helpless, useless futility.  I understand the concept!  I’ve simply never considered that I might succumb.

Claire’s anger, though fictitious, is a perfectly normal reaction.  So, too, is the lethargy which may follow.  Combined with a state of deep sorrow and sadness and a desire to withdraw socially, this may easily lead to depression.  Disturbing dreams may add to feelings of despair and helplessness.  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.  When we experience the loss of a loved one, we naturally curve into ourselves as if we’re suffering the acute stage of a belly-ache.  We wrap our arms around ourselves; hug ourselves; rock too and fro.  Lying down and curling into a ball – a foetal position - we adopt a childlike helplessness, and behave as if grief were an illness.  Because that’s how it feels!

A simple gesture of sympathy, such as receiving a bouquet of flowers by post will provide some comfort.  But let no one minimise the depth of feeling experienced by some people.  Although these intense emotions will pass and there are things we can do to help, bereavement is probably the most painful experience we’ll know.

Next time we’ll be looking at Planning A Funeral, in these difficult times.  In the meantime, try some more of Daniel’s suggestions from the alt.support.grief group, but first:

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1.  If you normally bathe, consider taking a shower instead, or vice versa.  Weird, but outlook-changing.

2.  Comfort-dress.  Put on your most comfortable clothes, even if the colours don’t match.

3.  Try a new brand of . . . tea, coffee, breakfast cereal, after-shave, soap, hair gel, whatever.

4.  Make some *you* time.  Then practice *not* feeling guilty about stealing that hour from your other responsibilities.  Here are some ideas: go to the library after work and read the funny bits in periodicals you don’t subscribe to; go somewhere comfortable and anonymous like the park, a bench in the shopping mall.  If you don’t want to be bothered, pull out a magazine or your phone and pretend to be busy.

5.  I hate to say (says Daniel) but exercise does help.  Even if it’s just flexing your ankles while lying on your back, it can get a lymph pumping.  (I have recently discovered that some park benches are high enough to kick my feet like a little child, he says, i.e. gentle exercise and childhood memories).  Don’t chastise yourself for not doing *more*.

6.  Find a piece of nature you can enjoy: an all-day hike in the pristine mountains; an afternoon near surf-sprayed tidal pool rocks; a detour into and then out of the florist’s shop (the air is so great in there!); a peek into the pet store to watch baby whatevers crawl over each other.

7.  Write.  Some write in a journal.  I sometimes write ‘letters’ to those whom I have lost.  Or share your thoughts in the comments below.

Take care of yourself.  Until next time . . .

 

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