Most of us experience a significant bereavement at some stage in our lives. Bereavement is a common experience. It is generally distressing and it can feel strange and overwhelming for people.
It is normal to feel grief when someone close to us dies but everyone experiences grief differently – there is no ‘right’ way to grieve. Grief is a natural process and most people cope with support from family and friends. Some may need additional specialist help. There are all kinds of bereavement and loss. Many will experience losing a parent or sibling in old age or through illness. However we don’t expect our offspring to predecease us, either as children or adults. Loss of a child is particularly distressing as is the loss of a spouse, partner or life companion. Bereaved people often talk of shattered hopes and dreams, being deprived of seeing their children growing up or of fulfilling life or retirement plans. Others will mourn the loss of a partner and family life through relationship break-up, separation and divorce.
Sometimes the loss is not seen by others as a proper or actual bereavement e.g. a stillbirth, miscarriage or termination of pregnancy as the pregnancy has not reached full term or the child has not lived. Some feel that their losses or secrets cannot be shared publicly e.g. the giving up of a child for adoption, the death of an affair partner or gay/lesbian lover if both partners have not ‘come out’ publicly. When a taboo or stigma is added to a death the grief expands significantly yet it may be unacknowledged or disenfranchised. Death from AIDS is an example of this. Others may die from alcohol or drug misuse.
The loved ones of someone who has committed suicide find themselves dealing with a death which is usually unexpected, untimely and sometimes violent. The bereaved will be left with unanswered questions. Accidental deaths are traumatic for survivors, sometimes involving multiple loss if several people have died in an accident. Less common forms of death include the trauma and brutality of murder, war, disasters, atrocities and global loss.
Sudden death is generally a huge shock for us. In some cases people have years to prepare for the death through long-term illness. With conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease people lose their loved ones piece by piece and may have the difficult experience of admitting them to care. It may still come as a shock when faced with their death.
Some people will experience loss of health and fitness, losing body parts or bodily functions through illness or surgical procedures. Others may find themselves facing their own mortality through terminal illness. Some will be upset by the loss of a friend, neighbour or a much loved pet.
Individuals also experience loss and change through material circumstances - loss of a job, earnings, home, country, liberty, identity or status, through children leaving home or being robbed of treasured possessions. We cannot measure the significance of one loss over another.
Generally others are supportive although sometimes bereaved people feel that they are being avoided by others who do not know what to say or do in the circumstances. Again there are no ‘right’ things for others to say or do but conveying compassion through kind words and gestures and being a ‘listening ear’ or ‘shoulder to cry on’ at times can mean a lot to people at times of loss. They may welcome immediate help in the household, help with registering the death, making funeral arrangements or dealing with administrative and practical tasks. In the early days of a bereavement, and beyond, spending time with the bereaved, having tea, an outing together, including them in activities, if they wish, can help. Sometimes people find that initial support dwindles after the first few weeks and months, leaving them feeling alone, especially where they do not have immediate family around.
Employers can be supportive in allowing people appropriate time off work following significant bereavements with phased return to work in the days and weeks ahead. Some individuals will want to return to work as soon as possible while others may require some time off.
It takes time for people to return to some sort of normality following a significant bereavement. It will of course be a very different normality as people adjust to changed circumstances. There is no particular time scale although generally the first year or two are the most difficult as people live through the first birthdays, anniversaries and life events without their loved ones. It is important to find a balance between time spent alone working through feelings of grief and loss, and activities which involve interaction with others. Maintaining existing relationships and interests, while seeking some new activities and friendships can help rebuild the bereaved person’s world, finding hope and meaning in life again.
Most people work through their grief and find a way forward with support from family and friends. Some will find comfort in religious faith. Some may welcome contact with support groups. Bereavement counselling can be provided by voluntary bodies, counselling agencies, private healthcare providers and private counsellors.
As a psychotherapist and counsellor in private practice I see clients with wide-ranging personal difficulties including bereavement issues. Should you feel the need for counselling help I can be contacted at Kareen Edwards Psychotherapy Tel. 01224 642947.