Dealing with grief: finding your coat
Someone once said to me that when his wife died, he felt like he had lost his coat. He felt exposed and vulnerable to the world. It’s a beautiful and poignant image that has always stuck with me.
I can identify with this. I remember on the day of my mum’s funeral – a glorious day in October almost 20 years ago now – I was travelling behind the hearse, in my uncle’s car along with my Dad and sister. I recall so vividly, looking out the window with a strange sense of awe, at people just getting on with their lives. They were enjoying the autumn sunshine. Smiling. Sharing jokes. Going places. Living with purpose. ‘But how could they? My mum has just died. How can they be laughing when I feel raw?’, I thought. But that in its essence is the nature of grief; my world had stopped but everyone else’s kept turning.
Like many who have experienced loss of any kind, I didn’t think I would ever get to the ‘acceptance’ stage that was often spoken about back then. Therapeutically, the way we now look at grief has changed, however. Many of us are familiar with the Kubler Ross model of grief which follows a very linear process. She suggests the grief stages as starting with denial, then anger, bargaining and depression culminating in ‘acceptance’ and ‘moving on’.
More modern therapeutic thinking in relation to grief and loss supports a different process; a process of ‘continuing bonds’*. This is based on the idea that even though we may have lost a loved one, we will not lose the relationship.
I’m not a big fan of the phrases ‘closure’ or ‘letting go’. Instead, continuing bonds acknowledges that:
Grief is ongoing. It is not something that one day is ‘fixed’ once we have moved through the various stages. Like the name ‘continuing bonds’ may suggest, it is possible and very much encouraged to make peace with grief.
It is possible to remain connected to our loved one even if they are not physically in our lives.
The relationship is redefined allowing it to continue, albeit in different ways, throughout life.
Honouring those ‘continuing bonds’
Many of the rituals that may have seemed to be pathological in previous grief models are supported by ‘continuing bonds’. Private rituals or conversations (either with loved ones or about them) and visiting places where you feel close to them are all ways to honour their memory. I do not personally get a great sense of peace from visiting my mum’s grave. This is not where I feel her presence. But that’s just me.
When I go to Spiddal beach, in the west coast of Ireland, where she used to take my sister and I for picnics on those long, dreamy summer holidays however, I can see her sundress and tanned skin. I can feel the sun shining on my arms and the heady smell of sun cream in the air. I can taste the salad sandwiches and penguin bars, and most poignantly I can hear the depth of her laugh.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to honour our loved ones. I will always have a sadness that my children never got to meet my mum. I do make sure that she is a part of their life through sharing stories and pictures. They are still only small, but when they see a picture of my mum, they call her nana Gerry. In my home in many ways, her presence is as large today as she was in life.
For some, significant days – Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries – can cause sadness. Even if it feels like everyone else has moved on, it is ok to plan to celebrate or mark the day with a gesture, be it small or large.
And what about something to remember your loved one by? One of my precious reminders of my mum is a faded post - it note that she left on my bed when I was 16 saying ‘I love you’. Of course, items of jewellery or clothing may have the same significance for others. Or a particular photograph or book.
I also use music as a way to feel close to my mum. Once I hear the beautiful strains of Peter Starstedt’s ‘Where do you go to my lovely’, I am whisked back in time to road trips where my mum’s (often dubious) musical choices dominated the airwaves! Whilst I can’t say I am Daniel O Donnell’s biggest fan, I would be lying if I said that certain songs didn’t bring a tear to my eye.
A word about guilt:
I’ve heard many people say to me, ‘I wish I could have said this’. ‘I wish I hadn’t done that’. ‘I wish I had said goodbye’ or ‘I love you’. Hell, I’ve done it myself: ‘If only I’d known, I could have done that.’
But the thing is, if you could have, you would have. Hindsight is 20/20. We take the best actions and make the best decisions based on the information we have at the moment in time. This relates to people too, who may experience guilt in relation to COVID19. A number of people have expressed guilt to me about bringing COVID to their family or networks. But it comes back to the same old story: If you had that knowledge at that time, your decisions would have been different. My Dad used to say to me, ‘no post mortems’. I does sound rather morbid, but the point is a good one.
Guilt however is also a useless emotion. It is these unresolved pieces that can be problematic for us. So perhaps the question should rather be, ‘what are the other feelings I am having around this? What is below the guilt?’ Is it anger? Or sadness? Or hurt? It is worth exploring what we think we should or could have done as it may lead us to the deeper emotions that are present. Exploring it in this way, takes the control back rather than letting the guilt control us. It kickstarts the process of healing that emotion.
Grief in 2020
I get a sense that many (most?) of us are grieving right now. We are going through loss and transition in different ways. People are losing jobs, friends, social networks, loved ones. All as a result of COVID.
I will leave you with this: It is important to understand what losses are being triggered for you right now. It is also perhaps worth saying that, in a physical sense, grief usually presents itself as a tenseness in the upper body. Almost like a sense of holding in the muscles. If you were to bring your attention there now: what are you holding in that you are maybe not consciously aware of? Why not take a few moments to listen to what your body is telling you just now?
By the way, some years later I got a message from that man I spoke about at the start of this blog. He told me he found a new coat. It took some time. And the style was a little different to the one he had before. But it fit. And it was comfortable.
*This phrase was first used in 1996 in the book ‘Continuing Bonds: Another View of Grief’, edited by Klass, Silverman and Nickman.