Losing a close friend, family member or even a beloved pet is a traumatic time.
Being philosophical, the one thing guaranteed in life is death so there is a very high likelihood that we will all experience bereavement in one form or another.
We all react differently. The magnitude, form & type of grief expression will depend on our relationship with the one who has died, the circumstances of death & many, many more factors.
I would like to share something of what I have learnt in the hope that it will help you too.
There is no easy route through these times. It is a long, hard & often lonely journey.
A major help has always been for me to resolve that I will not ask the ‘What If‘ questions! These are meaningless as they can never really be answered & the answers I would arrive at are most likely to be ones that I could use to beat myself with.
I have found that the loss of each parent was very different:
- When my father died it was nearly 6 months before I could grieve properly because I was focused on supporting my mum. When the reaction did come, it was in response to seeing something insignificant that unlocked memories of fun times I had enjoyed with dad. The floodgates opened.
- When mum died, a lot of my grief was more immediate but there were still times when those little unexpected things unlocked emotions & feelings I thought had been dealt with.
Two days after Christmas 2014 I was awoken to be told that my brother who lived in German had died.
This was not expected.
My reaction was very different to how I dealt with either mum or dad’s passing.
My first response was a factual acceptance: it had happened. A haze of disbelief surrounded me. The news was big, with a powerful impact. My brother & myself were close. We shared a lot in common, especially our scientific training & interests. We Skyped quite regularly. We spoke. We chatted. We exchanged jokes. We laughed. We lamented. We were brothers.
That was suddenly over.
I struggled to take it in & yet underneath knew that it was true. Our last talk a few weeks before (just before he went into hospital) had been long, close & empathetic. We finished on a high & for that I am eternally grateful: there were no open doors to close & no sense of regret. But continued relationship had ended & that hurt.
Yet I felt empty & unable to react.
So many circumstances can dictate how & when we react to grief. Most are unknown before they trigger a response & they certainly do not always wait until the most convenient time to rear their head!
One of the real issues I struggled with was the silence of others.
I understand that it is not an easy time but people who were close or those to whom I looked for support were largely silent.
It was from a small sub-group of friends, many of whom I had no reason to expect to help, that I received a listening ear.
I wasn’t really wanting people to go out of their way, but a simple word or two like, “I’m sorry!” would have been so comforting & helped me to realise that people did care. Silence is a killer!
Three days before I departed for Germany to attend my brother’s memorial service I was asked, out of the blue, “When is your brother’s funeral?” That caught me completely off-guard. Until that point there had been no mention of my brother’s death, to the extent that I assumed they didn’t know. My mind raced & I had to make a determined effort to hold back my burning anger. The cycle in my head repeated: ‘So, they cannot be bothered to say sorry but they can ask when his funeral is.‘ I answered politely, excused myself, went out to the car & cried.
I’ve found that many friends simply don’t know how to react
Perhaps they are afraid to brooch the subject because they do not want to be embarrassed by our response; perhaps they don’t want to compound our hurt.
But rather than asking us how we would like them to respond, they make the basic assumption that by staying quiet they won’t upset anyone: us or them.
The result in me was a dangerous mixture of anger, disbelief & downright resentment.
I withdrew & tried to rationalise it in my head, but I couldn’t.
Grief does not always allow for being rational.
Over the next 5 or 6 weeks the intensity of the anger slowly subsided whilst I fought to understand my reactions & the lack of concern demonstrated by others. It seemed that everyone else’s world continued undisturbed whilst mine fell apart & they seemed not at all bothered by that … & that bothered me.
Of course, when you speak to them there is always an avalanche of good reasons:
- “I didn’t want to upset you“
- “I didn’t know what to say“
- “It was hard for me to approach you“
- “You looked angry“
… & my favourite,
- “I knew you had lots of friends & thought they must be helping you“
NONE of these are helpful. They are centred around the person making the comment & their feelings rather than my needs. A death can bring out our selfish nature in many forms.
Am I being cruel here?
No! I don’t think so because there were a few people who, despite feelings of uncertainty & inadequacy took the brave step to speak to me.
A significant issue for me is that it was people & leaders from within my home church that seemed to respond least/not at all & it was people with no real ‘religious’ affiliation that stepped out to offer help. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of lovely people in my church who are very supportive & helpful in other areas but not surrounding my brother’s death.
Perhaps they had good reasons? Perhaps. But it was a real source of pain.
It is critical to remember that if we want others to show concern & help us we have to be ready to accept that help.
No matter how bad we feel, we cannot complain about lack of concern if we continually push others away. Perhaps we can’t always talk about it at that moment. If that is the case, we should be sure to thank them for their interest & concern & agree to talk when we are better able to. Shunning help is just as bad as offering no help in the first place.
But that is very different to waiting for others to come to us.
I find it difficult to walk up to people & say, “Hi! Did you know my brother died at Christmas?” I won’t push people away; but neither will I push my situation down their throat. The danger of course is that a lack of communication can lead to all sorts of problems, particularly that people genuinely do not know that you have even suffered a bereavement.
In my case people knew; they were just slow to, or didn’t respond.
Life is complex!
But life also continues.
Graham’s ashes were finally laid to rest in the UK with mum & dad’s last week. It was closure on a difficult period; a very inspirational & yet intimate occasion. I felt a sense of relief & release.
So where am I now?
Well, even as I write this I can feel the intensity of pain & the sense of being let down by those I trusted.
But I am also able to look back over this time & see how it has helped to crystallize what is important at times like this.
It has given me a resolve to make sure that
- I never ignore friends when they are wrestling with grief (even though the temptation for ‘payback’ may loom large)
- I measure my words very carefully when I talk to others
- I take time to find how they would like me to respond to their situation & to communicate frequently in case I need to modify my response to them
- I put down any resentment or bad feeling that I develop, as quickly as possible: I am the only one that suffers from the effects of those thoughts
I, like anyone else who is going through the bereavement process, am on a journey; a journey on a road with unexpected turns, valleys, mountains, obstacles, resting places & steep slopes.
It doesn’t get easier with a successive loss; it’s just a different path back to normality (whatever that is).
We all react differently & require different interventions & help along the way. However, if you know someone who has lost a loved one or close friend, please do not step away. Any embarrassment you may feel at not knowing how the other person will react or feeling awkward if they display emotions or anger, will pale into insignificance compared with the benefits they will gain from your input.
You won’t get it right every time; none of us do. But in your stumbling, even inadequacy you will make a bigger difference than you thought possible.
If nothing else, the words “I’m sorry” or “If I can help in any way let me know” will open doors for progress & healing.
At some time, you will need & be glad for others to react that way towards you in your of need/loss & will realise the power of simple concern.
My journey continues.
If you are in the same position, I pray that you have at least one friend whose first words are “I’m sorry!” rather than “When is the funeral?”
Take care until next time …