Few experiences are so certain or so painful as bereavement. With this fact in mind, the neuroscientist and author Sam Harris has even suggested that children should be taught how to grieve as part of their school curriculum. Unfortunately, grief is often thought of as a painful emotion to be avoided rather than an important skill to be learnt. In fact, the grieving process is both natural and healthy.
The Nature of Bereavement
There is perhaps nothing more agonizing than losing someone you love. Many find the pain so overwhelming that they wish it had been them instead. First, of course, there is the raw horror of seeing someone you loved cold and motionless. Nothing can prepare you for such an experience. Even worse, this is often preceded by the sight of that person in pain. Then of course there is the great black void they leave behind. King Lear speaks for all humanity when he says of his dead child, “no life?/ Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life/ And thou no breath at all?/ Oh thoul’t come no more/ Never, never, never, never, never.” Lear knows that his daughter will never return, and adjusting to this brutal fact can be very difficult – to say the least. Bereavement presents those left behind with a problem or task. The British Psychotherapist Robin Skynner describes it as “updating your internal maps.” In other words, the bereaved have to adjust to a new life. And this adjustment is usually made harder by the simple fact that they don’t want to.
Citizens of modern, secular, technologically advanced societies generally find death hard to deal with. First, people are no longer exposed to death as often as their ancestors. Until well into the 20th century, life expectancy was low, infant mortality rates were high, and the sick and elderly tended to die at home rather than in a hospital bed. For these reasons, people were somewhat de-sensitized to the experience. Of course, this did not mean they were callous or indifferent, but bereavement did not come as the great shock it so often does today. Religion also provided a sense of meaning and, for some, even the hope that they would one day be reunited with the deceased. In his book The Turning Point, Fritjof Capra describes modern society as “death denying” and adds that this is true not only of the average person but of nurses and physicians as well. Capra also notes the way death is viewed by medical professionals as a kind of failure. As he puts it, “the age-old art of dying is no longer practised in our society”.
How to Grieve
Grieving is a process with recognisable stages. It should be stressed, however, that the bereaved should never place themselves under pressure. Far too often, those who read books or articles on grief get the idea that everyone should grieve at the same speed and pass through the same stages in the same way. Grieving is a very personal thing, however, and it is never wise to compare yourself to others. But one thing is universal – the need to grieve.
1. Denial. Denial isn’t a necessary part of grieving, but it is a very common one. Even when the death was expected, it can still be a shock and those left behind may still go into denial. In essence, denial is a form of defence. You are confronted with an unbearable fact, one you wish wasn’t true, and you are also faced by a rush of deeply unpleasant emotions. Denial is a way of escaping.
2. Anger. As the numbness and denial fade, they can quickly be replaced by anger. The individual can feel robbed. They may also be angry on behalf of the deceased or his children. People often think of some horrible neighbor or obnoxious work colleague and feel outraged that these people are still healthy and happy while someone better is gone forever. If the death was a particularly bad one, the bereaved may also suffer post-traumatic stress, which in itself can trigger extreme anger.
3. Bargaining. This is also very common during bereavement. The individual may appeal to some higher power, promising to reform and lead a better life if only the deceased could somehow be returned. Others will pray for a sign that their loved one still exists.
4. Reorientation. The bereaved usually experience some form of depression once the reality sinks in. When a death occurs, friends and family usually gather round. Gradually, however, they drift back to their own problems and the bereaved is left to adapt to a new life without the person they loved.
5. Guilt and Acceptance. As the anger and depression subside, the bereaved are often left with a sense of guilt. They will torment themselves with memories of all the horrible things they ever thought or did to the deceased and will imagine ways in which they could have made him happier. These feelings of guilt are often the last to go. Once they do, the grieving process is finished. This does not mean all the pain and missing end of course – acceptance should not be confused with indifference. But the healthiest individual will now focus on the good times and cherish the happy memories.
It is worth adding that people need to grieve for many things, not only the death of a loved one. For example, therapists often encourage women who have been unable to conceive to grieve for the life that might have been. In a sense, even the midlife crisis is a form of grieving. The individual looks back at his youth and either pines for what has gone or longs to have done things differently. As with the death of a loved one, they are trying to let go of what cannot be restored and to reorient themselves to a different reality. Above all, it should be emphasised that someone in mourning is not wallowing but is undergoing a natural healing process.