To grieve: to weigh down, to burden, to oppress, to cause us to feel angry, to make us worried, depressed. How accurately this powerful word describes how many of us feel when someone we love is absent from our lives through death, or other major loss. How often do we feel that we have to carry this weight, to be burdened, be oppressed - to grieve - for ever and a day? It's possible to be relieved of this weighty burden, this grief, when we talk to someone deeply, unravelling the threads of our sorrows and loss little, by little. This doesn't mean losing our relationship to and with the 'lost' and loved one, but crafting it anew, and in the process, to rediscover our sense of self and purpose.
It feels odd to be writing a Blog about loss when the weather is hot, sunny and distinctly Mediterranean. It feels out of place, like being a 'party-pooper' or hearing about the end of a gripping TV programme before you've had chance to watch any of it. It feels deeply unseasonal, out of step, wrong, in poor taste... But loss, grief, bereavement, sorrow and all their friends and associates are no respecters of persons, or of seasons. They fold, curl and lodge themselves into and among our holiday luggage. They leap out at us from the breakfast cereal packet, as we're taking a shower or as we're meandering along the aisle of the local shop wondering what to buy for dinner.... Loss, grief, bereavement, sorrow and all their friends and associates don't abide by custom and practice: they disrupt them instead. Like coming home and discovering that you've been burgled: the thieves having ransacked all your cupboards, and emptied the contents of your bedrooms drawers and wardrobe all over the floor. They've stolen your treasures (along with some of the practical things which you can replace more easily) and left you with all the mess.
Why don't you have another?
Did you have a pet when you were growing up? I had a beautiful Chinchilla rabbit whom I called Benjamin (of course!). My Father showed me how to care for him, and to clean out his hutch every week. Benjamin loved eating garden flowers and one day, he ate too many of a particular flower. The next morning, I found Benjamin dying in his hutch. Later that day we buried him in the garden among the flowers he loved to eat. After Benjamin died I did not keep another Rabbit until my own children were given Rabbits to care for. I remembered Benjamin for who he was, beautiful, lovely, and for being my first, and therefore very special, furry friend. I didn’t ask for another Rabbit after Benjamin died, and no-one asked me if I’d like one. I was glad that no-one asked or said to me that I could have another Rabbit just as soon as we could find one. It’s quite common for dog owners to go looking for a new dog once their faithful dog has gone (through death, theft, accident). I’ve known people become owners of a new dog within a day or two of their other dog dying. Some people find this the best way they know to deal with their loss and grief by transferring their love for the old dog to a new dog. I’ve never been able to do this. My family and I have loved and adored several Labrador dogs. Our first Labrador, Hugo, died when he was 13. After he died I went crying, and howling, through the house. As the days went by the house felt empty, cold. A couple of months after Hugo’s death we did bring a Labrador puppy home, but he was never a replacement for our beloved Hugo who, like all dogs, was unique. Hugo was not, in any way, replaced by his successor. To this day we remember Hugo for himself, as we do each of our dogs. When we replace the loss, we fill the gaping hole left by the loss with something or someone else, but we don’t grieve. How many people do you know who, after the break-up of a long-term relationship, return to the Dating scene as soon as possible? How many people do you know who embark on new long-term relationships without doing the hard slog of the grief work following the death of the earlier relationship? How many people do you know who, following the death of their partner, have been told ‘Well, you’re young enough to find someone else’… or ‘There’s plenty more fish in the sea…’ or, worse, have been told that they ‘could find someone better…’? How many people do you know who’ve experienced the death of their baby or their young child? And can you guess how often these parents have been told, ‘Well, you can always have another’… or, ‘you’re still young enough to have another baby…’ It seems as if it’s our human instinct to rush in and tell someone who’s deep in grief that he or she can ‘go and get another one’, as if by doing just this, all the painful feelings and experiences of the loss of their partner, their baby, their child, their pet…will be erased, and their emotional system returned to the default mode of everything, or pretty much everything, being alright thank you. When we’re told that we ‘can always have/ get another….’ it has several interpretations: It’s a very limiting statement. By focussing on the future, it fails to acknowledge the reality of the past and the present It’s one of those lines that people use when they’re trying to be helpful… but failing. It’s a common throw-away line used by people who’ve probably had it said to them, so it’s used without thinking. It minimises the enormity of our loss. The person may be unwilling and / or unable to recognise and accept the depth of our feelings of loss It’s a ‘stop-gap’ line for someone who doesn’t know what else to say. On hearing this how might we feel? Angry, full of rage! How can anyone dare suggest that I can ‘always find someone else’…have another baby… get a dog just like the one who’s died of old age after being with us for 14 years…get a home just like the one that’s been destroyed by fire, by flood, by bombs… which we worked so hard to build and to shape? Isolated with our experience and with our feelings Silenced. Isn’t this person listening to me? My baby, my partner, my pet….has died and s/he’s suggesting that I go and find another one! Wounded. I was feeling ghastly before I heard this, now I feel worse, and more hurting than ever. Misunderstood. Doesn’t this person know how special, adored, important….my partner, my baby, my pet, my home, my job… was to me? Diminished… my experience isn’t big enough, serious enough, to grab their genuine attention. Does any of this ring true for you?
Our bodies hold our story
If you were to describe your feelings about your grief, how might you do this? Paint? Write? Dance? Shout? Lie down in a darkened room? Lash out? Curl up in a ball...? All of the above and more?When we feel happy, overjoyed, excited... our bodies reflect this don't they? We smile, laugh, sometimes cry with happiness. Remember the phrase 'jump for joy'? It's the same when we feel angry: we might get red in the face, see red... we might want to or actually throw something or break something, or we might suddenly feel very cold, ice cold... When we grieve, our bodies also reflect how we feel. We can feel utterly exhausted, our limbs feeling heavy, and every physical movement is a massive effort. Meanwhile we want to eat everything, or, more commonly, nothing at all, with any food we eat turning to dust in our mouth. Sleep becomes something that everyone else has but us, with the effects of sleep deprivation adding to our distress. Dizziness, general disorientation, feeling and acting in a dazed manner: all these are physical expressions of our grief and its impact upon us. Our bodies communicate to us in authentic ways how we feel. Our mind usually tries to control how we feel, especially when we've learnt to keep our feelings in check, well pressed down, and we ignore the messages which our body is sending to us. Tuning in to our bodies through simple activities such as breathing deeply, or going for a walk (for starters...) can help us engage with our feelings, so that they begin to less like a great lump of distress, and help us to heal.
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