When you’re mourning the loss of someone you love, you can find yourself in a pretty dark place.
Especially as our culture does not talk about death and, by extension, bereavement. So not only are you in the dark but there is no road map either. That’s why I’ve pulled together the seven most important lessons of bereavement I learned during my recovery:
1. There is no right or wrong way to grieve
Your approach to bereavement will match your personality. If you’re someone who needs to talk, you will do a lot of talking (and probably exhaust your nearest and dearest). If you’re someone who likes to process everything inside, you will keep your own counsel (and probably worry your nearest and dearest). Do what’s right for you. Recovery is not a race. It will take the time it takes, and that’s fine.
2. There are no simple stages of bereavement
At some point, someone will give you the Kubler-Ross the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Thank them for their kindness and if they help, that’s fine. However, you will probably discover – like me – that you can get all five in one day. There are no neat stages where you progress from the first to last. Remember, Kubler-Ross devised her stages from her work with the DYING. It has been tacked onto the bereaved and I think you will agree that these are two very different experiences. My biggest concern is that this model encourages people to think: Am I doing this right? (And there is no right or wrong way to grieve.)
3. Bereavement is exhausting
This was the biggest shock for me. I had no energy and would take on too much or expect too much of myself. I had been through a terrible loss and I was not going to have the same resilience that I normally have. In particular, look out for the six months dip. At this stage, you think you’re OK enough for something approaching a normal life but, in reality, you are still very vulnerable. If you’re going through a dip at the moment, at six months or any time after the loss of a loved one, be compassionate with yourself. It will get better.
4. You will be surprised
Some of the people who I thought would be a great support in my recovery, proved to be a disappointment. Others, who I hardly knew or who were on the edge of my life, moved centre-stage. Don’t be too angry with the people who fall short and be grateful for the new people. You will also be surprised by the new things that come into your life after a bereavement – I found dogs and writing plays. Be open and enjoy the surprise.
5. Pilgrimage can be healing
It could be a journey to somewhere holy or spiritual but I’m talking in the broader sense. It might be returning to someone that the two of you found special (and provide the opportunity to think about your beloved away from everyday life). It could be getting to know a different aspect of your loved one – for example, returning to their birthplace or where they were brought up. It could be meeting people with whom they worked or shared a special hobby. The pilgrimage could be a trip into nature or a sponsored event to raise money in your beloved’s name. With the original pilgrimages – to shrines – the journey and the hardship were an integral part of the experience. Don’t worry if nothing springs to mind straight-away, an idea will percolate into your mind when you need it.
6. You will integrate part of your beloved back into yourself
When we fall in love and become a team, we carve up the responsibilities between us. An important part of bereavement is taking back those jobs and doing them ourselves. When I lost Thom, I had to be in charge of entertaining and maintaining the house again. I rediscovered the joy of cooking and, having never been any good at DIY, found a handyman. In effect, I had integrated the responsibility back into myself. It is a similar process with losing family members. In my grandmother’s eyes, I was wonderful, special and had limitless potential. When she died, I had to stop outsourcing belief in myself and take it back in house. Of course, I have my doubts but somehow my grandmother’s love still lives in my heart, teaching me important lessons about generosity and self-belief.
7. The seeds of change are inside waiting to sprout
Bereavement has a way of both finding the fault lines in your life but also revealing new directions. Twenty years after Thom died, I have enough distance to see the gains as clearly as the losses. I know it is a horrible cliché but there is truth in the saying: one doors closes and another opens. Don’t worry if you are overwhelmed with loss or don’t want the gains. Take a step through the new door and see what happens. If it is the wrong door, you can always return. However, be open to change and wonderful new vistas will reveal themselves.