A couple of weeks ago I had a table at a Christmas Gift and Craft Fair organised by and on behalf of The Dove Service, who I have written about before. On my table I had my published books and felt art, including “A Valley Journal”. The Journal precipitated some interesting conversations about bereavement and grief. I heard some very sad stories. Then one person asked me “what’s the big deal about getting over a bereavement”. He was, I guess, upper middle-aged. He had lost his parents recently, both more or less in their 90s, one of whom had been suffering from dementia for quite awhile, and therefore had already departed in a sense. He’d been upset initially of course, but managed to cope and carry on with life, pretty much as usual.
It got me thinking about what makes some bereavements so much harder to cope with. These are some of the factors that can make bereavement very difficult.
First of all, when a death is “out of the natural order.” The natural order would be an older person dying before a younger one, and the unnatural is the opposite. So here you’ve got all the parents and grandparents who mourn the loss of a child, of any age, even I must say stillborn and miscarried. Could also be the older siblings mourning the loss of their younger brother or sister. The life that was lost had not been lived to a full “natural” age. It’s very different when an elderly person passes away. Although of course you miss them and mourn the loss, it is somehow to be expected. None of us live forever. (The Compassionate Friends, a national charity that is a support network for bereaved parents, grandparents and siblings, can offer some help if you are bereaved in this way.)
I think a second factor is the timing of their passing. A sudden and wholly unexpected death such as due to accident, suicide or murder, or a seemingly innocuous illness that suddenly takes a bad turn, is very difficult to cope with. There was no opportunity of preparation, no goodbyes. It is a shock. You keep replaying the events in your mind hoping to change the outcome. Some people who lose a loved one in this unexpected way do in fact suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Here is a very interesting article about this, posted on the website of an organisation called Sudden “Supporting People After Sudden Death”, which might be worth looking at if you’re in that position. They also publish some excellent guides for the suddenly bereaved.
Another important factor for those left behind is how big a place that person had played in their life. Imagine you’re a couple who have been together for 40 years. There are so many inter-dependencies that you don’t even realise. Perhaps you don’t notice how the rubbish is taken out, or you hardly notice that cup of tea that magically appears on your bedside table. Your partner is there in a myriad ways that you have become accustomed to. Then, they are gone. And suddenly the vacancy they have left, the emptiness in the house, is overwhelming. The emotional loss is one aspect but there are so many practical ways that you miss them too. Compare that to a brother who is mourning the loss of his sister who had emigrated three decades earlier. They only saw each other five or six times in that period, and most of their contact was a birthday or Christmas card, or an occasional call or email. The passing of his sister is not going to have much impact on his daily life. Once the funeral is over, although there may be occasional waves of sadness, this loss will not change his life appreciably.
Of course, there are lots of other factors. How much the person suffered in the lead-up to their death, or the circumstances of their life beforehand. Who they left behind. Your own state of mind and health. Your own social network and support, your faith, etc., etc., etc, But I think those above three (unnatural death, manner of death, your relationship to the person who has passed) might be the main determiners of how difficult it will be to adjust to the loss.
One thing that definitely doesn’t help is getting into comparing. Losing a pet, a job, an elderly grandparent is not the same as losing your child to leukemia, but grief is still grief. And it’s probably why the phrase, “I know how you feel” can sometimes irritate those who are trying to cope with a difficult bereavement.
That’s one reason I put a chapter at the end of my “A Valley Journal” book for the friends and family of the bereaved. There are the wrong things to say, just as there are the right things.
Well, to finish this up: if you’re someone who stumbles onto this blog and wonders “what’s the big deal” –like the gentleman I spoke with last week at the Fair — I hope this might increase both your understanding and compassion for those who are struggling to cope with a difficult loss.