Losing a loved one can be utterly life-shattering. Nothing seems the same anymore because most things are not the same.
One of the changes that can hit really hard, particularly if you’re usually a person who is on top of things, is how your self-confidence can take a big tumble. It is as though the foundations of your world have been shaken, and with that shaking, you’re no longer standing on solid ground. Your beliefs might be shaken; your sense that “things will work out all right” might be destroyed – because things haven’t worked out, have they?
You might find that you are less resilient when things go wrong. A blocked toilet can lead to a flood of tears. The pain of a pre-existing illness or the onset of something new can be hard to cope with. People’s reactions can leave you stunned. What you used to be able to ignore or respond to with a quip leaves you speechless.
This change in ourselves can be one of the most unnerving parts of grief, I think.
We are often at our most vulnerable when we are in this phase of our grieving.
No wonder there are well-worn clichés about ambulance chasers and some unscrupulous funeral directors who take advantage of grieving relatives.
I remember that utter bewilderment when Catherine had first died, and sitting in my living room, and being completely at a loss how to arrange her funeral. How do you arrange a funeral? Where? How? I was fortunate as the very kind leader of our small church came over. She’d made all the enquiries that were needed, and with her help, we were able to put all of the arrangements into place. If I hadn’t had her help, I don’t know how I would have managed it.
When you’re in that state of shock in the earliest period of your grief it seems your defences are completely down. Inconsiderate comments or behaviours of friends and family hurt unbearably, scarring our relationships, whereas the extra kindnesses are just so powerful, so important.
The vulnerabilities of grief carry on long past those early days. It somehow took me months before I could get on a bus. I just felt completely lacking confidence. I remember trembling as I paid the driver and sat down; my daughter was dead and I was on a bus. It sounds ridiculous, but it was my reality.
I heard from a couple of friends, bereaved mothers, in different parts of the country, who received hospital treatment recently. Both – completely unconnected – told how emotional they were to be in hospital, and sadly both had accounts of being treated insensitively on occasion. The emotions of grief can make any experience more difficult. I remember sinking in that feeling of helplessness when I had my knee and kidney surgeries in 2015, and I also recall the kindness of the assistant in the pre-op room who held my hand and listened.
Kindness is powerful. It is not that someone can take away our grief. It is not that they can magically make us feel stronger in ourselves. But kindness gives us a safe space. A safe space is what we need when we are so vulnerable.
When you’re feeling vulnerable in your grief, there are a few things that seem to help.
Being open and honest about what we’re experiencing:
People often don’t know what has happened in our lives or realise how it’s still affecting us. As hard as it can be, it is important that we tell the people around us when we’re struggling.
When Catherine died, I had a writing and editing contract with an overseas publisher. All our interaction was via email. I was supposed to get a certain amount of work done every month. I took a month off – it was impossible to work – then gradually started to do what was required, which was a financial necessity for me. A couple of months later, I mentioned in an email to my manager that I was struggling to keep up with my work because of the death of my daughter. She wrote back in surprise, something on the lines of, “I hadn’t realised you were still grieving.”
Duh! You might think. My daughter had died. Barely 3 months had passed. What did she expect? But being young and inexperienced with the deeper things of life, she just didn’t get it. It was up to me to tell it like it was.
Accepting help when it’s offered:
If we’re someone who people usually go to when they need a listening ear or a strong shoulder and/or if we’re someone who usually manages their own problems in private, it can feel like a defeat to accept help. What’s happened to me, we might wonder. I’ve always been so on top of things and now I’m like a ball of jelly.
It won’t always be like this. We do gain strength as we walk the grief journey, but when we’re at our most vulnerable, we should accept at least consider accepting help that is offered. The help could be company, someone to listen to us; it could be practical; it could be accepting an easier slot at work, or the offer of time off. It could be somebody who gives our home a once-over with the hoover, or picks up our children from school, or takes the dog for a walk.
Watching out that we don’t get “pushed around”:
The trouble with being vulnerable is that it means what it says. We are vulnerable to salespeople, to pushy friends who think they know what’s best for us, to relatives who want us to make decisions before we’re ready.
Some decisions when we’re bereaved do have to be made soon – things like funeral arrangements. But many others can be taken slowly and in our own time. If we can slow it down, let’s do so. Generally it’s best to avoid making major decisions while we’re in a particularly low or emotional state. Many people advise waiting a year or two after a major loss before making major moves, like changing job or house, but it’s not always possible to delay that long. But where we can, I’d suggest we take the time we need and not let other people’s opinions or sales talks sway us too much.
Entering the safe spaces:
Finding safe spaces – times and places where we can be ourselves and relax – is vital.
Safe spaces can be with people who care and will not take advantage of us. You know the type of friend with whom you can sit in companionable silence? They’re not expecting anything. We can just be.
Sometimes the safe space is by ourselves. Not lonely, but in solitude, taking care of own well-being. It could be listening to music. Having a walk. Watching the birds. Star-gazing. Painting or doing some craft activity. Curling up in a blanket on the sofa and watching TV.
As we walk on the journey of grief, our emotional muscles get stronger, and eventually we come to a place where we’re not so vulnerable. Even so, other events may set us back at times – an illness, subsequent bereavements in the family, loss of job, problems with our benefits, even something mundane like the washing machine packing up.
But gradually, step-by-step, we find our feet again. Instead of vulnerability there is resilience.
“The weaker I get, the stronger I become.” (Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:10 MSG)