Grief. A very small word for such a very big and difficult subject. The annual Grief Awareness Week has just finished providing a much needed opportunity for conversations and guiding people to the many resources and help available.
It’s an understatement to say that grief has done good business this year. But there is no measurement of less or more grief one year over another for any individual. It’s grief. The long relentless road of trying to learn to live with a loss.
Some time ago I had the good fortune to meet Julia Samuel OBE, a grief counsellor with expertise in child bereavement and family counselling. She had then just published a book “Grief Works”, a beautiful compilation of different stories of people in very different circumstances dealing with grief.
As I spoke with her the thing I couldn’t begin to comprehend was how she was able to manage the enormous, surely overwhelming, responsibility of effectively holding a family together whilst she supported them through their worst nightmare.
She has decades of experience and expertise. To some extent it was about putting in place well rehearsed coping mechanisms as well as the deep psychological and emotional understanding she has that grief is a process, not bounded by time or short circuited by a change in circumstance.
Subsequently I felt it was about her being able to face grief head on, and get right in amongst it for those she was supporting as yet unable to begin to develop their relationship with it. She knew the way and that enabled her to be fearless.
None of us wants a relationship with grief. Even at arms’ length supporting someone we know and love going through it. From writing a letter, to attending a service, or popping round with a lasagne, other people’s grief is almost worse than the prospect of our own. We don’t want to offend, get in the way, disturb whatever process is unfolding.
The great British stiff upper lip so often stops us from getting stuck in. As well as the keep calm and carry on mantra that enables so many to get through so much. It’s too easy to downplay. Fear – of failure, of the unknown, of causing offence, or just plain cold, dark fear, plays such a big role in grief, for those grieving and for those alongside them.
How everyone gets to their own point of acceptance is totally different. Someone I know has regular lunches with a local acquaintance. As members of the same club I think they feel able to share confidences in a way they can’t or don’t want to with other friends or family. I know it has helped. Another person attends bereavement coffee mornings organised by the local hospice. Having been very wary of going to start with, it has been cathartic and informative, in part because it is a room full of strangers. There has always been some comfort in that.
There is joy somewhere in grief. I wasn’t so sure in the aftermath of Mum’s death, but I now know it to be true. These days it comes increasingly in wide-screen, 5 flavours, all senses, full technicolour memories that definitely aren’t sad. Perhaps some of the fear and grief has shape-shifted to give space for this to happen?
At the start of the year, I went to a 10 year anniversary memorial service. The contrast in the church and afterwards a decade apart was extraordinary. What had been a desperate monotone, cold and utterly miserable day had given way to a full colour celebration of life. It was life affirming, funny and warm. Of course it didn’t take away from the fact that our friend had died far too young and he is no longer here. But somehow we had navigated and shape-shifted around the void of grief. It was a relief, and a recognition that “this too shall pass” is true.
Everyone needs to find their own way through. Fortunately there is extraordinary help at hand in many guises along the way. There is everything and nothing to be frightened of.
Resources you might find useful:
Annabel James is founder of Age Space. Her views are her own.