Grief: Moving with Death rather than Overcoming it
When someone close to us dies, our sense of normality is altered forever because our normality is a world in which we had that person. Sadness then over-floods our systems as our brains search for why something so terrible has happened. As we slow down and take time to reflect, we might come up with some reasons such as ‘they lived a good life’ or ‘they had nothing left to give’. But what about when it’s your young sister to a car crash? Your child to cancer? Your wife to suicide? Religion's explanation: 'God works in mysterious ways' but for most, that’s just not good enough reasoning. The emotion of grief is extremely difficult. There is no doubting that. In fact, research has demonstrated that while rare, both partners and parents have died from a broken heart as a result of bereavement. Unfortunately, we cannot answer the philosophy of why death happens but we can guide you through bereavement.
A good place to start is our trusty ally of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT posits that we cannot control a situation such as death but we can manage how we think about it and we can have helpful or unhelpful thoughts. Common unhelpful thoughts during bereavement might include self blame such as ‘it’s all my fault, I should have done more’, exaggerating the present moment such as ‘I’m never going to be ok again’ and/or victimising yourself such as ‘why does this always happen me. My life is terrible’. These are all frequent, but also unhelpful. They do not help the situation or your ability to become who you want to be. These then lead to unhelpful behaviours such as avoiding people, not doing anything and holding in those thoughts and difficult emotions. So instead, we want to consciously think helpfully. In a situation of bereavement, while difficult and sometimes beyond belief, helpful thoughts are that you will be ok eventually, it’s not your fault and most importantly, sometimes negative stuff like death has to happen. The latter thought demonstrates that it’s not always about thinking positively but helpfully. The idea that negative stuff has to happen because the world is uncontrollable is not appealing, but it does help recovery.
Rather than being the desired result of guilt, acceptance is actually something we can practice, even in the absence of bereavement. Acceptance is an emotion regulation strategy that involves the welcoming of negative emotions into our lives rather than the need to change or push them away. And this isn’t alien to us. Remember the sob fests with Ben Jerry’s, terrible rom coms and Coldplay after our first break up? This is a prime example of acceptance. Rather than trying to act like everything is fine, own up to your sadness and embrace it.
Not repression or problem solving but talking
What does not help when grieving is repression and problem solving. The former involves acting like nothing is wrong and trying to go back to normal straight away. This is ignoring what your brain is asking us to do and as the hormones and altered brain chemistry builds up within you, the result is an explosion of unwanted thoughts, behaviours and feelings.
We have an emotional right brain with no language and a linguistic and logical left brain. When someone dies, our emotional right brain is lighting up, experiencing pain and cannot understand why. When we communicate this pain with others, we help our left brain articulate what has happened. Then over time, the left brain communicates this information back to the right brain and we have brain integration. This is why talking is so important.
Doing stuff you enjoy and finding meaning
The biggest aid to grief is time. If we pursue the veins of our existence (in my case, talking to people you have no interest in), then time is perceived as slower. Nonetheless, giving yourself the benefit of the doubt and doing the stuff you had wanted to do for years, such as meeting that friend, eating ice cream or travelling might help. The reason being that if we’re engaged with stuff we like, our perception of time goes quicker. This, combined with giving your brain time to reflect on the death might start to guide you to new meaning. Once this new meaning is there, it’s about organisation and slowly integrating back into a routine without your loved one. It doesn’t have to be perfect and will involve set backs, but the goal is long term progression.
So CBT, acceptance, slowing down, talking, meaning and routine. All helpful tips but I’ll finish an one last important point. Jordan Peterson notes that one should aim to be the person who can offer support to others after a close one has died. This can be easily misinterpreted. This does not mean we repress to show a strong facade in front of others. It’s in fact the opposite. It is an aim to works towards rather than something you rush into. Work on yourself to then help others. If you can achieve footing on the road towards recovery, you unconsciously help those around you because you give them hope. There’s no set time, nor single way to do it, but there are helpful steps noted above to move forward. Grief is not something we move on from. It’s something that we move forward with. We can look back at the past with nostalgia but we can’t live in it. Therefore, we must create a new normal. Once that is accomplished, the pain of the loss will always remain, but we learn to adapt, to grow and to live with it.
Yours Sincerely, The Motus Movement