“There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.”Adrienne Rich
Grief can be a very lonesome or private experience. It isn’t necessarily evident to the onlooker and so often people say inane and unhelpful things such as, “time heals everything” or, “he/she died doing what they loved” or the ever popular, “he/she had a good innings”. None of it helps, even though there may be a grain of truth within these phrases that are often trotted out when we find ourselves uncomfortable in the presence of grief. While we look the same physically, our inner world can be chaotic, with a roller coaster of unfamiliar or painful emotions.
Some people are not comfortable with other people’s untidy emotions and yet, anyone who is grieving knows how unpredictable the emotions around grief can be. People may be so uncomfortable with conversations around grief that they’d rather cross the road than encounter someone who’s grieving. This tends to exacerbate our feelings of isolation. This behaviour is often due to people’s fears around death and dying.
Our grief is often more difficult on those special days of the year – birthdays, anniversaries or Christmas – when our grief may be in sharp contrast with other people’s experience or expectations. We grieve again at the birth of a child, a marriage, a celebration when we mourn the absence of a loved-one no longer physically present in our lives; that that person is not here to celebrate, commiserate, acknowledge, share or witness an important family event. We may sometimes find ourselves yearning to be reunited with our loved-one who’s died.
Grief can spring out of drawers and cupboards, off shelves, from photographs, waft to our nostrils upon a perfume, is precipitated by music, clutches at our heart, hollows out our insides and plummets us to our depths.
Even when we know someone will ultimately die from their disease, their death comes as a shock. There are no easy ways to accommodate ourselves to the enormity of having loved – and lost that love. Grief is the cost of love.
We don’t get ‘over’ grief as if it were a surmountable obstacle. We can become more comfortable with our discomfort but there is no finite time for grief as there is no finite time for love. Grief is often a private affair that others cannot share or perhaps even understand.
The physicality of grief
We can sometimes feel like the most important part of us is missing and nothing makes sense, given the absence of our loved one.
Our heart can indeed feel like it’s breaking, and many people describe a sense of feeling ‘amputated’ – as if a part of them has been severed.
Another little known or understood aspect of this physical aspect of grief is that it is not uncommon for people to have the physical symptoms that their departed loved-one experienced during an illness or trauma. Respiratory illnesses, headaches or migraines, aching bones or physical pain in the same body area that our loved-one experienced their discomfort is often the cause of people having all sorts of tests to find a diagnosis or gain relief.
It’s always worthy of deeper exploration when a physical symptom is present to see whether an anniversary, birthday or other special occasion may be contributing to the experience.
There’s no right way to grieve
Members of a family often react very differently to the loss of a loved one. Some people want solitude while other people won’t want to be alone. Some people want to talk about a loved-one while others may find conversations too difficult. Some people become oversensitive to everything while others are oblivious to all but their own thoughts and feelings.
Christmas can evoke powerful memories of past family gatherings regardless of whether they were happy or difficult occasions.
Many families struggle to relate happily to one another at Christmas-time and this can compound our grief in unexpected ways. Being prepared for this is important, rather than just hoping that things will be OK. Getting caught ‘off guard’ compounds our feelings of grief, so setting aside time to consider how we might traverse these days more consciously can assist us to be as comfortable with our discomfort as possible.
It’s not enough to hope that ‘things go well’; we need to plan how we will acknowledge anniversaries and special celebrations or times of the year.
The first Christmas after a loved one dies is often traumatic as the empty space that person filled in our lives simply gapes at us. However, it’s very common for the second, third or subsequent Christmases to be difficult or devastating as we fully comprehend the consequences of our lost love.
Things that ‘fluff’ you up
One of the most helpful sessions in our Living With Grief program involves people identifying the behaviours, the environments and the things that they do or have in their lives that give them a strong sense of peace, contentment or connection with themselves.
Participants list things like being in nature, fresh flowers, listening to or making music, an honest talk to a real friend, warm baths, massage, support groups or counseling, prayer, meditation, rituals, dancing, singing, perfumes, candlelight, aromatherapy, bushwalking, the company of pets, small children, friends or family, visiting special places that are meaningful, keeping a journal, having a good cry, painting, hobbies, craftwork, exercise, yoga or being in the garden.
Increasing the number of these activities – or the ones that we find individually useful – around Christmas or other potentially challenging days, can be helpful in minimising distress.
Scheduling time for ourselves
This is often quite difficult with the busyness of Christmas. However, making some of these activities a priority in the lead up to this time can be very helpful. Scheduling in some time for ourselves so that we can express our sadness, disbelief, anger or frustration, can be more effective than it coming out in less helpful ways, such as reactive language or behaviours.
Making time for tears or for sadness gives us greater capacity to respond to other people, rather than saying or doing things that we might later regret.
It’s wise to minimise alcohol or illicit drug consumption when we’re grieving, as it masks – and therefore prolongs – our feelings of grief. Alcohol also interferes with healthy sleep. The stupor or numbness that alcohol, or other drugs, cause can provide us with a sense of oblivion, but we don’t access healthy, regenerative and refreshing sleep.
Exercise is perhaps one of the most useful activities to maintain or increase when you’re grieving. It gets the chemistry of our emotions moving in our bodies and avoids these stress chemicals interfering with the functioning of our immune system. Going for a regular walk or swim or finding exercise that feels right for you is a really helpful habit to maintain or develop.
For those with hips or knees that don’t tolerate a lot of physical exercise, I can recommend mini-trampolines – or rebounders – that are low impact and don’t require us to leave the comfort of our own home. Putting on some music and gently bouncing for 10 minutes, without even leaving the mat, is effective in toning up the whole body and is great for your lymphatic system which requires muscular activity to function well.
Time for reflection
Setting aside time for reflection to honour the relationship we’ve lost, or writing to the person, can be helpful. Visiting the cemetery or a favourite shared place in the lead up to Christmas or doing something that you both enjoyed previously can assist people with their feelings of grief while for others creating a new way of experiencing Christmas might be appropriate. Perhaps consider changing the food you traditionally eat or the venue, e.g. perhaps a picnic in the park rather than a formal sit-down meal, or have your usual Christmas lunch in a restaurant to take the pressure off having to produce the traditional Christmas meal.
Delegate wherever possible so that all preparations are shared rather than you being under pressure to ‘do’ Christmas, as you may have always done it in the past. Grief can be a great catalyst for change too, so don’t cling desperately to traditions that may now no longer be relevant or needed.
Opening Christmas gifts at a different time or changing our usual routine can create a new way of experiencing this time together. Keeping a candle lit by a photo of our loved one. Or, perhaps the children can create a special decoration or a flower arrangement in the person’s memory can help us acknowledge their continuing presence in our life, even though they are physically absent. Many people create a special ‘toast’ to their absent loved-one as a way of honouring their memory.
The key is to set aside time to acknowledge our feelings of grief and to consciously plan how we will spend this time together rather than just hoping that we ‘get through it’.
Quest’s resources for grief support
If your loved-one has died from an illness, you may find Petrea’s book, Sometimes Hearts Have to Break of benefit. It contains 25 stories of people who share what they (and Petrea) learned through contemplating their mortality. Many people who are grieving have found that it helps them to understand themselves and their grief more deeply.
People who are impacted by grief may also find another of Petrea’s books helpful, Your Life Matters. Your Life Matters is the book (also on CD) that underpins all of Quest’s 5-day residential programs.
Living with Grief is a useful online program for people living with the consequences of grief. It’s delivered over four modules aimed at assisting people living with loss who want to find a way to navigate life through the process of grief. There are easy-to-implement practices and evidence-based information that can make a significant difference to improving your quality of life as well as restoring a sense of meaning and purpose.
- Healing Your Life: A nurturing 5-day residential program for people living with challenging emotions and who want to heal the past, build resilience for a better future, and live more in the present moment..
- Living with Grief: Grief can be a bleak and lonely place. The workshop Living with Grief can shed light in the darkness and help you find a pathway forward. Living with Grief is a weekend program.
If you would like to know more about our programs and workshops at the Quest for Life Centre, please visit www.questforlife.org.au or call 1300 941 488 to speak to one of our Program Advisors.