© Helen Creagh for Auckland Therapy Blog, 27 November 2018
Grief is more ordinary and more common that most of us might imagine. There were 33,339 recorded deaths in New Zealand in 2017. If, conservatively, each of those people had four close friends and family members, that’s about 133,000 people. If, for argument’s sake, we imagine the most painful stages of grief occur in the two years following a loss, we can double that figure. So, in New Zealand on any given day, there may be about 265,000 actively grieving people.
Human beings are designed to manage loss. Otherwise we could not endure the many deaths we will experience before our own. Nevertheless, response to and rituals for death are highly acculturated; we mourn in the context of the society we live in. In my view, pākehā New Zealanders, and other westerners, don’t make it easy to traverse the commonplace, yet exquisitely painful experience of mourning. We seem to favour denial; we have a funeral and a week later, it’s meant to be business as usual. Some of my clients are surprised when months or even years after a bereavement, they are struggling.
Mourning is a process; its healthy conclusion is adaptation. Adaptation does not mean closure, there is not an end to the pain of loss, but we are better able to accommodate the loss and the pain becomes less significant as we find a new way of living
William Worden identifies four important tasks of grief. He uses the word tasks because there is no set ‘way’ to grieve; people may proceed through these tasks concurrently or they may go backwards and forwards in the process.
The first task is to accept the reality of the loss. It is normal to experience feelings of numbness and disbelief after the death of a loved one, particularly a sudden or unexpected death. It seems unreal. Some people may imagine they see their loved one or may even convince themselves that the person is coming back, for example keeping their room ‘ready’ for them.
Funerals generally help friends and relatives to come to terms with the reality of a loss, particularly on an intellectual level but often it is the emotional reality of losing a loved one that takes longer to navigate; our systems of relational attachment, developed over years or decades, take time to adjust. There may be an increase in dreaming and repetitive dreams as we experience this change.
Processing the pain of the loss is the second task of grief. This can be a common place to get ‘stuck’, particularly because there is little social tolerance (in western cultures) for expressing our difficult feelings. Socially we favour denial of pain; when people express feelings, they are stigmatised as weak or smothered with the ‘get on with it’ type of ‘kindness’ that does not make space for emotional processing. Furthermore, a grieving person may feel a much broader range of emotions than those around them anticipate. While sadness and regret might be expected, supporters might have little tolerance for understanding anger, guilt or relief.
The third task involves adjustment to life without the loved one. There are external adjustments, the more obvious changes required to, for example, manage finances, new family roles, social engagements, household chores and so on. When a partner dies, for example, the person who lives on may need to learn new skills, as well as continuing with their own responsibilities. The challenges of this can be significant, particularly when these new functions are a constant reminder of the loss.
There are also internal adjustments to make; the loss of a loved one means we must redefine ourselves (as a single person or only child, an orphan, a widow and so on). A redefinition is not only often unexpected but commonly unwanted. This can have serious implications for our self-esteem and sense of self-efficacy (our sense of competence and control). We may face questions about ourselves that we never imagined or worse, may have feared. Belief systems maybe shaken, the mourner may lose a sense that the world is benevolent, that they are worthy of this goodness and that the world makes sense. The mourner may feel helpless and inadequate, as if everything they once believed and understood was wrong.
The final task is to find an enduring way to connect to the loved one while embarking on a new life. As mentioned above, this is nothing like closure; a healthy mourning process maintains connection to those we have loved and transforms the qualities of the relationship into our new way of living. We can continue to love and celebrate the deceased, to value and honour their influence, incorporating them into our present and future ways of being.
Getting stuck in the process of grief can have serious consequences for our mental and physical health. It is not uncommon to get stuck when we don’t understand normal grief and we are surrounded by a society that expects us to ‘just keep going’.
Although society may favour and reinforce denial of our losses, our minds and our bodies need to pass through the tasks of grief, if not, depression and even some physical illnesses may emerge. If you or someone close to you is struggling with grief, then working with a therapist may be the way forward.
The ideas presented here are based on the writing of J. William Worden, 1983, Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy, Routledge.