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Strong Minds – Managing grief

Join us on Instagram every Tuesday throughout March as TV presenter, host of the ‘Only Human’ Podcast and talking therapist Jeff Brazier, and former Scottish International and Harlequins rugby player Tim Visser discuss a variety of issues in our new series #StrongMinds.

Each week, Jeff will be sharing his thoughts here to give further information and context to the topics discussed during the session.

Episode Three – Managing grief

Another Mother’s Day, another special occasion, another day when our loss becomes abundantly obvious and there’s nothing we can do to avoid the uncomfortable reminder, that special person is not here anymore.

Coping around these milestones is difficult but if you were to reflect on your Mother’s Day experience:

  • Did you dare to show emotion?
  • Did you comfort someone and allow yourself to be supported?
  • Did you say their name out loud?
  • Did you speak to them wherever they are or share a memory or wish?
  • Did you look at a picture or listen to a particular song?
  • Did you sit patiently, holding and accepting the discomfort?

Maybe instead you avoided the thought of them? Distracted yourself or pretended you were ok when you wasn’t? Were you unkind to yourself or did you tell yourself you should feel differently? Did you snap at someone because you they didn’t appreciate what you were going through? Were you angry at people for celebrating their Mums?

Your answers to these questions will likely dictate where you are on the scale of grief and loss. It wouldn’t be uncommon for us to completely reject Mother’s Day if our loss was recent, and if we’re no stranger to these occasions then whilst it’ll always be hard, we might be more inclined to ‘celebrate’ our loved ones life because we’ve arrived at a point of acceptance.

I do, however, reject the popular notion that ‘time is a healer’. I think time just does what it does but we, and our habits in grief, are the difference as to how we’re feeling in anniversaries to come. Short term discomfort generally compounds comfort in the long term and vice versa, so I’ve compiled some more key areas below that can also greatly influence our transition through grief.

The following headings form a few of the chapters of my book ‘The Grief Survival Guide’, so as you can imagine they contain small examples of what you would find from each chapter.

Can we avoid the pain?

No and nor should we try to, although we’re pretty much wired to do exactly that. Suppression is like an emotional debt that you’re going to have to pay at some point so honest expression in the moment is the way.

I use the ‘wave’ metaphor to describe how grief works. Like the sea it is relentless but if we are brave enough to face the waves so we can see one coming instead of turning our back and hoping that the waves somehow stop, we find they don’t carry the same level of impact.

To continue the metaphor we eventually learn to go to the beach with a change of clothes, a towel and appropriate swimwear. We’ve learnt that the waves don’t stop but they do reduce in size and we might one day even enjoy the water trickling around our toes because it means we’re remembering what we once had.

The worst thing would be if grief didn’t tap us on the shoulder – in its absence what would actually remind us of what we had? Would we just move on without giving them any thought? It only hurts because they were special.

Granting Permission to others

A sadly regular occurrence is thinking that if someone is upset we shouldn’t bring up the thing that’s hurting them. In grief this promotes a culture of denial and denies the person the opportunity to name how they feel which they may not feel ready to volunteer but would answer to if asked.

What may feel insensitive is often exactly what’s needed to give someone the opportunity to offload. In fact, when they’ve expressed how they feel to you they will inevitable feel much better for it so it’s all to gain.

I’ve spoken to many people who’ve told me how their family gets together on special occasions following a loss, only to sit there and not say a word about this loss for fear of upsetting someone they love. Just for perspective can you imagine if you were able to look down on your family from heaven and see that you didn’t get a mention? You’d be gutted!

How do we heal?

As I alluded to above, time doesn’t take care of it, grief is a long winding path that zig- zags and goes back and forth rather than the straight line through stages that people imagine it might be. Healing is aided by the honest admission of what you actually feel, when you feel it.

Grief is like having our own in-built pressure cylinder that if we share and express will always remain at a sustainable level. If we don’t let a little pressure off it’ll inevitably build and there will be a danger of exploding which in real terms can manifest in a number of undesirable emotional and physical issues.

The ability to give yourself what you need when you need it is important. It’s important to have the ability to accept that things are going to be different and you will feel emotional from time to time, but to accept that this is ok. Grief is hard enough without the need for us to make it any harder on ourselves by getting in our own way.

I often talk about the difference between dictating ourselves to grief and grief happening to us. When we learn to use triggers to welcome thoughts and feelings towards the person we have lost we can at times exert some choice as to when and how these emotional moments happen.

The theory is that you’ll have released the buildup of emotion and therefore might be able to go for a period of time without fearing grief’s tap on the shoulder. Sometimes the anticipation of when you’ll next get upset is worse than the actual event itself.

How can we support others?

We can tie ourselves in knots about the words we should or shouldn’t say, not realising that words can be pretty useless to someone who is bereaved. What people need is practical help in the early stages – things like buying them some shopping so they have the basics, or putting the bins out for them if you’re a neighbour.

With grief, we get the ‘which words’ debate mostly back to front in that ‘listeners’ are a priceless commodity when you have much to share, so asking a bereaved person how they’re feeling is as simple as it needs to be and if they’re ready they’ll offload. Don’t worry about your response, you don’t need to be a grief councillor, the fact you allowed them to talk means you’ve done everything they need you to do.

There are some incredibly insensitive things people can say like ‘she’s in a better place’ or ‘it’s ok you can always try again’ but as long as you aren’t allowing awkwardness to automatically select the phrase that you are telling yourself NOT to say, you’ll be ok with a simple ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or ‘if there’s anything you need I’m here for you’.

Strength in loss

This one is important. We mistake the ability to stop ourselves from letting on how we’re doing as some sort of strength in loss. Maybe in wartime when focus needed to be maintained but in peaceful times, no. That habit or behaviour is totally normal but while it serves to fool ourselves into thinking we’re ‘getting away with it’, in reality we’re not.

In more extreme cases whole families are limited and restricted by the inflexibility of certain family members who just won’t allow the discussion of grief around them. It means nobody else can express honestly in their company and it’s terribly detrimental.

Strength in loss is to let it out, name it, allow the negative emotions to exist because that’s the reality. Not a reality you want nor asked for, but it’s all you’ve got and faced with courage, the only pain you’ll experience is the pain of loss. With denial and suppression you’re adding layers of complications that you don’t need.

Preparing for the worst

If you have a loved one who is life limited it’s possible to start grieving before the person has actually died. This is known as anticipatory grief. I think it’s a lesson for us to all adhere to, even if our family members are all in good health, but creating opportunities to make memories or having certain conversations so no words are left unsaid is something we should consider so that we don’t have any guilt for what we should or shouldn’t have done while we had the chance.

Some people are predisposed to creating opportunities to self-sabotage, choosing to blame themselves which can often be a mechanism adopted to avoid the actual pain of grief while opting for a pain that they can at least control.

I would advise that if you know you’re losing someone, collate as many comforts as you can. Is that a video of the person talking? A special trip to a place you can revisit for years to come? Maybe you request an item of clothing, a sweater that you can turn to whenever you’re feeling the loss.

What do kids need?

Firstly a grieving person needs to be allowed to share their grief, to ask their questions, to be encouraged and not dissuaded. With children, I always recommend that teachers are informed of a way for the child to communicate with them if they are feeling sad and need to leave the class to go and talk to someone. This can be as simple as giving the teacher a signal so the child’s reason for leaving the class isn’t made obvious.

Parents are encouraged to be role models in grief, and to be honest about how they’re doing, even if they’re not doing so well. Children will learn that if it’s ok for you to do that, then they know it’s ok for them to do the same. My biggest advice to parents is to not to put too much pressure on yourself to make everything ok all of the time, as I tried to do for at least a decade.

It might not feel like it for quite some time but things do find their way so please trust that. You’ll do a better job if you accept that you don’t have to be the constant solution and that it’s good to accept that sometimes we’re helpless and will feel unsalvageable.

In summary, the truth about special occasions is that they are no different to any other day except for the inconvenience of being exposed to the reality of your loss. If we get mad at the occasion it suggests we have allowed our grief to be swept under the rug and if we were more regular with our conversations about the person we’ve lost, would these days subsequently become easier? This is something to think about.

If you’ve been impacted by grief wish to support someone who has, the following organisations can all help:

#StrongMinds will run at 8pm every Tuesday evening throughout March on Instagram @DavidLloydUK, or you can catch up via IGTV.

You can read Part 1 of this series, Transitioning out of lockdown, here.

You can read Part 2 of this series, Self validation, here.

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