There is no such a thing as the proper way to grieve. Grieving is not formulaic. It can’t be reduced to a pattern of behaviour. So it is unwise to classify certain kinds of grief as normal and others abnormal.
Research suggests that there are some broad similarities among grievers. Within these contours each person finds his or her own way. Let us revisit some of the characteristic contours of grief.
Grief is universal:
Grief is a universal experience. When we experience loss, we experience grief. It is a natural process that affects us all. Whatever race, colour or creed, we are all effected when we lose someone or something dear to us.
In a recent interview, author Naja Marie Aidt speaks about the tragic loss of her 25-year-old son Carl, who jumped from the fifth floor of an apartment in Copenhagen. Although not a regular drug user, he and a friend had been experimenting with magic mushrooms.
Naja Marie Aidt describes how the shock and trauma of his death brought her life to a standstill. She says,
‘I could hardly write. I had a feeling that I lost my language. I stopped reading, I stopped writing. I stopped listening to music. I stopped basically everything.’
Time stands still and in that single moment your world is changed forever. Your understanding of how life works is messed up. As Naja Marie Aidt says,
‘Everything you thought you understood––you don’t get it anymore. And the world keeps going and you’re just sitting there in darkness.’
It is eight years and eight months since our son Adam died. I remember thinking at the time, ‘How can I go on living when something so overwhelming has taken a hold of me?’ I felt bound to an unthinkable moment in time. I questioned my ability to function, to manage the practicalities of life.
Adam’s death was a defining moment, a line drawn in the sand. The future loomed as something uncertain, forever tainted by the unimagineable. Time ceased to exist. At some point it would require rebooting.
In James Runcie‘s book ‘A Road to Grantchester’ Sir Cecil and Lady Kendall mourn the loss of their son Robert who was greatly admired by all. He was killed in combat during World War II. Their grief runs deep. They appear to be stuck in time.
The grandfather clock is a reminder of their loss. It stands as a timeless monument, honouring the moment they were told their son wouldn’t be returning home.
The grandfather clock is no longer ticking. Lady Kendall sees Sidney notice. ‘We didn’t stop it deliberately. We just don’t have the heart to wind it up.’
Grief is personal:
Although it is a universal experience, no two people grieve the same, even in the same family. Grief counsellor, David Kessler says,
‘Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint.’David Kessler
Like a snowflake or a fingerprint, each person’s grief has characteristics all its own. Some people are expressive, some are not. Some have more feelings, some have less. Some are more productive and practical in their grieving style. Some would prefer to move on.
Whatever our lived experience of grief, it has value. It provides insight into how we handled the loss. In circumstances where the loss was unexpected and devastating, it speaks of our courage. It offers a first-hand account of how we navigated the shifting emotions. It shows how we adapted to the ‘new normal.’ It details the support given and how helpful it was.
Grief is a journey, a road with many twists and turns and the occasional dead-end. Sometimes we meet fellow travellers who put into words what we know to be true. Their words become an affirmation, providing assurance we are not lost.
Naja Marie Aidt describes the moment she was told of her son’s death. The telephone rang and then the news. My first response was to howl, like an animal.
I could identify with the primal nature of her grief. When I was told that Adam had taken his life I wept uncontrollably. The tears came from a reservoir, deep within my being. There was no way of supressing the outpouring of emotion. I gave in to my grief.
Grief can be isolating:
Grief is often a private affair. Author Meghan O’Rourke lost her mother to cancer on Christmas Day 2008. She says,
‘We still think of grieving as something to be done alone – which only intensifies its isolation.’
The pace of modern living prohibits a purposeful engagement with grief. As author Ann Pratchet says,
‘We don’t have enough time to deal with our grief. We’re almost embarrassed by grief.’
This is how it is in the workplace. You are offered three days off after a loved one dies and then everyone expects you to carry on like nothing happened. You realise your well-meaning work colleages are uncertain how to respond. They are reluctant to raise the matter, fearing it might cause further distress. You are left to determine how to integrate your grief into your working life.
When I returned to work after Adam’s death I sensed that people cared but were unsure what to say. As a consequence most of my work colleagues never raised the subject. There was no formal process by which grief could be shared.
Instead, the grieving person is encouraged to put on a brave face, to hide their emotion, to internalise their sorrow, to ‘muscle through it’ and press on.
What is often forgotten or overlooked is that people who are grieving need connection. Meghan O’Rourke addresses this issue. She says,
‘I believe in the importance of individuality, but in the midst of grief I also find myself wanting connection – wanting to be reminded that the sadness I feel is not just mine but ours.’Meghan O’Rourke
People who are hurting need to feel that they are not alone. They share a need for their grief to be witnessed. As David Kessler says,
‘People who are grieving need to feel their grief acknowledged and reflected by others.’
They need to know that the magnitude of their loss is recognised. They definitely don’t need someone trying to reframe it for them, or pointing out something positive in the situation.
The act of witnessing someone’s vulnerability can bring the person out of isolation if the witnessing is done without judgment.
Grief can be transformative:
Many people look for “closure” after a loss. David Kessler argues that it’s finding meaning beyond the stages of grief most of us are familiar with—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—that can transform grief into a more peaceful and hopeful experience.
As a result of her son’s death, Naja Marie Aidt could see that she had completely changed as a human being, as a person, and maybe also as a writer. She realised that the recovery process could not be rushed and may even take forever. So it was important she learn to ‘live in the grief.’ She sums up her focus going forward in these words:
‘There was a deep need to find a way to create something meaningful out of the complete meaningless.’Naja Marie Aidt
Meghan O’Rourke is committed to keeping the memory of her mother alive. She does this by living in honour of her. She says,
‘I try to keep her death close to mind as a way of thinking about what really matters. It keeps me focussed on what is important.’
People who have had loved ones die by suicide can sometimes find meaning in the loss—and a new purpose in life—by helping others who are struggling with the same grief.
Hope For Tomorrow commenced in 2011 as a peer support group for people who had lost a friend or loved one to suicide. We were a small group of ‘survivors’ (survivors of suicide-loss) trying to make sense of our personal chaos, searching for a way through the darkness.
There was no need for secrecy. We could openly share our feelings no matter their intensity, without fear of being judged.
Hope For Tomorrow believes HOPE is central to our survival. As David Kessler says,
‘Hope can be like oxygen to people in grief.’David Kessler
Hope is the only legitimate pathway to transformation.