I lost a close relative recently. She lived a long and fulfilled life, most of which was conducted very much on her terms.
Strangely, for someone who was determined to be at the centre of every glamorous and fun event, this 97-year-old lady left this world so easily and so soundlessly that those lovely carers in her room preparing her for bed didn’t even notice. They went to tuck her up and she was gone. What an ending and what a lucky way to go!
I and three other members of the group had been preparing for this particular ending for a number of years. I had experienced other losses over the years – some of which saddened me and some of which left me with such a hole in my heart that I thought it would never mend – but this was a major one.
In a sense, I was also lucky because of my years of experience working as a bereavement counsellor. I had some idea of what to expect.
Most of us know by now of what are described the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, even that’s not quite what it seems.
The research, by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, was actually about people who were themselves dying, not people experiencing the death of a loved one. There is a difference.
The stages make more sense if you understand this is about the person at the centre of the story. The person who is dying. Bargaining in that case becomes clear. We’ve all done it in less important circumstances. But, if you are the person who has lost a loved one, no amount of bargaining can get that beloved back. The ending is final.
Understanding that – and remembering that the stages are not linear – it becomes easier to adapt these stages of grief to one’s own process. Denial – disbelief that the person is dead; Anger – it was so sudden, I had no idea, how could they do this to me; Depression – I can’t bear it, I’m lost, how will I manage without them? I can’t go on; Acceptance – they’ve gone, that’s it, now I have to go on with my life and nothing I can do or feel or plead for will bring them back.
These are only a few thoughts and are mine alone. Your own grieving process is unique to you and you will have your own internal conversations. Again, bear in mind there is not a specific time frame for these conversations to take place, nor a formal way of grieving. We may one day accept our loved one has gone while the next day we wake up in a fury at what’s happened or a sense of disbelief that it has. And so it goes until at some point later down the line, we find the pain of mourning is shifting and lifting and, little by little, an ability to find joy in life returns.
We all grieve differently. And, of course, it depends on the age of the person we have lost. You can mourn a 97-year-old for the loss of them in your life but it’s not the same as when someone younger leaves this world. There is a sense then of what might have been and the deep sadness of the loss of a future. And when a child goes, well, that is unbearable.
It feels strange to observe how we all mourn differently. My own loss is different from the other three relatives who are also most affected. One – the favourite – is bereft. They cannot bear to hear someone tell them they were lucky to be the best beloved for 75 years. The bond was so close there was no room for anyone else. They never married or had their own children. They have others they could turn to but they don’t want that. They want her back and for it to be just as it was.
The middle two are grieving in their own ways. The second mourner is just as they always were, elusive, impenetrable and avoidant. They may telephone and start talking, only to pause with an “anyway” before abruptly ending the conversation. The avoidant is always keen not to go there if there’s any emotional pain involved. I imagine they’ve been hurt in the past but I’ll never know.
The third in this quartet is the peacemaker. The one who presents a “perfect” face to the outside world and observes the niceties with a decorum they believe is in keeping with how they believe the grieving process should be. They will be seen to do the right thing at all times, shed tears if and when required, put on a brave face when not. Either way, it is impossible to know what’s really going on inside. You will never be invited into the inner sanctum.
The final piece of the jigsaw – the scapegoat – had a difficult relationship with the person who’s gone and feels awkward and unsure about how they’re supposed to respond. They always felt an outsider and the person on whom the other chief mourners project their own rages and furies – the innermost prejudices they can’t face admitting to themselves. In shorthand terms, it’s called “owning”. They don’t.
The scapegoat is so overwhelmed with the feelings of others that they find it hard to work out what they themselves are feeling. They feel a bit of a fraud because they imagine it would look strange if they started screaming and crying about their loss because of the difficult relationship at the heart of it. Even so, they are part of it and they feel they deserve to be included. It looks unlikely.
I explained this was personal right at the start, but I’m sharing it in the hope that you – and I – will understand there is no right or wrong way of mourning. It is a process unique to us. We have to find a way to go through it in the best way we can.
On a personal level, I am at the start of my journey and still a little bemused. I’m not quite how it works. But, as a professional, I know that I will come through it, and I can take whatever memory I choose to keep with me and to hold dear. I just have to remember to give it time.
* The original quote comes from psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes in his 1972 book Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life:
“The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment.”
This is usually quoted as: “Grief is the price we pay for love.”