Coping with a loss is a universal experience we will all go through at some point in our lives. And yet, discussing grief it is something we often shy away from.
Katherine Obeng is our Hospice’s Senior Social Worker and has been part of our team since 2015. We caught up with Katherine to discuss what is grief and why it is so important to talk openly about it.
Try to talk about grief
Grief is the response to a loss and it’s a process. It can be unlike any other feeling you’ve felt up to that point and it can bring up so many difficult feelings. Grief can be all-encompassing and so overwhelming that at first it can feel very hard for the grieving person to talk about.
Most people expect to be very upset when someone close to them has died. What takes many people by surprise is how strong and overwhelming the emotions can be, how they can change very quickly, and how long they last.
For others who are grieving, it can be difficult to understand how they are reacting following a loss because we’re conditioned to understand grief by what we see in films and television. You could, for example, experience grief and not cry. This often leads people to ask “what’s wrong with me?” and the answer is nothing. The more we talk about grief the more we can understand the healing process and learn to cope with our grief.
The key thing to remember is that each person’s grief is unique to them. That’s why at our hospice we take great care to ensure that the bereavement support we give is tailored to their specific needs and circumstances.
Different forms of grief
Grief is likely to change form over time, but there will always be a reaction by a person to their loss.
Acute Grief – usually experienced shortly after loss, it can be intense and all-encompassing. It can involve a daily yearning to be reunited with the person who had died. It may also include physical manifestations like heart palpitations, dizziness, feelings of unreality. Some people can become distant, if there is a family going through the same loss some members of the family may want to withdraw from the collective grief.
Integrated Grief – the enduring form of grief in which the reality and meaning of the death are gradually understood. This allows the bereaved to embark on positive relationships and activities. Integrated grief does not mean that the grieving person has forgotten the person who has died, misses them any less or stops feeling sad when thinking about them. Rather, the person finds a way of staying connected to the deceased without their physical presence. Once a person’s grief has become integrated they are able to live without grief constantly preoccupying their mind.
Complicated Grief – a lasting form of acute grief with complicating features that impede the restructuring process necessary for integrated grief. There are many factors which can cause a grief to become complicated. It can be dictated by the relationship to the person who has died. We use the term “loved one” but you can grieve for someone you did not love. It is also the circumstances around the grief. For example, if someone dies suddenly, there is no time to say “goodbye” and this can complicate the grief.
The forms described above are not linear, there may be times when acute grief re-emerges for the person – this is common and does not reflect a failure of the grieving process. This can occur around the time of significant events, such as, birthdays, anniversaries, another loss, or a particularly stressful time.
Creating a space to be heard
When coping with grief the key thing is to find someone you trust to talk to about your feelings and situation. It is not about providing the answers. It is about listening, offering empathy and avoiding cliches. We frequently hear from people grieving; “people say I should be over my grief by now” or “time is a great healer”. These are unhelpful. Through talking about feelings, the grieving person will better understand why they feel the way they do.
I supported a person who was in their 20s when they lost their mother. They expressed that they were too young to lose their mother. They reacted to their loss by being angry and distancing themselves from everything. I took a slow approach in how I supported them. They wanted to stay at home, so we started by talking over the phone. Then, over time, I encouraged them to speak with me outside, the fresh air and walking can do a lot for our emotional health. Slowly over many months they began to let their walls down and started to talk about their difficult feelings.
Grief can be isolating. I remember a bereaved person telling me they felt alone in their grief as none of her friends had lost a child. This is one of the reasons the Hospice runs peer support bereavement groups that offer opportunities to meet others who are going through a similar experience. It can be reassuring to be around others who are also bereaved in a supportive environment.
Grief and COVID-19
Grieving at any time is hard. Grieving during a pandemic when there are long periods of isolation, restricted movement and limited contact with family and friends can feel like the hardest thing possible.
People have not been able to go to funerals, have a wake or hold any remembrance of the person they have lost. All of these things are very important in the grieving process.
The pandemic has seen our Hospice have an increase in referrals for support with bereavement. We have been reaching out to people remotely to support them with their grief, where possible.
The Hospice’s Light up a Life virtual event is especially important this year, as for many grieving people the event will be the only opportunity they have had to come together and remember the life of someone who has died.
If you are experiencing grief, Katherine recommends contacting one of the below services who specialise in listening to what you are going through:
The Samaritans – Grief can massively impact mental wellbeing and The Samaritans are second to none at listening and helping.
Childline – It is important young people under the age of 18 have a place to express their grief. Childline is a listening, non-judgemental service, and children should be encouraged to grieve – it is why we have our own Child Bereavement Service at our Hospice. So if you’re living in Westminster do get in touch with us.
The Compassionate Friends – This is a supportive service for a parent who has lost a child of any age.
CALM – this is primarily focussed on men.