As I queued for my flight, I wondered idly where my phone was, I checked my bag, my pockets, my purse; not there. I got a little concerned… I checked more carefully, nope not there. I felt the panic and disbelief rising. it had to be somewhere, –I needed my phone, I could not manage without it, I would be totally stuck. Yet again, I checked (the same) pockets a third and then a fourth and then a fifth time, part of me believing that, if I just checked more carefully the phone would magically appear…. It didn’t, it was lost, and I was bereft. The thoughts came flooding in; “What would I do, I should have been more careful, how could I have lost something, I never lose things, this was all my fault, maybe I just needed to check again” and so it continued..
Ah loss; we are bereft when we lose something (or someone) that matters to us. Now I’m not comparing losing my phone to losing a loved one – phones can be replaced; but the reaction and responses are similar to begin with. The root of the word “bereaved” is “ to be robbed”, something important is gone, we find ourselves searching for it, disbelieving the reality, our brains can’t process this unwanted change. We are hard-wired to attach to people and things that matter to us, and we react when they are missing from our lives. We search, we hunt, we tell ourselves this cannot have happened, we wonder what we could have done differently. We experience emotions such as anxiety, fear, sadness, disbelief, guilt, even terror. Thoughts of how this is unfair, shouldn’t have happened, what I might have done differently, what someone else might have done differently, and sometimes the very tricky thoughts: “I don’t deserve this”, or “ I’m not surprised, everything/everybody I love ends up leaving me”. If you are familiar with attachment theory, you will hear the different attachment styles in these cognitions. You may also hear some death denial. We do know that everyone dies, that every thing and person that matters to us will ultimately be lost, but as we go about our daily life, we keep this fact in the background, we simply don’t go there, perhaps it’s too painful. We are hard-wired to move towards what is pleasant and to move away from what is unpleasant – of course we are. It would be strange to spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that we will someday be separated from our most beloved people, so when the separation comes, most of us find ourselves ill prepared – we cannot imagine life without this person, we don’t know how to be in the world without them, we don’t perhaps recognize ourselves without them, we only know ourselves in relationship to our attachment figures.
So, we are hard-wired to attach to people, first of all as infants, we attach to our caretakers, our very existence depends on them caring for us. But humans continue to attach to other people throughout their life, well after the time that they can care for themselves. Indeed, a feeling of connection to others is one of the hallmarks of good mental health. We attach, and then we protest when that attachment is broken.
The question then becomes, how on earth do we ever “come to terms” with the loss of a loved one? Notice I don’t say “get over”, we never get over the loss of someone who matters to us, we wouldn’t even want to. What happens is we grieve; grief is love after a death. Grieving is difficult, it is not for sissies, most people in early grief say they didn’t expect it to be so hard and they didn’t expect it to impact them physically, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually. Grief is sneaky, it creeps up on us, it doesn’t play fair. Many of us grew up hearing about “the five stages of grief” and the need for closure. – well there are no stages of grief, and for sure there is no closure – if someone matters to us in life, they continue to matter to us after they die. Death ends a life, not a relationship and those we love, live forever in our hearts. John O Donahue’s poem: “For grief” provides one of the best descriptions of how grief feels:
When you lose someone you love,
your life becomes strange,
the ground beneath you becomes fragile,
your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
and some dead echo drags your voice down
where words have no confidence.
Your heart has grown heavy with loss;
and though this loss has wounded others too,
no one knows what has been taken from you
when the silence of absence deepens.
Flickers of guilt kindle regret
for all that was left unsaid or undone.
There are days when you wake up happy;
again inside the fullness of life,
until the moment breaks
and you are thrown back
onto the black tide of loss.
Days when you have your heart back,
you are able to function well
until in the middle of work or encounter,
suddenly with no warning,
you are ambushed by grief.
It becomes hard to trust yourself.
And now here is the thing I want you to know, we are hard-wired to attach, we are hard-wired to grieve, AND we are also hard-wired to heal. Just as our bodies heal through our physical immune system, we now know that we also have a psychological immune system (resilience) which helps our hearts to heal. **The point where we begin to heal from loss is when we understand that what happened was not what we ordered/wanted/deserved… but it is what we got. Imagine you are sitting in a coffee shop arguing with the barista that you ordered a cappuccino and he had brought you an espresso. “ No, no that is not what I ordered, you need to take it back, that is clearly not meant for me”. Now imagine the moment when you concede; “ OK, It's not what I ordered, but it’s what I got”… this is when the grief process can truly begin, we allow the finality and the reality of the loss to slowly land, the working model that we hold in our mind can now begin to update. Our hearts know how to heal, if we can get out of our own way, we can trust the process and again. John O Donahue captures this perfectly in the last stanza of this poem:
Gradually you will learn acquaintance
with the invisible form of your departed;
and when the work of grief is done,
the wound of loss will heal
and you will have learned
to wean your eyes
from that gap in the air
and be able to enter the hearth
in your soul where your loved one
has awaited your return
all the time.
John O Donahue
What helps the grief process? I mentioned trusting the process, but I would also add self- compassion; being kind to ourselves during this difficult time, watching out for those tricky, or counter- factual thoughts – remember that thoughts are no truths, they are simply mental events passing through our consciousness, but if we’re not paying attention, we can begin to believe that these tricky thoughts are factual. When we are caught in the spin of grief, we can be pretty mean to ourselves, the harsh voice of criticism raises its head, we forget that we are doing our best and we say things to ourselves that we wouldn’t dream of saying to a friend. We need to befriend ourselves in grief, and if you are stuck and don’t know what to offer yourself, here’s a tip: think about what a kind person would do, and just do that. Remember that everything is transitory, we won’t always feel the way we feel when we are caught in a grief attack, other people are suffering too, it is part of being human, and we can always offer ourselves some kindness. These sentiments are beautifully expressed in this Self-Compassion mantra: I hope it brings some solace on your grief journey:
“ This is a moment of suffering,
suffering is part of life,
may I be kind to myself in this moment,
may I offer myself the compassion I need”.
Susan Delaney, Grief Specialist, Ireland
**While we are hard-wired to heal from grief, sometimes the wound becomes infected and we may need more specialist help. Prolonged Grief Disorder Therapy has proven to be efficacious in helping bereaved people to overcome the obstacles that may hinder the grief process.