There is a paradox in modern life when it comes to death. On the one hand, we are constantly exposed to images of people dying, both in the news that we consume and in the films and television that we watch. Yet on the other, we have become increasingly separated from the reality of death in our everyday lives.
Previous generations were far more accustomed to death than we are. Because many more people died young, the rhythm of birth and death, of celebration and grieving, was much more familiar.
Thanks to modern medicine, we can all expect to live much longer now. Thanks to plastic surgery and a culture generally obsessed by youth, we have also been sold the myth that we never really have to grow old. Yet sooner or later, everybody dies.
Bereavement is always a shock, especially if the death is unexpected or violent. Yet our society does little to prepare for us for it. Some people appear to take grief in their stride. For others, however, the death of a loved one can come as a devastating blow. Whatever the response, bereavement will – sooner or later – come to us all.
Working through grief is inevitably a painful process, but it is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human. No matter how overwhelming the feelings, life goes on. No one can ever replace the lost loved one, but with the right help and support, it is possible to restore a sense of meaning to life.
For most people, the process of coming to terms with the death of a loved one will take some time. We call this process mourning, and it can take us through a range of different emotions and responses.
There is no right or wrong way to mourn. For some it can be a rollercoaster of wild mood swings, for others it is an altogether quieter experience. Despite the huge variations in the way people respond, however, it is possible to identify some common stages. There is no set time-scale for these stages, they may well overlap, and sometimes they may even occur in a different order. But it can be helpful to know what they are and that they are all completely normal.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists cites the following:
Shock. Most people feel stunned in the hours or days following the death of a loved one.
Numbness. A sense of being separated from one’s own emotions can be useful when it comes to getting through practical challenges such as arranging a funeral, but it becomes problematic if it goes on for too long. Actually seeing the body can help overcome this. The funeral itself is often the ‘wake-up call’ that someone has truly gone. It is also an important opportunity to say goodbye.
Yearning. After a while, numbness can give way to a profound pining for the person who has died. This can make it difficult to sleep or concentrate on even the simplest tasks.
Anger. At this stage, the loss can seem brutally cruel and unfair. People can often feel anger towards the medical staff who could not prevent the death. Confusingly, it is also possible to feel real anger towards the person who has died for having gone away.
Guilt. This is very common. People find that they can’t stop thinking about things they should have said or done. More uncomfortably, people can experience enormous guilt if part of them feels relieved that the person has died, say after a long and painful illness.
Agitation. This is usually strongest about two weeks after the death. This strong emotion can be interspersed with bouts of intense sadness, silence and withdrawal. People often find themselves bursting into tears for no apparent reason. No matter how strong the temptation to isolate, it is crucial to find normal activities to do during this phase and talk to others.
Depression. This can reach its peak after about six weeks, again interspersed with bouts of intense emotion. While it can appear that the bereaved person is doing nothing during this phase, they are usually absorbed in thought about the person they have lost.
Letting-go and acceptance. Eventually depression begins to lift and a sense of vitality returns.
How long does the process take?
It is almost impossible to tell for sure how long it will take to get over a bereavement. Some say that most people recover within one or two years, but the length of the process depends on a variety of factors.
The severity of the grief will, of course, be largely dictated by the person’s relationship with the dead person and how close they were. Aside from this pivotal consideration, there are two key areas that can affect the grieving process; the circumstances of the person that is grieving and the circumstances of the death itself. Let’s look at them separately.
Some of the factors that make it more difficult for individuals to move through the grieving process include:
- The grieving person is socially isolated and has little support from community, family or friends.
- They have unresolved business with the person who died, such as old quarrels or unexpressed anger or love (or the person who died was estranged from the mourner).
- The mourner could not attend the funeral, or there was no funeral.
- The relationship with the person who died is not legally recognized or socially accepted (e.g. the person who died was a same-sex partner or partner from an extra-marital relationship).
Circumstances of the death that might make it difficult to accept and process:
- The death was sudden or unexpected.
- It was the parent of a child or adolescent who died.
- It was a child or baby that died or miscarried.
- The death was caused by suicide.
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I experienced tough times a number of years ago when I was taking drugs to get me through the day. I am now drug free and would not be here if it was not for a very supportive family. It is so important to talk to others about your issues.
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