Published on JANUARY 2010, THE HINDU
Neha stood rigid and unemotional by the grave which took her 20-year-old son Patrick. Life as she knew it was over. Time was now referred to as, “Before Patrick’s death” and “After Patrick’s death.” It’s been 10 years to her loss, and as she sat on my cream sofa, she said with a smile, “you know, Patrick wanted to be a psychologist, he wanted to work with people who had lost someone dear and look at the irony, here I am, still grieving Patrick, even after ten years.”
It has taken Neha years to reach out and ask for support. All this time has been spent trying to hold her family together, move on, live life and “get over it.”
“After a point, people would merely feel sympathy, but no empathy. They said that I should move on, try to forget about it and stop grieving. People keep telling me that 10 years is a long time, I feel very pressured and depressed that I am unable to move on.”
Grief and loss can come disguised as divorces, breakups, deaths, sickness, poverty, infertility, natural disasters, and political upheaval. It is an evitable part of our lives, and the most painful. From the death of a dream to the death of a spouse, life’s trajectory is never going to be grief and loss-free. To cope with grief requires tremendous strength and a strong support system.
Only after ten years, was Neha able to find the space needed to process her grief, ask tough questions, cry unabashed and unfettered. Her pain was raw, burned bright, and got stronger as our sessions went on, but slowly, the intensity began to reduce, as a cool acceptance set in. The immense reservoir of grief had exhausted itself, the questions comfortably left, to reveal themselves over time and lifetimes. Neha’s grief had the space to dissolve and coagulate into healing, creating strength and compassion in its wake.
The stages can occur in any order and may repeat. They include some or all of the following:
1) Denial – one feels that the loss is unreal and will reverse, or that it is a bad dream. Some people tend to disassociate from the loss and behave as though everything is normal.
2) Anger– here the denial gives way to feelings of “Why me? It’s not fair?” How can this happen to me? Along with feelings of blame or hatred towards the person or oneself.
3) Bargaining– this is common in divorces and breakups. “Maybe it doesn’t have to end?” “Maybe we could try again?’ “Give me another chance.”
4) Depression – here the sadness and fears for the future set in. One may fear to be lonely, being alone forever, never being happy again. People feel as though their lives are over and the “good old days” have ended. Neha shared that she has been depressed for years before she could finally find healing and forgiveness.
5) Acceptance– finally one accepts the reality of the situation and understands the need to try to and move on. This depends on the person or situation.
Loss thrusts us into an unfamiliar and cold world. Such a place can be unsettling, bringing with it physical symptoms like nausea, fainting, trembling or an inability to move and think. But beyond a certain point, we have to cope with grief. As Neha discovered, it is a conscious process which would break her open before she could put herself together again.
This short list provides healthy coping strategies that I recommended to clients to keep them moving during the first few months.
* Take it one hour at a time, one day at a time, if need be one moment at a time.
* Get enough sleep or at least enough rest- it is ok to ask your doctor for a prescription sleeping pill to help you get some rest
* Try and maintain some type of a normal routine.
* Eat a balanced diet. Limit high calorie and junk food. Drink plenty of water. Unhealthy food will lead to further depression.
* Avoid using alcohol, medications or other drugs in excess or to mask the pain. This behaviour often becomes addictive in the long run.
* Do those things and be with those people who comfort, sustain and recharge you.
* Talk to others, especially those who have lived through and survived similar experiences, you can even seek online support groups.
* Find creative ways-journal, paint, photograph, build, woodwork, quilt, knit, collage or draw-to express intense feelings that arise. Journaling is great. There are many guided grief journals. Spiritual literature is a great resource.
* Remember coping skills you have used to survive past losses. Draw upon these inner strengths again. People turn to god, spirituality, etc to survive a loss.
* It is okay to feel depressed and not want to do anything. It is also okay to ask for help and reach out even if it is at odd hours. Be kind to yourself and accept the process of grieving, like crying spells, depression, lack of desire for work or pleasure or the inability to “hold it together.”
Overcoming loss and beginning once again to live is the one thing that we never anticipate can happen after we have experienced it. The truth is, however, that whether we like it or not life continues on. The decision that we need to make is whether we wish to move on with life.
Taking the first step is always the hardest and this is where sharing your feelings can help. It can be with someone close, a counsellor or even through writing and painting. Expressing how we feel is always the first and hardest step in the recovery from loss.
In order to move from merely surviving to actually thriving, we need to adopt a conscious, proactive approach to our healing. As Neha discovered over the course of her therapy, pain doesn’t disappear with time, it remains and unless kneaded, it consolidates into bitterness, anger or depression.
Today Neha has arrived at a spiritual understanding of Patrick’s death. She firmly believes he had accomplished what he had to and his death was something she simply could not control. What she could control was how she chooses to live her life thereafter. Grief over a loss stays; time merely reduces the intensity how hard the waves of pain hit us. And like a rock in the sea, pain polishes our souls to reflect compassion. We have no choice but to move ahead, but how we do it, is within us.