How does one overcome grief? Discuss
Discuss is a Globe Opinion feature in which two people engage in a conversation that flows out of a single question. Today's topic: Living with sadness after losing a loved one
Julia Samuel is a grief psychotherapist, founder patron of Child Bereavement UK and the author of Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death, and Surviving, which was published last month.
Cathy Rentzenbrink is the award-winning author of the memoirs The Last Act of Love: The Story of My Brother and His Sister, and A Manual for Heartache, which arrives in bookstores next month. They both live in London.
They held their discussion, over e-mail, in January.
There is the problem, right there. The question "How does one overcome grief?" assumes, as everyone does, that it is something that is to be beaten into submission or climbed over. They would like an app that fast tracks grief, that gets them back to feeling normal quickly.
And the opposite is true. We cannot overcome grief. It requires endurance. We need to give it time, as difficult as that is. Grief is a small word that describes a big, messy, chaotic process. It makes us fearful, or paralyzed, and often lonely and isolated. We need to support ourselves to find a way of expressing our grief. It's painful, there's no getting around it, but it's the pain that forces us to face the reality that a person we love has died. It is the things we do to avoid the pain that often cause us the most harm.
Cathy, I can feel myself getting on my platform and pontificating, I feel so strongly about this. Does what I'm saying fit with your experience of grieving?
I completely agree. I remember the moment I saw the title of your book, Grief Works. I was so struck by the presence of the word "work." There was something active about it. Just from reading the first few pages, I knew it would help me.
I had seen grief as an aberration. I thought there was something wrong with me – that I was still stuck in the memories of my brother's death. I felt insane with grief, as though I might not be able to contain the pain and might just throw myself off a bridge. There were times when I literally rolled around on the floor, sobbing and wailing. I came to see it as a roller coaster. People are inclined to speak about grief as though it is a linear process with defined stages.
That wasn't my experience at all. If I could plot my grief on a piece of graph paper, you'd see a sharp set of zigzags. I thought I was defective. People kept telling me that time would heal, so I just hung around crying and drinking and waiting to revert back to "normal." Now I think there are some life events that will change us forever. Once I accepted that my old life – the one where I had a brother and didn't know much about pain and sorrow – was gone, I could start to show some interest in what a different future might hold. Is mine a typical journey?
You describe a typical journey so poignantly. Because the subject of death and its consequence, grief, are the last taboo, most people have a kind of magical thinking – that if we think or talk about it we might make it happen. Then when they are grieving they assume, like you, that they are somehow doing it wrong, and if they were doing it right it wouldn't hurt so much.
Grief changes you, and you have to work at letting it change you, until you find a way of living with the truth and accommodating the loss. For that, you need the love and support of those around you, for when someone we love dies we need the love of others more than anything else. And then, over time, as so many people said to you, you begin to live again. People talk about it as their new normal. But that process takes longer, and is more difficult, than most people assume. What are the things you've learned that have enabled you to find your new normal?
I've learned that it is okay to be sad, and that grief is a long party. That sounds so simple doesn't it? But I really did think there was something wrong with me because I felt so damaged from witnessing my brother's death. I thought I was weak and probably mad. I put huge efforts into running away from my feelings and drowning them in drink, though in some ways I functioned rather well. I cared about my parents and didn't want to add to their heartbreak, so the need to appear okay for them kept me tethered to something that had the appearance of a normal life.
But I felt rotten inside and I thought that if people knew what I was really like then they wouldn't want to know me. In the longer term, repressing my feelings didn't work. They'd burst out of me in ways I couldn't control. So, I wrote my first book, The Last Act of Love, and that helped a bit. I felt a sense of achievement that I'd managed to wrestle such a complex story on to the page. What was really transformational was that readers started to talk and write to me about their own experiences. This hugely increased my understanding, and made me feel less alone.
I realized I belonged in this community of people who had known loss, and that felt reassuring. As I felt less trapped in the story of what had happened, in the facts of it, I became more curious about the process, and what we all have in common. The details of what happens to us are unique, but there is much universal truth to be had in considering loss and the ways in which we react to it. You said earlier that it's often what we do to escape our feelings of pain that causes trouble. Could you tell me a bit more about that?
We try to avoid pain, to anesthetize it, in the hopes that we will wake up one morning and the grief will have disappeared. We try and block it, by drinking or drugs or work – all those distracting, obsessive activities we do to try and take us away from how we really feel. But it doesn't work.
Remember – we learn how to manage grief from a young age, from observing the adults around us. So often these ways of blocking the pain are transmitted through families for generations. It's societal, too: Colleagues and friends and family can pressure us to be "okay."
That's so true about everyone wanting us to be okay and always put a brave face on everything. I notice as a parent – my son, Matt, is now 8 – how my instinct is to negate his feelings and try to immediately force him to look on the bright side. I'm trying, instead, to allow him the space to express himself and feel heard and then none of his worries feel as big to him when they are on the outside.
But the biggest influence on him will be what you show him. …
Ah yes, in the last couple of years I have developed a daily writing practice that helps me with my difficult feelings, but also helps me find things to look forward to and be grateful for. These days, I make time to grieve my brother.
I think I was confused for years and thought that because I didn't have a faith or believe in an afterlife, that I couldn't speak to him or memorialize him. Now, I visit the plaque that commemorates his life and have a quiet sit. I talk to him if I fancy it, have a cry if I want to. I don't have any rules or preconceptions about how the time needs to be spent. Making the space to do this gentle and considered mourning means that I am less likely to be overwhelmed or ambushed by violent crashing waves of grief.
Yes, that's a really good example of the need to go back and forth with your process, giving yourself time to be getting on with your life and marking out time to focus on your grief. It is by remembering and not forgetting that we heal.
I also think a lot about what makes me feel small in a bad way – news, social media, traffic – and try to do less of it, and instead do things that make me feel small in a good way. Those include looking up at the sky, watching the sea – there is something very comforting and meditative about watching the waves go in and out – and trying to be helpful to my fellow humans. I like to do small good deeds, and to do them under the radar – tiny acts of kindness that have no audience. I have also had some really good therapy and I would always encourage people to give it a go.
I might just be biased, but obviously I think taking an hour a week to find out how you are really feeling, without having to protect the person who's listening, has a surprisingly – for the skeptics – positive outcome.
I am fascinated by the therapeutic process now, which is another reason why I loved your book. I enjoyed seeing the progress your clients made week-by-week.
One of the main things therapy has taught me is self-compassion. I used to be so terribly hard on myself, and obsessed with all the ways I thought I'd failed my brother and my parents. Now, I am able to view myself with a sort of impartial fondness. I'd also recommend learning about breath and meditation and mindfulness, which can be done via books or yoga classes. I use my breath to steady myself now and I know that if – when – life takes another sad turn then I have more tools to help me navigate it this time.
Life can feel cruel, but it is also beautiful. I think accepting the existence of pain and fear – or fear of pain – is crucial to being able to appreciate the good stuff. And love, of course. Love is the antidote and the answer. If we love people, we will suffer, but there is no point in a life without all kinds of love.
That's the main thread in my book … and loving again when you've lost love is so risky. It's sometimes hard to trust again.
Yes, we have to believe that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I do believe that now. At one point, I thought I wouldn't be able to have a child because I wouldn't be able to support the idea of losing him.
I do still struggle with that fear – I am still a bit hypervigilant and I expect terrible accidents to happen – but I am also full of joy that I get to hang out with Matt and watch him grow and learn.
I'm teaching him to cook at the moment and we made quesadillas on the weekend. That's the joy of small things.
FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION: MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL