Grief is going to be a difficult process to deal with at any age. But how can we find the strength to get ourselves or a loved one through it? We spoke with Ms. Charlie O’Dell, CEO of The Dove Service, a grief support charity based in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent to find out more
Is there any way to make grief easier?
“Really the only way to make grief easier is to allow it to happen,” she says. “We often find that people struggle most when they are trying to support other people instead of letting themselves grieve, trying to put a brave face on things. We can’t be sad and cry all the time because it’s too overwhelming, so we need to balance our sadness with activities that help us to cope, be that managing things around the house, going to work, going to the cinema with friends etc. If you’re supporting someone who is grieving then you can expect that they won’t want to be sad all the time, they can’t cope with it, so going out for a coffee or a walk can be a good way to help balance those feelings. The best way of finding out what someone needs to help make their grief easier is to simply ask them or use how well you know that person to think about what might be useful. Could you offer to collect their children from school? Walk the dog? Make a meal? Do the ironing?”
Can you put a time limit on grief?
“No not really, grief behaves like waves, sometimes those waves are massive and knock our feet out from underneath us, but then there will be times when the waves are just a gentle reminder of the presence of grief, and other times when we feel comfortable enough to have a little paddle in our grief and feel comforted by thoughts of the person who died and our memories. As time goes on, usually the waves recede, but when faced with another bereavement, or a situation that reminds us of the person who has died, those waves may (for a while at least) become more noticeable again.We tend to grow around our grief, adapting to life without the person who has died rather than moving on without them.
“If you’re supporting someone with a bereavement remember that they will still need your support for a long time, maybe years later. We sometimes think that the first year after a bereavement is the worst one because it’s a whole year of firsts without our loved one, but what about the year after that when everyone else has gone back to their lives? Grief is ongoing and there will be waves that make us wobble for a very long time.”
What obstacles will people face during their ‘grieving process’?
“Grief can be complicated by a range of things including (for example) how someone died, their age, your relationship with them, and the circumstances surrounding their death. We work with people who tell us that they feel as though there is something wrong with the way they are grieving or that they are ‘going mad’. We’re still pretty uncomfortable with death and grieving in this country, so when someone dies we don’t know how to cope or behave. Often one of the biggest obstacles people face is trying to be brave and not telling the people around you how you really feel, this means communication shutting down within a family as everyone grieves alone and doesn’t want to allow their partner or children to see them upset, or difficulties at work because you don’t want to tell your manager or colleagues what is going on and be seen as weak or vulnerable. We also know from what our clients tell us that people have said pretty careless things to them about the length of time they have been grieving for and as I said above, you can’t put a time limit on grief.
“We need to remember that all of us will experience grief in our lives so we do know how it feels, even if we’re not sure what to say or do. Perhaps all you need to say is ‘I can’t begin to imagine how you’re feeling right now, and I know that nothing I say is actually going to make you feel better, but I’m here, and I’ll continue to be here for you’.”
Is there a different approach to grief for adults and children, and likewise for an elderly person losing their partner after all their lives together?
“Children do grieve differently to adults, and depending on their age and development their understanding of what death is and what it means for them will be different. It’s really important to remember that children grieve for very short periods at a time and them will move on to something else, and will repeat that cycle over and over again at short intervals. It can be hard for us as adults to appreciate that they can’t stay with that grief for very long at all, and that grief will raise its head at strange times. So a child may be overwhelmingly sad one minute, and running about the garden laughing the next. It doesn’t mean that they are ok, or that they are ‘over it’, it just means that they process everything at a different speed and have a different capacity to cope with the heavy emotions that come with grief. As a child gets older they will usually revisit their grief as their understanding of death develops; they may ask what feels like really intrusive questions about the person who died, but this is because children like to have detailed information so that they can process their grief. You may get questions about what people look like when they die, what happens to bodies when they are buried, or what happens when people get cremated. Be as honest as you can with your answers, and try not to talk in metaphors because saying ‘your gran is always watching over you’ can be taken very literally by a child and is not as comforting as you may think as an adult. Allow children to see your grief so that they can understand that the emotions they are feeling are perfectly normal, and provide opportunities for remembrance.”
And for the elderly?
“Some older people who lose a partner cope really well with their grief, they recognise that they have had a long life together and have come to terms with the reality that because they are older, death is not unexpected. Other people may find it much harder to come to terms with. Either way, loneliness can be challenging when you are left alone after a bereavement. There are organisations in Staffordshire (including the Dove Service) who can support people who are struggling with loneliness, or just want to get out and about and socialise with other people. However, we also do need a bit of time alone when we are grieving so that we can start to adapt to life without the person who died.”
How helpful/easy is it to talk to someone who perhaps doesn’t know you or didn’t know your loved one?
“Not everyone who is bereaved needs to seek support through counselling or a support group, but it can be helpful to talk to someone who doesn’t know you if you are struggling with your grief. We assume sometimes that our feelings about someone who died were positive, but in some cases our relationships were hard, hurtful, or negative. Perhaps we feel very angry, let down, disappointed, guilty, or relieved even when someone died – those are really difficult emotions to share with a family member or friend who may also be grieving and not feeling the same way.
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“We don’t need to have known your loved one because you can paint the best picture for your counsellor of who they were and what they meant to you, because when you come for counselling it’s your experiences and your grief that is the focus of that work. You can always bring photos or other mementos of your loved one if you want to share them with your counsellor if that feels important to you.
“Talking to a counsellor who doesn’t know you means that you can be completely honest about your feelings to someone who doesn’t have any involvement in your life, and who you can then walk away from at the end of your counselling relationship. Counsellors will always ‘contract’ with you in your first session around confidentiality and you will decide between you what you would do if you ever bumped into each other in ‘real life’, so hopefully any anxieties that you might have about being in therapy will be answered comfortably.
“As a specialist organisation we’re also well aware that grief does not disappear after a certain time frame and our clients often talk in counselling about how they don’t want to keep bringing up the person who died at home because they feel as though other people have moved on faster than they have. We know that everyone grieves differently, and expect that some of our clients will return to the service again months or years later when another wave gives them a knock.”
The Dove Service is a registered charity offering specialist counselling, training and support for those affected by grief through bereavement, loss, or illness.