Working through grief and loss
I had the absolute pleasure to spend a day out of my usual clinic work last week to hang out with the awesome humans that work at Lilydale Cemetery. It might sound a bit random but it’s actually a pretty innovative and creative approach to therapy – what if the therapist came to the person, rather than the person coming to the therapist? Not only does it serve to normalise the process of counselling, but it really does remove a whole bunch of barriers to accessing help when you need it. Massive high-5’s to Greater Melbourne Cemeteries Trust and their Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), Allos Australia for making it happen…and thank you for allowing me to be part of it!
Spending the day at a cemetery, even going into the crematorium, got me thinking though about grief, and how we are pretty average at talking about it in Anglo-Saxon type places and spaces. The team of employees at Lilydale blew my mind with how comfortable (if that’s the right word) they were with death, loss, and the many faces of grief. And it was a powerful reminder of my own experiences of loss, in fact the last time I had been to Lilydale Cemetery was about six years ago when I collect the ashes of my recently deceased husband. So, this week I thought I’d share a little about what I’ve learned about loss and grief – both from my own lived experience and also from a more clinical perspective.
I really struggled at University during my Master’s studies when we looked at grief using a mental illness framework. For me, a more reasonable way of looking at grief is to see it as a life stage or experience that we will all go through, be touched by, at some point in our lives. It is also more nuanced than losing a person – be that grandparent, parent, partner, child, friend. We lose houses, jobs, safe places to be, pets, friendships, identities and sometimes a sense of self. All of those can result in very real and understandable experiences of grief. Loss isn’t always easily definable and concrete. It doesn’t make it less valid.
Losing someone or something that you love and care deeply for sucks. There is literally no way to dress this up to feel better than it does. Loss that you are expecting to lose – a grandparent at 93 years-old can hurt every bit as much as unexpectedly losing a husband during an ocean swim on an ordinary summer’s day. Our felt sense of grief is as unique as our fingerprint and contrary to the ‘stages of grief model’ in my experience grief is fairly un-model-able. It’s a pretty messy process and I struggled with being told how well I appeared to be coping. Grief isn’t something we choose to do ‘well’. There’s no medal to be won. It’s something to be survived and little by ever so little, you find new ways of being. It’s like the life you lived before disappears in a heartbeat (or lack of heartbeat actually) and then you spend some indefinable period of time scrabbling around trying to make sense of this world you’re suddenly thrust into without knowing what on earth you’re doing.
And then one day you realise you’re still functioning. Still living. That the world might look a little different than it did before, for me the colours even seemed changed around me, but it was recognisable enough to figure out how to ‘do’ it again. And no, I don’t believe that ‘time heals everything’. The grief is still just as painful and spikey as it was on that day six years ago, I just don’t feel like I’m living in my grief every waking moment anymore. It’s like an appendage that I carry around and sometimes it feels heavier than other days. Another way of looking at it is this awesome analogy of the ‘box and the ball’ – I use this one with clients a lot (CLICK HERE FOR LINK). And while I’m sharing resources, this website post really helped one of my bestie’s navigate grief with me (CLICK HERE FOR LINK) – if you have a friend or someone you know is grieving and you don’t know what to say, that one is for you!
My last thoughts on grief and loss for now is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. In our world of social media driven comparisons, please let that go with this one – what works for one person in the family, won’t work for another. I know that I developed a strong black humour that saw me through some of my hardest moments but honestly, I’m not sure that the postman, the check-out person at Coles or the florist-delivery person really appreciated it! You do grief your way. It doesn’t have to be pretty, conventional or make any sense as long as it gets you through the day. And then the next one.