( An article I wrote which was used as the basis for a piece published by limerickmentalhealth.ie)
In the months since my brother’s heartbreaking and tragic death in May 2018, as a result of a fall while out with his hiking group, I have learned that only I can be an expert on my own grief. Nobody else can be ‘my expert’ and just because I have experienced my loss caused by the out of order death of my brother, does not make me an expert on anyone else’s grief.
I have found myself researching grief, bereavement, and ‘coping’ with grief online, in the hope I would find something or some way of ‘managing my grief better’ and some way of reducing the immense pain and sense of loss caused by his death.
I don’t think this is actually possible. There is no roadmap, no prescriptive text that will reduce the quotient of grief or the pain that ensues after the death of a loved one. The best we can hope for is finding a way to honour our love and grief and carry it with us and tend to it in our own individual way.
Grief is the price we pay for love- and one’s grief is exactly that. Grief is as individual as love. It is as unique as the person experiencing it and the person whose loss they grieve. We may share our loss with many; but we have to navigate our own way within our own landscape of grief. We have to tend to our grief in our own way which may look similar or very dissimilar to others.
I will be the first to admit that initially my online research was far from in-depth. Fuelled by insomnia, an inability to focus or concentrate for any extended period of time, my cursory online interaction with Dr. Google kept throwing up bite-size pieces of variable quality and benefit.
To be blunt, there is a lot of horse shit written about death and grief. From pious platitudes and clichés to over-simplified theories further reduced to lazy cut and paste jobs. I found some postings on social media to be very unhelpful… I could not identify with what I consider the tyranny of false positivity.
Time and time again, my late night ventures into the online world of grief would throw up ‘The five stages of grief’. How I started to loathe Elizabeth Kübler Ross (and I mean really loathe)! The pervasiveness of this grief theory that bore little or no resemblance to my grieving reality really infuriated me.
I also started thinking that I wasn’t getting this ‘grieving process’ right. My grief was not allowing itself to move in an ordered timeline capable of fitting into neat sanitised blocks that could be ticked off like a ‘to-do’ list.
I could not understand why a grief theory dating back to the late 1960’s appears to have so much currency today. Has no research on grief been carried out since?
Well, there has been plenty! However, much of it does not appear to have trickled down into the public consciousness quite like the stage theory model has.
I also discovered that my loathing of Elizabeth Kübler Ross was somewhat misplaced. So let me deal with that first.
Elizabeth Kübler Ross was born on July 8th 1926 and died on August 24th 2004, a Swiss-American psychiatrist.
Her book ‘On Death and Dying’ (published in 1969) was never a study on grief and bereavement. It was based on her work with terminally-ill patients at the University of Chicago Medical School. Neither was it a research study: it is a book based of description, observation and reflection based on Elizabeth’s conversations with people who were dying. Its central tenet was to communicate how important it is to listen to what the dying have to tell us about their needs.
The so-called stage theory is openly described in the book as merely a set of common categories or themes which emerged from her interviews with people who received a terminal diagnosis over a two and half year period. The categories were artificially isolated and separately described so that Elizabeth could discuss these experiences more clearly and simply. Her five stage model was really an examination of the emotional states experienced by people after receiving a terminal diagnosis. She is reported to have regretted writing them in a way that was misunderstood. She also didn’t believe that they happened in a neat linear order for a prescribed period of time.
In her 2004 book on Grief and Grieving (published posthumously in 2004), Kubler states: “They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages”.
Now ‘messy’ is a word I can relate to.
So back to the theories of grief. My search started with entering ‘Beyond Kubler’ in the search engine. It transpires that ‘grief’ is a huge field of study that has continued to develop and evolve since the days of Freud. I am not going to even attempt to go down the reductive route of providing basic summaries as I truly believe that this would be a disservice.
I am unwilling to do this as grieving is complex and one size of theory does most definitely not fit all. There were bits of some writings I could relate to my own ongoing grieving experience and identify with and some not at all. I’m still only skimming the surface of the amount of material out there on grief after 9 months of it being my daily landscape. Truth be told it is only in the last couple months or so that I have been able to resume reading anything longer than the back of a cereal box.
The secondary reason is due to the fact that as these theories come in and out of vogue, an unintended consequence has been that they , are taken up by society and its’ commentators as the norms. They become in effect rules of grieving that attempt to specify who, when, where, how, how long and for whom people should grieve.
It is hard enough live your life after the death of a loved without feeling judged and wanting too. There is no going back, no restoration of a previous normal. Ultimately grief is a very personal experience which belongs to the person experiencing it.
If you find yourself reading this and experiencing grief..I wish you strength to find your own path within grief and one that you feel supported on. Try not worry about other people discomfort with your pain and sadness..it is your time to grieve without the artificial constraints of other people’s ‘expertise’ or expectations.
For anyone who wishes to do their own research, I found Christopher Hall’s, (MAPS Director, Australian Centre for Grief & Bereavement) publication titled ‘Beyond Kubler-Ross: Recent Developments in our understanding of Grief & Bereavement’; InPsych 2011, Vol 33, Dec.Issue 6 an excellent starting point.
For anyone wishing to support a friend or family member who is grieving I recommend you read (at the very least) the Appendix ‘How to help a Grieving Friend’ in Megan Devine’s Book ‘It’s OK that you’re not OK- Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand’. I found the entire book helpful for myself.
On a personal note I found writing about my feelings, my brother, my loss and grief one of my most helpful ways of tending to my life of living with my grief. Winter swimming in the cold Atlantic Ocean also provides me with moments of solace and connection.
It is about catching what activities give me even fleeting moments of what I call ‘sad peace’. Even in the early days of shock and grief, writing was something that required no effort from me. It was instinctive. It was what helped me and continues to help me live through the various days of overwhelm, survival/existence days and sad peace hours and days.
I hope, if needed, you find yours.