For the past two years, I have been working as a volunteer for Cruse Bereavement as part of my Level 4 Counselling Diploma. Having also lost my mum (in my twenties), I have some first-hand experience with the long and painful journey of grief.
I have always worn my heart on my sleeve and I find it incredibly hard to keep my feelings and emotions inside. So when a client tells me that they are struggling with their grief, the first thing I ask them is:
What is your support network like outside of counseling?
When you ask this often enough, you start to see a familiar pattern arise, as I am frequently met with similar responses.
“I don’t want to burden people with my problems”
“They don’t understand and just want to put a positive spin on things”
“They tell me I should be over it by now”
“I must not cry in front of the kids”
Death is such a taboo subject in our society. So much so, that some people will go to great lengths to avoid someone who is grieving because they don’t know what to say or how to act around them. They may even feel a sense of responsibility to try and make that person feel better.
I am no exception to this.
Before I worked as a counselor, I had a friend who lost her baby (at 22 weeks pregnant). Even though I had suffered bereavement myself, I was so afraid to go round and see her. I was scared I wouldn’t know what to say. I thought I might just blurt out something stupid to try and make her feel better, and she would shout at me for being so insensitive.
Eventually, I did pluck up the courage to go round and we cried together and looked at the photos of her beautiful baby boy (together). I didn’t need to say anything – just being there was enough.
Thankfully I have now learned through my training at Cruse, that the best and only thing we need to do for the bereaved is to just be with them.
No Afterlife Stories.
No Positive Quotes or Mantras.
Just look them in the eyes and show them you are listening.
You may think that this isn’t enough, or it doesn’t feel like you are doing anything, but by listening, you are allowing that person to process their shock, their anger, their guilt, and even the painful images they may have had to of witnessed in the final few weeks – leading up to their loved one’s death.
If a person doesn’t feel listened to, or if they have been shut down most of their life, (by other people such as their parents or other authority figures) they may learn to suppress their emotions, and this could eventually manifest as anxiety or depression.
“If we feel we were not helped in life – it’s because we were not listened to”.
What many people don’t realize when it comes to grief (and something I tell anyone that is struggling to express their emotions) is that:
Crying and Breaking Down is the Recovery
If we try and stop the crying, we are merely putting a plaster on top. The more we confront our grief, the more we move towards the acceptance stage. If expressing emotions is not something you are used to doing, then try writing things down or saying it out loud to yourself (in the car on the way to work for example).
Anything but keeping it in!
Some even find that exercise helps. Many people will find that going for a long run will help bring out the tears. We must stop the stigma around crying,
Crying is not a weakness. It is a strength!
It is actually very healthy to cry – it releases toxins and stress from our body.
Explaining this to our children is also very useful. If they see mum and dad crying, for example, they may feel a sense of panic – but explaining that this is perfectly normal and healthy will allow them to express their own emotions going forward.
The reason counseling is so effective is not because a counselor is telling you what to do (because you already have all the answers), but because when we say things out loud, (in a space that feels safe and non-judgemental) our minds can make better sense of things that seem jumbled up and confusing.
We can, therefore, process it better and figure out a way forward.
Many people struggle with the guilt they feel, thinking maybe they could have done more. They also struggle with the final images of their loved one. But the more we suppress these images and feelings of guilt and anger, the more they linger. Many people will talk about the painful images just once or twice, and they will already start to notice a shift, as the images don’t seem so raw and distressing.
It’s the same with the feelings of guilt. Say it out loud. Say whatever it is you feel guilty about. Allow yourself to feel that way but also learn to forgive yourself.
We are all human after all.
Life events lead up to how we deal with grief, and past events, childhood issues, and even relationship struggles may resurface when we are grieving. This is all completely normal.
It’s important that we allow these feelings to come forward because if we keep suppressing our emotions, then we stay stuck in life, unable to be truly present and happy.
Grief will help us grow as a person. We become more resilient and are able to cope with other losses in the future.