Sara Mathews Counselling and Supervision

Bereavement and General Counselling.

Clinical Supervision

online from my durham practise

Beyond the “stages of grief”

Death. Talking about it, acknowledging its universal truth or feeling feelings about it is still a taboo subject in our culture. How often do you hear someone talking about “ if they die…” I’m afraid it’s not an if,  it’s a when.  At the end of life we all face death, no matter how much we kid ourselves we can stay young forever, death will have it’s way.

Strange then, given this is something we all face both for ourselves and for others that there is so much misinformation about what might happen for us when death steps into our lives. It might be personal, the death of a loved one, and before we go any further this absolutely can include pets, we love them, they matter and their death can teach us and our children a lot about how to handle death in future. Or it might be the death of a public figure such as the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Most often we hear people talking about “Stages of grief”. The truth is this research by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was done with people who were facing death themselves and describes the processes they found themselves going through as they tried to face up to the inevitable. It was never about the bereaved.

Whilst it’s true that bereavement can stir up a powerful cocktail of feelings that can seem confusing and contradictory. Try devastation and relief, or heartbroken and absolutely bloody furious. They are unlikely to come in a neat and tidy order. Nor are we likely to work through these feelings systematically until we reach the end of the process and can quietly get back on with our lives. These misunderstandings about grief frequently leave the bereaved dealing with the double whammy of the pain they are feeling and the horrible suspicion that they are doing grief wrong.

Modern theorists have developed an understanding that grief is dynamic, it shifts and changes and is pretty tough to predict. The dual process model of grief developed by Stroebe and Schut teaches us that most of us will try to cope with grief by jumping from what they call the “loss orientation” – this is the bit where grief is intensely painful and overwhelming to the “restoration orientation” – the bit where we try, as best we can, to cope with our loss and still live our lives. These shifts can be within a matter of hours or minutes of each other. Think of what it feels like after you’ve had a really good cry. There is often a sense of calm and a renewed capacity to dry our tears and try to get on with life.

The other theory I find really helpful in my work as a Bereavement counsellor is the idea of the Continuing Bond developed by Dennis Klass. This debunks the idea that grief can ever be tidied away by suggesting that even after death we continue to have feelings about whoever has died. We are still connected to our past and whilst this might sound negative, do we ever really get over death, ask yourself if you would sacrifice all the memories and feelings if it took the pain away. In my work I have sometimes asked a bereaved parent (surely one of the most awful losses we can face) if they would sacrifice the love and the memories for respite from the pain. The answer is always no. It also blows out of the water the idea that there is a proscribed time line for “getting over” a death. As counsellor Lois Tonkin learned from her work with bereaved mothers, there’s no getting over death. Instead we do our best to learn to live with it.

Which leads to me the final question I wanted to address. Do feelings of grief and loss always have to be connected to a death. The answer is unequivocally no. Whenever life changes there can be losses to deal with, even when a change is welcome, we can still  look back and wonder if we’ve done the right thing. Many life changes are not of our choosing, which can make them harder to cope with. Think of what women lose during the manopause for example ( and speaking from expereince think what we gain) There’s a whole industry built on the premise of sentimentality and looking at the past through rose tinted spectacles that can make loss and change hard to deal with.

So what can we learn in order to help ourselves deal better with loss, change and even death? Based on over 8,000 hours of clinical practise here’s what I would suggest:

1/ Get used to noticing, naming and accepting your feelings on a day to day basis. Instead of thinking “I shouldn’t be feeling like this” try “I notice I feel….. I wonder what that’s about”

2/ Cultivate a kindly curiosity towards your own internal processes. Most of us wouldn’t dream of talking to a friend the way we talk to ourselves. So no you’re not an idiot, your feelings aren’t stupid and other people do feel exactly the way you do it’s just that we tend to compare the inside (messy) part of ourselves to what we see on the outside of others.

3/Of course the death of someone you care about is unimaginably hard. Remember there is no timescale, no order, and no rules. Feel what you feel, be as kind to yourself as you can. Imagine you’ve been in a nasty accident, you are wounded and you need to time to rest and recover as best you can. Recovery does not mean you will forget. Continuing bonds to those we love mean they are always with us in one way or another.

Beyond the “stages of grief”
What can we say about grief?

©Sara Mathews

powered by WebHealer