Chapter 5: Long term issues in bereavement

Back to Reflections on Chapter 4

Questions of human uncertainty

There are some questions which seem to cause anxiety, especially for people who may have moved away from religion while retaining some of the ideas from religion that puzzle and possibly frighten them.  They may not always be ready to discuss such topics with people they know well, but may wish to explore them with a companion who has shown that she is interested and prepared to listen.

Here are some examples. As you read them, try to imagine some of the ways you might respond in various different ways to different people.

1. “Why” questions

a) Some “why” questions are real questions of fact: Did he kill himself because she left him?  What made me miscarry?

b) But there are also “Why?” questions implying a purpose in the death suggesting punishment as from an outside source. Why did my son have to die?  Why did God take my baby, I had done nothing wrong? What are we put into this world for? Why should I go on now he is dead?

2. Questions from children.

Children are naturally interested in questions of life and death, but they {and some adults} are also interested in the stories or myths that they have been told earlier by way of explanation, so they might ask such questions as: What happened to Gran after she died?  Did she go to heaven?  Is she one of the stars? Where did my life come from?  Is Gran asleep? Has Gran gone to be with Jesus? Did Jesus take her from us? Will Grandpa see her in heaven? Will she still be ill and old?

3. Dogma

Is there an afterlife? Will there be a second coming and a judgement day?  Do we go to heaven because we are good, or because we have faith? Do I have a spiritual and a material aspect which will separate when I die? Shall I recognize those I know in an afterlife? Why is there evil and death in the world, especially when God is good?

 4. Fears

a) Since my husband died, I realize that I may die alone, perhaps with no-one beside me, certainly no-one to comfort me or be with me as I move out of this world. I am frightened; I fear to sleep and am becoming ill.

b) My dad became senile, so I put him into the geriatric hospital. Now he has died, I have his money and his house.  I am to blame.  I am terrified of dying alone. I cannot go out.  I can see no point in life.  I was once depressed and know the illness is returning. What am I to do?

Some of these anxieties - sometimes known as existential anxieties - quickly go away, but some can become serious fears that need all your possible attention and consideration. They may be listed as:

Anxiety about death, brought forward by the death that has been recently observed.  Can I now face my own death and the responsibilities and the jobs implied?  Have I ever been able to cope with loss or change, or interested even to look at it?

Anxiety about meaninglessness; where the bereavement has deprived me of a purpose there is truly the need to build life afresh, to find a new purpose and focus to life.

Anxiety about isolation; I may fill my life with people, company, noise, radio, etc. and dread to be alone.  I may avoid the thought that there is little reason for anyone to want to be with me.  It takes time and courage and strength to learn to be quietly alone.

Anxiety stemming from freedom; this is the fear to experiment in thought, or imagination, or to exercising one’s own talents, or even to change habits.  I may fear condemnation; to be thought unfaithful. Where do such anxieties come from? Why are they so potent? Are these apparently moral imperatives still sensible?

Loss of purpose

For many people, their identity becomes closely associated with the work they do, or the care they give to others. A death sometimes seems to cut away the importance we have given to our work;  carers may be left empty of purpose;  their life empty of meaning.  Imagine, for example:

a) A woman who has cared for her husband since retirement, and, over the last three years, through several aspects of cancer.  When he dies, then she will be entirely lost for a function to keep herself together especially as they had moved into a town where they knew no-one..

b) A young woman had prepared for her first child with eager anticipation, reading books, visiting clinics, decorating a nursery, buying and making clothes etc.  The child was stillborn.  She now feels totally empty, depressed and without point or purpose to her life.

c) A man was very bitter when he found that his wife, whom he had brought to the cardiac department had been “allowed” to die. He blamed the Sister in charge of the ward at that time, physically attacked her, and initiated complaints and investigations against her. She was killed in a road traffic accident.  He lost all motivation and purpose in every aspect of his life.

What reactions from you might help a person in these circumstances?

There seem to be two approaches:

a) Some people believe that each one of us builds her own purpose. During the time of transition after a bereavement, building a new purpose may be very hard, and help may be needed for a while. Three categories may be suggested:

i) The creative: for example making things, building, gardening, engaging with the arts, or developing memorials or campaigns, or even tidying up, getting rid of possessions that serve no purpose.

ii) The experiential: for example exercising, immersing oneself in the “stream of life”, e.g. in saving the planet, in community affairs, in helping people in need, falling in love, working at self-actualisation, or, less sensibly, indulging is hedonistic activities, e.g. drinking, sex, partying.

iii) The attitudinal: for example scorning {and doing what you can to resist} the absurd, the bully, the wicked.  Or divesting myself of preoccupations with possessions or success or power.

b) Others believe that we are on earth for a “given”  purpose.  Then this purpose has to be discovered rather than built. For example, if we are on earth to show the glory of God, then the search may involve such things as worship, serving others, evangelism, good works.

But sometimes, after a  bereavement, people may be too angry and exhausted to start anything new.  It may be months before they feel ready to make decisions. Their eventual motivation may be triggered by quite a slight event: noticing that the grass needs cutting, holding a baby, a moment of fear, confusion or dependency, being asked to help a neighbour, ... Until that happens, though there may be some point in discussing new motives, too much pressure might depress and annoy.

Loneliness

Perhaps the most frequently felt of all these issues is loneliness; either the absence of any sympathetic person who might concern themselves with us, or the loss of intimacy, or the sense of separateness from other human beings.  The loneliness may stem from various situations:

a) Physical isolation: being away from family or friends, confined by illness, poverty or circumstances.

b) Emotional isolation when an intimacy is broken, as after a death or separation, a quarrel, a failure or error of which one is ashamed, the loss of a job or an exclusion from a group.

c) A fearful isolation. There may be moments when, for all the distractions of activities, relationships, the media or responsibilities that fill our life, we realize that we are alone, shall die alone, maybe to be forgotten in oblivion. The distress of such moments can be very grave. Should such isolation be   expressed, you, as companion, need to avoid any pretence of an immediate answer, and might ask to be lead through your neighbour’s fearful isolation. You can only touch his distress as from a distance but that may be enough.

It is rare that an easy remedy is available for isolation, so the aim in discussing these distressing emotions has to be either

a) to help in the search for a remedy for the isolation, e.g. moving house, joining an enterprise,

 or

b) to explore the emotion and circumstances until moments of understanding or personal inner strengths dissolve some part of the pain. 

Notice that:

            a)  Loneliness is a universal human experience, though rarely admitted.

            b) Some loneliness stems from the immediate upset of the bereavement; being seen to weep, sometimes being emotionally out of control, feeling inappropriately angry with everyone, wanting to avoid everyone, etc. so cutting himself off from people and finding it very hard to re-connect.

            c) The isolation, described above as “fearful”, sometimes called “existential”, can be very frightening indeed, and may need highly intense interaction between you before it is reduced. Where distractions are resisted and the loneliness is faced, the necessary changes can be addressed, and strength and steadiness reappear.

            d) After you have shared the distress of all these types on isolation, it may help to return to considering the aims or purposes we considered in the last section, especially the notions mentioned under creative and experiential. It is generally more effective for the isolated person to offer, love, appreciation, energy to others, than for him to expect the things from others.

Sexual difficulties after bereavement

Intimacy

There is intimacy when an individual is able to talk about who she or he really is, and to say what she or he wants and needs, and to be heard by the intimate partner. Intimacy implies confidentiality and trust.

Intimacy is important in a world of connections where individuals negotiate complex networks of trust, minimize differences, try to reach consensus, avoid the appearance of superiority which might highlight differences.

Independence is important in a world of status, where low status is associated with taking orders, of being dependent.

Where there has been intimacy, a bereavement is likely to bring a loss of intimacy and closeness, the loss of a confidant, and of a barrier between you and the unfriendly world outside {and that brings anxiety}.

Intimacy in a sexual relationship

A good sexual relationship can sometimes be an expression and affirmation of intimacy, or sometimes the renewal or confirmation of intimacy after doubt or distance. When moments of physical contact might have been the norm, in bed, at holiday time, after a family quarrel, on returning from a party - and there has been a death, there may now be moments of extreme emptiness.

After a bad sexual relationship, though a  bereavement may bring relief, this may be mixed with many difficulties associated with regret, feelings of responsibility for the relationship failure, together with an almost desperate need for the reassurance of a sexual relationship - a potent source of trouble.

Sexual difficulties after a bereavement

Sexual difficulties may arise:

- when an "outside" bereavement drains sexual desire from one partner;

- when a sexual partner dies.

Where an "outside" bereavement disturbs a sexual relationship

In this case, for example when a child dies, the difficulty may lie essentially in communication between the grieving pair.  Grief may diminish sexual drive in one but not the other. So it may help for each person to discuss their anger, their feeling that sexual activity is, or is not, appropriate, their needs, their frustration, with a third person before trying to reopen the subject with their partner.  The central qualities that a companion needs on these occasions are acceptance, and to make no assumptions.

If, after a while and after communication has been established, the sexual dysfunction continues, then it may be necessary to get outside help, for instance through a GP or the charity Relate.

When a sexual partner dies, the bereaved partner may be surprised and distressed by the contrast between their real sexual responses to the event and what they may expect or consider appropriate.  Again, the companion needs to be very accepting and to make no assumptions.

Assumptions

It is easy to make assumptions; for example, that death always lessens sexual need, that no-one over 40 {or 50 or 80} is sexually active, that the sexual partner was of a different sex, that the spouse was the sexual partner, ... The expression of such assumptions, where they are inappropriate, can cause awkwardness and prevent the necessary sharing.

Words that shock

The words people use may be constrained as much by their culture or their gender as by their age. Think hard about the words they use, and the jokes they make.  Do you really understand them and their context?  Are they covering something too difficult to express easily? Can you help?     

Possible variations in sexual need

It sometimes can help to place the possible sexual deprivation in the context of the process of grieving, remembering as always that this is not a tidy ordering of events or responses.

Shock              

Initially sexual feelings may totally disappear.  Alternatively they may become very strong, perhaps for very brief periods, and this may disconcert the grieving person and, if they enter into momentary sexual activity, cause them endless regret.

Emotional upheaval

With the feelings of loss may come restless and uncomfortable feelings of deprivation of  a comforting touch or physical satisfaction of a long hug. The feeling of sexual tension may begin, from the need for sexual activity; and also the need to love and be loved, or to want and be wanted.

Acceptance

Now a calmer new sexual relationship might be possible, but is it right and is it prudent so soon after the death?  Is it immoral and does it seem “unfaithful” at this stage?  But is time/life/womanhood being wasted without it?  The family, and especially offspring, often vehemently reject any new relationship, and especially any sexual relationship for their widowed parent.

Continue to Reflections on Chapter 5