Chapter 7: Some points of observation and research on bereavement support

Back to Reflections on Chapter 6

Observations of the bereaved person’s circumstances

As well as responding to what the bereaved person says, the more the companion observes about the bereaved person, in quite ordinary, commonsensical ways, the more subtle and useful her interventions are likely to be. For example:

-- with elderly people, there might be issues of confidence, of diminishing mental or physical strength, or of younger family members trying to take command;

-- parents, whether of foetus, baby, child, adolescent or adult, and especially of  one who is mentally or physically frail, may feel that they have lost part of themselves and their future, have completely failed in their role as competent guardians, have suffered amputation and loss of identity;

-- for those who are slow to learn, there may be problems in understanding what has happened, in coping with the new situation, or of appreciating the need for new safety and support regimes;

-- for people who have lost gay partners, there may be issues of isolation or revived family disapproval even at this time of need;

-- for people who have been in a senior post, there may be reservations about owning to anything that might be thought weak or irresponsible;

-- for people, especially men, trained in the forces or police where expressions of emotion or distress in times of crisis might be dangerous, time might be needed for them to admit to those aspects of the bereavement that they have learnt to consider inappropriate;

-- for who have already lost their family by emigration, by war or other barbarities, this bereavement may be an incomprehensible extra cruelty which they can hardly accept;

-- for those perched on the edge of acceptable behaviour because of early abuse, drugs, alcohol, difficult family circumstances or experience of prison, a bereavement may remove a fundamental source of support and tempt them back into these difficult and antisocial activities.  

Where such points are noted and tentatively included in the supporting responses, the bereaved person will give more in trust and will benefit accordingly.

Ideas from research

In the past, several descriptions {models} of the grieving process have been advanced.  Some have become well known and have been wrongly taken as general statements describing how all bereavements should proceed. There can be no such general prescriptions.

The models of grieving mentioned here are observations from bereavement research that may be applicable for some people under some circumstances. They each contain useful ideas, and are well worth consideration.

Where the grieving is proceeding adequately, there is absolutely no need to introduce these models.  But where the grieving is not going well, you might ask yourself whether the person is working against the grain of any one of these models. If you believe that this is happening, then you might tentatively mention this and explore the possibility that some different way of coping might improve the situation.

The variability of grieving

People are sometimes alarmed to find that their moods and strengths in grieving continually fluctuate. Sometimes, for example, when they feel exhausted they may be reminded of some happy event and their despair disappears; sometimes they feel aggressive with anger and bitterness over the death, then realization that nothing significant can be done leaves them drained, empty and desolate; sometimes they are managing everyday chores quite happily when they come upon an old coat, a doll or a bit of material that reminds them of some event and they are suddenly floored, and    then perhaps a friend uses some comical turn of phrase and they will laugh together.

It can be confusing and very exhausting; it may be a relief to know that it is normal.

Taking back control

People may treat a  bereavement like a wound; nothing much can be done until it   heals itself.  An alternative, and usually more effective approach would be for bereaved people to try to help themselves.  For example:

-- when they want to know about the death, how it happened, who was responsible, how the deceased behaved etc. they will attend the coroner’s court in spite of family advice not to “upset| themselves;

-- when they want to complain about the hospital, police, care-home, etc. they should do so, even if their friends feel that it is undignified;

-- when, in a rather controlled family, they want to express their emotions, they should do so; and where, in more relaxed circumstances, they wish to keep their feeling to themselves, then again, they should do so.

Maintaining a balance

Occasionally there are circumstances when either they allow their grieving to take over their life, or, alternatively, they refuse to grieve, then difficulties may arise.  If they do not grieve, then they will cut themselves from their past; if they will only grieve, then they stultify their life. In such circumstance it may be that the companion should explain these dangers and suggest that it might help to give time more equally between grieving for the past and preparing for the future.

Avoiding the negative

A similar danger might arise where the person in their grieving focuses excessively on the negative: the unfairness that they are left with the children to care for, the bitterness that the operation went wrong, the longing for vengeance where a punishment is thought to be inadequate. Such emphasis on the negative can prevent progress towards adjustment. A case might be made for the exercise of forgiveness in such circumstances, even where it feels inappropriate.                    

Accepting relief

Grieving rarely fills every moment of every day; there are times when work, caring for others etc. brings the relief of familiarity.  It is important for people to accept these moments of relief and not feel guilty about them.

Some people hate it when they find themselves laughing, or when it suggested that they should stop grieving, because they feel that these would mean that they hadn’t loved well enough.  This denies that readjustment is natural or appropriate, but can also be mistaken in another way. For example, a good and long relationship can give   independence and strength to each spouse or partner, making them able to endure and to readjust better then those who have had a difficult relationship. Long grieving does not necessarily denote a good relationship

Differences

Men and women tend to grieve differently and so their support may need to be different. Where the bereaved person seems to be too rational, then it may help to focus on emotion matters for a while, where he is too emotional, then it might be sensible to emphasise the practical and rational.

Biographical construction

Where a relationship {for example between parents and a teen-age offspring} has not been fully realised in life, the bereaved person has things to learn about the relationship and so about himself. Time can usefully be spent exploring the lost incomplete relationship. This is usually done by speaking to others who knew the dead person and the past relationship, or by meeting past friends or colleagues. Bereaved people may need encouragement to arrange these meetings and help in managing unexpected discoveries.

The Continuing Bond

For many years, it has been thought that one of the purposes of grieving was to detach one’s self from the memories and hopes associated with the dead person. Many bereaved people, especially bereaved parents, reject this idea. They prefer the idea that they can continue their association with their child, even though in a changed form. They can no longer hold or feed or care for her or him, but they can still benefit from recollections of her or his vitality, good sense, humour, originality, trust or love, and from the good feelings, hopes and dreams they engendered. 

They may need encouragement to do this from the companion, because other friends or family may have taught them to try to detach themselves from past relationship. A balance needs to be achieved.

All these tasks allow the bereaved person to feel that they can do things, make enquires, ask questions, make complaints, i.e. help themselves, and this brings confidence. They also help the companion to understand how she might help.

So the purposes of grieving are:

i) to reorganise our life so that we can return to functioning reasonably well, even though differently;

ii) to reconstruct our identity.

iii) to establish a new bond with the dead person.

Grieving people are sometimes bombarded with advice; some of it inappropriate because it stems from quite different experiences of bereavement or from aconviction that one or other fo these models applies to all people at all times. In their state of distress they may cling to this advice. It will always be sensible to consider it, but not necessarily to follow it. The companion may need carefully and gently and over time to encourage them to question the advice given -- even by themselves.

Examples of such advice are instructions that you should, or should NOT:

-- express your emotions publicly, especially your anger or need for revenge;

-- “upset yourself” by talking about or investigating the death, especially if it was violent;

-- talk about the dead person  to as many people as you can find {though it might be necessary beforehand, to negotiate the limits of the burden you put upon them};

-- expect grieving to finish {that there should necessarily be “closure”};

-- stop making a fuss now six months have passed, and find something better to do;

-- “let go” of the dead person

Continue to Reflections on Chapter 7