Learning to live with your scars

Learning to live with your scars

There is a belief that grief ends. That we go through some process of grieving and emerge at the end with our grief ended.

My question to those of you who are grieving is: Do you want to come to a day when the person you love does not matter any more?

I don’t know anyone who answers yes to that question.

The reality is, if we loved someone we will always miss them. There will always be pain at their loss. They will always be part of our life. They will always matter. For that reason the pain will always be there.

But I also know people who want the pain to end.

I can tell people that the acute pain will some day be transformed into something more manageable. There will still be pain, especially on special days and times that remind us of the person we loved so much. But the acute pain will subside.

As for the other aspects of grief:

Life will never be the same. There will be a new normal that includes the loss of the person you loved. You will live your life with the memory of what you have lost, with the memory of the person you loved and the grief at them leaving. They will always be part of you and anything you do will be experienced through the lens of that person’s loss.

I have heard people describe the sadness of their loss, their yearning for a day with the person they loved so much and the pain of that loss.  I have also heard people talk about their love for the person they lost. I have heard them speak with gratitude of the relationship they had with that person. And I have heard them talk about the happy memories they have of time with that person.

People love to reminisce about the good times. Those reminiscences are important. It is important for families to share these memories too, especially when there are children in the family. Family stories are important for children to learn about themselves and to connect to past generations. Those stories help children feel connected with life and are an important template of connection with society.

Remember the scars on your body that are always there. Grief is like a scar. It is always there. But like a physical scar, it fades over time and you learn to live with it.

Each person has their own way of grieving

The first time I encountered the death of a person was when I was 12 and my grandmother suffered a cardiac arrest while my brother and I were visiting. I had just been taught how to perform CPR and no one else knew what to do, so I stepped in and performed CPR on her. The only problem was that when I was taught CPR someone decided children should not be told that the person they work on may die. Instead we were told that all you had to do was bounce on someone’s chest and give them rescue breaths and they would be fine.
So what does a 12 year old believe when instead of being fine the grandmother she just performed CPR dies?
My family did not discuss things. This is despite the fact my mother was a school counsellor. She was woefully inadequate at attuning to or meeting the needs of her children. She didn’t even have the understanding that her 12 year old daughter was not fine, but was actually full of guilt, believing she killed her grandmother because she must have done something wrong. She obviously thought that telling me that “Nanna didn’t want to continue living if repeated heart attacks were to be her life” was somehow comforting. All that told me was that my mother knew I had done the wrong things and I felt even guiltier
Apart from my brother making a comment that he was glad I knew how to perform CPR because he had no idea what to do other than call an ambulance, there was never any mention of what I had done. Further proof to me that the family knew I had done the wrong thing and weren’t going to talk about it. We didn’t talk about Nanna. We didn’t talk about her death. There was an impersonal funeral run by a chaplain who did not know my grandmother. No one cried. My mother prided herself on not showing emotion and we were expected to do the same.
Fast forward seven years and I was a student nurse working on a busy medical ward. There was a woman there with a blood clot in her leg Despite being on treatment for this, the woman developed another blood clot. And then it started spreading. Both legs suddenly were blocked by blood clots. Her veins were full of them. Then they spread to her arteries. Her doctor visited with a look of great concern on his face. This woman was really ill. She was moved to a private room. She was in agony with the blockages of blood flow in her legs.
I arrived at work one sunny Sunday afternoon to find her very ill. She was being given drugs to dissolve the clots, but they weren’t working. The woman’s legs were swollen and a terrible array of colours. Her entire body was turning yellow. She was in terrible pain. Her shocked family were hovering around her bed. We needed to change her sheets and asked the family to wait in the visitor’s room next door. As we changed the sheets on a bed in disarray the registered nurse I was with suddenly told me to get her family in. She recognised something I had never seen before. This woman was about to die.
So the family came in and spent her last moments with her. Then they waited in the visitor’s room as the registered nurse and I washed her, put her in a fresh nightie, and changed the sheets. Some nice flowers and gentle music were the final steps in transforming the room into a peaceful place. We then left the room so her family could come and spend time with her.
It was so wonderful to see that her family’s last memories of her would be looking clean, fresh and peaceful. I learned that day how precious the act of washing the body of someone who has died is. How precious leaving them in peace and in a tranquil setting is. How much a blessing that is to their family.
I left the room to continue my work with a feeling of joy at the precious gift I had been able to give that woman. As I walked down the ward, I saw the woman’s bed room companion walking down the hall. I smiled at her. Her response was a total shock to me. She burst out angrily and abused my lack of caring about this woman’s death. I was shocked. I cared very much that this woman was dead, that is why I was happy. I was happy because she was at peace. I was happy because I had been blessed with the opportunity to do something special to her.
I have never lost that feeling at caring for a dead person. I have the deepest respect for those who have died and am grateful for the opportunity to show that respect.
Not everyone feels that way.
Not everyone grieves the same way.
The woman’s bed room companion felt I was being uncaring because I smiled. For her grief is about crying and being sombre. For me death is just a stage in life. I was raised on the Celtic belief that we pass over to the next realm at death. For me death is not the end.
For me there are two responses to death. There is the love and respect at a person reaching the next stage in their life. Then there is the experience of those who are left.
As a 12 year old I had never encountered the death of a person before. I wondered what it meant. I eventually concluded it meant I would never be able to see my grandmother again. I would never hear her voice or answer the phone to a call from her. I would never be able to tell her things. She was gone and there was a silence where she had been.
By the time I was 19 I had learned so much more about death. I had spent the intervening years reading Elizabeth Kubler Ross and other people who wrote about death. I had taken to heart their observations that our society is removed from death. That we now ignore and sanitise death as much as possible. That most people die in hospitals, hidden away from the world. That we no longer learn to live with death and find meaning in the act of death itself.
At 19 I learned a new aspect of death. The sacredness. The dignity. I had learned that there is the experience of the person who dies. For most death is a peaceful passage from life. But in my years as a nurse I encountered the occasional person who fought death. Whose terror was palpable. In those years I lacked the understanding to be able to help them.
I also learned that there are those who love those who are dying. They are the ones left with the hole in their lives where the person they loved once was. There are the ones left to continue living in a world without their loved one.
Each person who has lost someone they love will respond differently. I noticed as a young nurse the pressure placed on people to follow a particular pattern of behaviour. I noticed how people were judged by their responses. How people would measure how much they cared by their adherence to societal norms around death. This still happens today, but fortunately to a lesser extent. People are better informed now than they used to be. But there are still expectations placed on people.
If you want to help someone who has lost a loved one the best thing you can do is just be with them. Let them know you are willing to listen if they want to talk, but you will just be there. Don’t talk. Don’t offer platitudes like “he is in a better place”, “It is all for the best”, “he is out of pain”, “you can always have another child”, “she wouldn’t have wanted to live with repeated heart attacks”.
In the support you give never forget the children. Children lack the understanding of life that adults have. They don’t know how to express their emotions. They don’t understand what is happening. Make sure you give them the opportunity to ask questions, but only if they want to. Give them space to talk. Demonstrate willingness to listen. Refer them to counselling if you think that will help. Don’t assume they are alright. When I was 12 I was not alright. As the years progressed and I became a Registered Nurse, I wondered why I shook uncontrollably whenever I took part in resuscitating someone. At 39 a patient of mine choked to death, despite my best efforts. In the debriefing I realised it was just like my grandmother’s death. Sadly there was no follow on for me to get help. Some years later I was completing an advanced first aid test and was given a scenario to perform. The scenario was finding a choking person on the floor. I froze. I was unable to do anything. I couldn’t move, talk or understand what was happening. I was thrown back into the death of my patient and further back to my grandmother’s death. Since then I have received my own counselling for that. Had I received counselling at the time of my grandmother’s death I would have been able to process what had happened and not been so impacted.
There are two take aways from this blog.
The first is that everyone’s experience of death and way of grieving is different.
The second is to make sure everyone gets support, including the children. Remember, just because someone appears to get on with life don’t assume they are coping.

What is the right way to grieve?

the tasks of grieving are many and varied and can spill over each other

I was reminded recently of this problem when I had a number of clients come to see me who were all experiencing difficulties with people telling them they “weren’t grieving the right way”.

I find it unbelievable that anyone could say that. I also think it is a terribly unsupportive and cruel thing to say to someone who is grieving.

We are all individuals and we all react to life situations differently. Just because we react differently does not mean we are reacting the wrong way. There are as many ways to grieve as there are bereaved people.

If you have a friend, colleague or family member who is grieving, don’t tell them how to grieve. Be there for them. Ask if they are okay. Listen to them without judgement and without trying to find solutions for their grief. Be there long after the funeral, when most people have lost interest and got on with their lives. Don’t set a time limit on their grief. That means let them be happy however early or late in their grieving they express happiness. That means let them want to hide themselves away from the world to lick their wounds. Just be there and check in on them occasionally. Invite them places but don’t force them to come. Just let them know the door is open should they care to step through it.

Some people want to cry, a lot, when they are grieving. Others cry when you can’t see them and appear happy and settled when you can see them. Some may want to keep the person’s room as a shrine, never touching anything. Others rush to give away all their clothing. Both are right ways to be. If that is what they want.

Some people turn their loved one’s clothes into soft toys, bed covers, clothing so they can remember them. Some people do that for their bereaved friend.

Some people take time off work and spend time sitting in the loved one’s room, or favourite chair, or visiting their favourite place. Others keep working.

The list goes on.

The main point of this is to remember that everyone grieves differently and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

Current research into grief shows that we have tasks we attend to when grieving. There are the tasks of everyday life and there are the tasks of grieving. We need to spend time attending to both types of tasks. Some will spend more time on the everyday life tasks whereas others will spend more time on the grieving tasks. Everyone will spend varying time on both sets of tasks and this will vary from day to day, from month to month. There is no magic formula on how much time is allocated to attend to these tasks. If you see someone going back to work a day or so after their loss, do not tell them they aren’t grieving properly. They are grieving, just differently to your expectations. Obviously, if someone comes back to work and they obviously are not coping, then it may be helpful to check in on them. They may appreciate the opportunity to go somewhere quieter, or even walk outside, and share how they are feeling. If they realise they need to go home that is okay. A person can only know what they can cope with if they try to do things.

Another thing research shows is that, as meaning making people, we need to be able to make meaning from the loss of a loved one. That can mean we do things other than sit around crying. Or we can sit around crying and then want to do what others may consider are very strange things. Grief hits everyone in different ways and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

So if you are grieving, seek out those who will sit with you and listen. These people are the ones that will check in with you to see if you are okay, who will sit and listen without offering solutions, who will be there long after the funeral. These friends will not ask if you are finished grieving yet, nor will they tell you you are not grieving enough. These friends will not set a time limit on your grief and will allow you to feel sad on your loved one’s birthday, anniversary of their death, and other anniversaries. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to have great days and horrible days. Most of all, give yourself as much time as you need. The pain will never go away, but you will learn to live with it and move forward with life.