Bereavement Counselling

Grief and bereavement counselling can help make sense of this complex emotional journey

Grief work – learning to live with loss

The loss of a loved one, a body part or even a treasured possession changes your own life forever. The immediate effect is to send you into emotional upheaval; a topsy-turvy world where for some time you are trying to make sense of what has happened and why, and to reconstruct your new identity and everyday life. Freud aptly described the bereavement process as ‘grief work’ because anything other than your total emotional and physical involvement in adjusting to living with the loss will not produce the outcome you desire: to invest in your new joyful life.

Normal grief – losing a loved one

You will be helped if earlier in your life you felt securely attached to your parents. A child who has experienced parents who show their love and interest in him through being available and appropriately responsive, develops an inner confidence which helps him to cope and restore both internal and external balance to his life more quickly and effectively after any upset. It is never easy to separate from someone you love but it is easier where the relationship has been mutually trusting, beneficial and satisfying.  It is natural to be upset but if you know that the relationship was good while it lasted it is easier to adjust to the loss than if you felt uncared for, unwanted, or rejected. In such cases it is likely there is unfinished business which will enter into the grief.

Dealing with grief

Grief is the price we pay for love. The first feeling on hearing the news of the death is shock and disbelief. This is quickly followed by the pain and tears of grief. Panic, fear, helplessness, anger, despair and restless searching are all characteristic but everyone’s journey is different and there are no time limits. One task for the bereaved is to accept that the loss is real and there is no possibility of reunion. At the same time he will have a growing awareness of the impact of the loss on his own existence because he is forced to adapt to the gap which is left. There will probably be financial and practical as well as emotional consequences and the family unit has to regroup and individual members face up to new roles, as widow or orphan, for example.

Understanding and the opportunity to talk about grief

Social support helps because sharing feelings does more good than harm and often the bereaved need the opportunity to talk, sometimes repeatedly, about their feelings towards the deceased and their own predicament. This is because human beings need to make meaning out of what happens to them and throughout this period of chaos they are trying to build a narrative of events which makes assimilation and acceptance easier. But during mourning bereaved people may experience some unfamiliar and possibly alarming disturbances such as hallucinating that the deceased has returned, nightmares, absentmindedness, lack of concentration, hostility- sometimes towards God or the doctors for letting someone die – or feeling the dead person’s symptoms in themselves. They may fear they are going mad but it is all part of the aftermath of loss and all they need is patient support, time and understanding.

Abnormal reactions to bereavement

Most people do not need medication although when grief becomes chronic, delayed or absent the normal experience of working through reactive depression and separation anxiety does not occur. The bereaved may find himself unable to accept the loss (eg by keeping a shrine or unhygienically hoarding), or he might sink into a state of long term passivity, self-reproach and apathy which we call depression. Sometimes people exhibiting abnormal grief will isolate themselves, possibly becoming dependent on substances even to the point of self-harm. If the death was traumatic it may be very difficult to engage in grief work without help. In each of these cases professional intervention needs serious consideration because the process is stuck.

Moving on

The expressions ‘letting go’ or closure are often heard but actually there is more to moving on from a major loss than trying to put it in the past. The aim is to integrate the lost person into the bereaved person’s present life and his social networks. Consciously retaining and using the attributes of the deceased is helpful to the living and a real memorial to the deceased. Since so much is changing in a short time it is important to hold on to the stable aspects of life such as a familiar location, a career, or a role of being a parent, daughter or son. Roles may assume a different nature, perhaps demanding more time or responsibility, but essentially they remain as they were before the death. While the bereaved loses someone important they also lose something of themselves so they may feel, behave or look different as well as be treated differently by other people.

Keeping memories alive

Death does not mean the relationship has ended; memories, dreams and anniversaries keep it alive. Many people find solace in having a place where they can visit the dead person such as a grave or a park bench. Some use the memory of the dead person as a sort of internal referral point giving advice and guidance or providing basic values. ‘What would Mum have said?’ or, ‘Dad would never have let this happen.’ The deceased can continue as a role model and remain part of the mourner’s own biography. In that way the dead stay with us and the grief work is done.

Helping you work through the grief

Counselling helps in cases of abnormal grief, where you feel stuck or where you have limited social support. But even if bereavement is proceeding normally it sometimes helps to have someone unaffected by the loss to put a perspective on what you are going through.

If you are struggling to come to terms with a loss or the tough path of bereavement, get in touch with me.