The first and most important thing to know about grief is that the experience is not the same for everyone. At all.
“When we grieve it’s like our own fingerprint, unique to us,” says Lianna Champ, a bereavement expert with over 40 years’ experience in funeral care and grief counselling, and author of How To Grieve Like A Champ.
“Every single relationship we have is totally unique to ourselves. So if you have two brothers and they lose a parent, each of those brothers will experience a different grief because each relationship with the parent is unique.”
However, it is sometimes easy to kid yourself that you’re fine after a loss and bottle up emotions that you’d be better off working through. To better understand grieving and how it may be affected by the current COVID-19 pandemic, here’s Champ.
Do people really experience the five stages of grief?
The five stages of grief were proposed by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. She found that when somebody receives the diagnosis of a terminal illness, they will go through these five stages of grief. These have been wrongly transferred to bereavement. For example, the first one is denial, so when somebody dies you can choose to disbelieve it, but you can’t deny the fact they’ve died. Then there’s anger. I’ve worked with so many families where, especially when the death has been expected, the family doesn’t feel angry.
There are no set stages, and if we believe there are and we try to fit ourselves into stages we don’t allow our natural grieving process. Whatever you are feeling when you grieve is right and natural for you.
How can you recognise that maybe you haven’t allowed yourself to grieve properly?
This is called unresolved grief. We are very good at lying to each other about how we feel. We can be in bits inside but if someone asks, “How are you?” we’ll say, “I’m fine.” I did it myself when my mother died. When you lie to others you lie to yourself, and your subconscious picks up on it and tries to think you’re fine. You get good at burying your pain.
You have to work through your grief experience as it’s happening. We can store up a lot of unresolved grief and if we then find ourselves overreacting to a relatively small loss, then we know we have a lot of unresolved grief inside. You can find you’re very tired, or your sleeping pattern is disrupted, or your eating is disrupted. Lots of things indicate that we are struggling emotionally.
How do you resolve it?
Sometimes we find that we can have complicated relationships with people in our lives, and there are things we wish we could have changed – said or not said, done or not done. When they pass away we lose that opportunity to make it right, and that can hold us in a place of limbo. A good thing to do is to write down how you feel about the relationship. Think, “If I could have one last conversation, what would I want to say and what would I want from them?” It can highlight those areas where you have been stuck. Be really honest with yourself. Nobody else is going to read this.
Journalling is also a good thing – writing down your feelings during the day. You might do it every day for a week, then not do it for two weeks, but it’s good because you can always see how far you’ve come.
Is there a typical timescale for grief?
We’ve lost the luxury of grieving. We think we should feel perfect straight away – “why am I not normal? It’s been six weeks.” Well, it doesn’t take six weeks. We change and have to adapt to our grief. There’s no stopwatch and there’s no medal at the end of it for those who get there quicker than others. We’re all at different stages in our lives, our relationships are different.
You never recover from grief. It’s about reconciling with it and moving forward. You never get to the stage where you don’t miss a person. You always miss them and that’s normal.
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How can you help someone who is grieving? What do people do that makes it worse?
We’re very good at jumping in with our own experiences and that is the worst thing you can do. My mum died in 2011 from heart failure. I bumped into someone six or seven months later and she said, “I’m sorry, I heard about your mum, what happened?” I said it was heart failure and she said, “Oh, well, my mother died over three years from cancer.” I came away thinking, “My mum only died from heart failure.” They hijacked my grief experience and minimised it.
The best thing is to listen without comment and don’t compare. Remember how you felt when you had your own losses. It’s a unique experience. Listen and be in the moment. Grievers just need to be heard, to put the pain into words. When we talk emotionally we aren’t engaging in conversation, we’re making a statement – this is how I feel. And you need somebody to say thank you for sharing.
Another good way to help is to make a commitment to do something. We all say “give me a ring if you need me” or “I can cook a meal for you, let me know when”. No. Say, “I’m going to cook it for you next Wednesday.” Grievers find it hard to reach out. We’ve all been taught not to burden each other with our feelings, so make a commitment.
How is the COVID-19 pandemic making grieving harder?
It’s given us a twofold problem. We’re already grieving the loss of our normal routines and the loss of being with the people we love. So when we do then suffer a death in this time we are coming from a weakened point. And of course we can’t reach out physically, we can’t come together and take comfort from each other. We are having to learn to grieve alone or grieve electronically. It’s so difficult and goes against our natural instincts.
Do you have any tips on how to grieve in isolation?
One thing to stress is that it’s OK to fold into it. to pull the covers over your head and weep. It isn’t fair, and it hurts, and we have to accept that, to wallow in that pain. Then we have to reach out to others. It’s so important that we communicate. Pick up the phone – we don’t perhaps want to be on FaceTime when we’re crying and feeling awful, unless it’s someone we feel really safe with, but pick up the phone and reach out. A good thing is to have one person you have a listening agreement with. Someone in a role where you can call them at two in the morning if you’re struggling or not coping with the isolation. A person who can be your sponge to absorb everything you’re going through.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.