The processes of grief

Big events – Christmas, a significant birthday, New Year's Eve or an anniversary – are all reminders of another year gone, and another year ahead, without those we love.

Fiona Grinwald, founder of the 2lookup movement, reflected on the anniversary of her husband’s death:

Four years, today.

It’s a day, but not really “a day”. It marks time but not feelings. Do I miss him more today than yesterday? No. Do I imagine I’ll miss him any less tomorrow than today? No. It’s 24 hours that signifies everything and nothing. It’s just another day. Except it’s not.

I picked up a book on the weekend – Lost Connections – uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions. I will, of course, read this book from start to finish, but I couldn’t help myself in going straight to the chapter titled ‘The grief exception’. I read the whole chapter as I stood in the bookstore. And then I bought the book.

As part of his journey in uncovering what really causes depression and anxiety, the author Johann Hari interviewed a woman who lost her daughter in childbirth. When Johann listened to this interview again, some time later, he started to think that there was something significant about the fact that grief and depression have identical symptoms:

What if depression is, in fact, a form of grief – for our own lives not being as they should? What if it is a form of grief for the connections we have lost, yet still need?

These words struck me. The sadness I feel on the ‘big events’ is a heightened form of grief for my life not being as it should, and for the connection I have lost with my sister, and one that I still need. And yet as Fiona Grinwald acknowledges, an anniversary can mark time, but it cannot mark feelings. This form of grief is with me everywhere I go. Some days it is heavy. And some days it is lighter. But it is always there. It does not mean that I am never happy. I laugh most days. Yet it signifies my loss.

There are two beautiful compilations of letters– Letters of Note, and More Letters of Note. The second compilation includes a letter from Abraham Lincoln to a young lady, whose father died in the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln had known her father, and having heard that his daughter was so distraught by her grief that she was barely able to function, Abraham Lincoln wrote her a letter, which included the following:

Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Abraham Lincoln’s letter, and Johann Hari’s reflection on his interview, are, to me, both comments on the process of grief. Julia Samuel is a grief psychotherapist who has spent the last 25 years working with bereaved families. I’m also reading her book Grief Works – Stories of Life, Death and Surviving. I like to quote other people’s words in my writing because I want my writing to capture as many different perspectives on grief as it can. I don’t’ want anyone to feel alone. I want to show that grief is universal.

This is a long except from her book, but one which is worthy of quoting in full here:

Everyone always talks about the process of grief, which is as much the activity that is going on below the surface as above. The image often used to illustrate it is an iceberg: what we see above the waterline – our words, our appearance, our expressions – is only a third of the whole. And the process that is hidden below consists of a tug-of-war between the pain of loss and our instinct to survive. The process is in the movement – the back and forth – between the loss and restoration. Sadness, tears, yearning and preoccupation with the person who has died alternate with present-day tasks, functioning, having hope for the future and having a break from the grief. Over time, we adjust incrementally to the reality of the death; and, as we adjust, we become a little more emotionally available to invest ourselves fully in our present life. This process, which is both conscious and unconscious, is intense at the outset but then grows less so as we learn to better manage our grief.

There is no linear path to grieving. It is backwards, forwards, sideways, and backwards again. And we all have our own journey to travel. But we must also remember the Buddhist proverb that the lotus flower blooms most beautifully from the deepest and thickest mud. How we each bloom will be different. And you will get there. I promise.