Heartache – Literacy for a Grief Illiterate Society
By Maria Beider
Overview: This article introduces the concept of grief literacy, offering a language and tools to help navigate the experience and the journey of loss and how to interact with a person who is grieving. It goes on to provide meaningful perspectives on coping with a loss.
‘Every birth begins with a descent into the darkness.’ (Sheri Mandell) When we look back in time and contemplate some highlights and achievements we also consider the dark times and our losses, praying with fear and trepidation for a better time ahead. Moreover, a foreboding grief and the potential for future loss is lurking silently amidst our prayers. Having recently studied grief and loss with world renowned grief educator, David Kessler, I realised something quite profound. In some respects, our vocabulary around grief is poor because grief resides in the realm of the unspoken. We do not know how to talk about grief and death even though it is an inevitable part of life. Kessler asserts that we live in a ‘grief illiterate’ society. Unfortunately, we will all experience losses at some point in our lives and yet we are not well equipped to navigate this domain or to help others who are grieving. Kessler, who added the sixth stage of grief of ‘finding meaning in the loss’ to Kubler Ross’s famous established, five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) has many words of wisdom which I would like to impart. He emphasises the fact that we cannot tell people how to grieve, however we can walk with them as they enter the unknown world of grief and we can accompany them on the shadowy path. First, be aware that there is a difference between mourning and grieving. Mourning is the public ritualised acts that take place, whereas grief is a personal, private process, which will look different for different individuals. Although people who are grieving may be in tremendous pain, they do not need to be fixed. No major therapeutic intervention is needed. Loss is quite a subjective experience and there is nothing worse for the griever than people who try to make things better by minimizing the pain or making noxiously positive comments. Therefore Kessler denotes a few basic rules to bear in mind when one is interacting with a person going through grief or loss. 1. Connect – better to reach out, even if that means saying, ‘I am so sorry for your loss,’ or ‘I am thinking of you’ than say nothing at all and ignore the fact that they are mourning, only to avoid them a few months later in the local supermarket by ducking behind the pet food section. 2. Be authentic 3. Compassion – show kindness and care 4. Respect – respect a person’s process without judging where they are in their journey or how they are ‘doing’ grief. The last rule on the list is crucial because it is so easy for people to judge. We never know how it feels to be that person nor can we ever judge what they are going through. Kessler emphasises the importance of ‘staying in one’s lane.’ In other words, we cannot do another person’s grief work. We can’t change their timing or hurry their process. There is no timeline in grief, there are only milestones. There are many different kinds of grief. What follows is not an exhaustive list but gives an idea of how grief can differ hugely depending on the specific circumstances: Anticipatory grief – grief before the death with the terminally ill or a person who is slowly declining. Sometimes the family do most of their own grieving before the actual death and afterwards there may be a relief that comes. This is not to be judged by them or by the external world, since they have been preparing for this eventuality and subsequently, they may feel a release. Complicated grief – when there are mixed emotions such as grieving an abusive parent. There is sadness and relief in the passing. Traumatic grief -loss through a traumatic event. Disenfranchised grief – when the person grieving feels judged or has to keep the loss hidden such as a miscarriage, abortion or elicit relationship. Inconclusive grief – when there is no body to grieve and there is still hope. Collective grief – an experience such as 9/11 or Covid. Kessler teaches that there is no greater gift than witnessing someone’s loss. It is hard to grieve in isolation. Grievers need others to listen to them talk about their loved one. It helps them to sit in the pain. It is essentially about holding space for them and being compassionate. In the past, grief counsellors would talk about getting closure as an end goal, but times have changed and this is not deemed healthy and not actually how grief works. We have a continued connection with our loved ones and we can carry them with us into the future. This is a dual process which Kessler calls integration and finding meaning. When the griever is ready, they will realise that they are still alive and intact, despite feeling broken. Integration means realizing that a whole life includes pain, grief and sadness as well as joy. Whilst the emptiness needs to be acknowledged, eventually there comes a time when the person is ready to fill the void. This is done by doing an activity which does not ignore the loss but integrates it. It feels meaningful, productive and affirming. Kessler explains that the meaning is found underneath the pain. We have to dig down to excavate it. Instead of sitting in the ‘why,’ we can say ‘now what?’ and carry on living in a way that honours the loved one. I recently spoke to an inspiring local resident, Roslyn Basserabie, who has invested a huge amount of time and money (yes, sponsorships are most welcome) into a beautiful gardening project which she has dedicated to her late husband, Dennis. She exemplifies the idea of integration powerfully. She shared with me that she and her late husband used to go for walks together and when they came to the top of their street in Fairmount, she would begin to bemoan the state of the neighbourhood. She would complain about the lack of care and upkeep of the public outdoor spaces as well as the general problems with the infrastructure in South Africa. Her husband would be bothered by her complaints every time and tell her to do something about it. This went on for some time. A year after Dennis’ sudden and untimely passing, she decided to take the clean-up into her own hands. It was a huge undertaking with hours of labour. New soil, plants such as succulents, stones and other materials were required. Basserabie has organically integrated her fond memories and humour into this gardening memorial which she has named Dennis Islands. It reminds her of their conversations and walks they took together. She tells him, with a twinkle in her eye, “Look! I did it and I’m not going to moan anymore.” Her purpose was to uplift the local area and to encourage others to do the same and yet the significance of the work she has undertaken is very personal to her and her loss. It was a labour of love and it brings her much comfort and meaning. This is integration. Meaning making is relative, personal and does not need to be an elaborate undertaking, rather it can be done in small subtle ways. Kessler reminds mourners that they cannot skip the pain and hurry to the meaning. It takes time, but when they feel ready, it is a wonderful way to commemorate and honour them. They will feel gratitude for the time they had with their loved one. He explains that finding meaning does not equal understanding the loss, however meaningful connections can replace painful memories. It is helpful to remember that every seed needs to disintegrate into nothing first, in order to become something new. Mandell instils us with a sense of light and hope in her message that ironically “what is most painful can also become the instrument of healing.” Kessler believes that grief does not get smaller it is just that we get bigger. This is similar to a concept known as post traumatic growth; the idea that something so meaningful, positive and beautiful can be born out of tragedy, trauma and loss. I have heard grief described as love with nowhere to go. Therefore it seems to me that the way through the grief is to learn to find a place to put the love with our own signature on it, then let it take root and watch it grow.
Maria Beider
Originally trained in the UK as a primary school teacher (PGCE), Maria holds a Masters in Social Work and a post Masters training in Individual and Family Therapy. She specialises in trauma work whether it be relational, single event or complex trauma, integrating EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing), Somatic work and IFS (Internal Family Systems), three different modalities which she strongly believes to enable healing in the individual. She aims to attune to her clients and find what resonates uniquely for them, integrating modalities where appropriate.