Coping with grief

We do not grieve all losses in the same way, says Brid Carroll,  a bereavement counsellor. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

We do not grieve all losses in the same way, says Brid Carroll, a bereavement counsellor. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

It can hit you most at bedtime. As the clock strikes 11pm or maybe midnight you feel a darkness descend on you. An all enveloping blackness darker than night itself.

Or maybe it affects you worst at the weekends when the days, once full of fun and promise and not long enough to accommodate all your plans, now stretch ahead interminably.

If you are grappling with a very recent loss you may be dazed and feeling as if all this devastation is happening to someone else. Or maybe every minute of every hour may be raw and painful, like a gaping wound. 

Brid Carroll, a bereavement counsellor, says everyone who has lost someone has a unique journey of grief to undertake.

"This journey may take years for some, for others it may be much shorter. What is important to realise is that we all have this journey to make."

If you are experiencing loss for the first time, it can be "quite terrifying", like as if you are in an "alien country", says Ms Carroll, who is from Wexford and who gave a talk on bereavement in Galway recently. It was the first of four events aimed at remembering the deceased and helping people cope with grief organised by the Galway Cathedral Bethany Bereavement Support Group, a parish based ministry.

"There is confusion too," she says, "even if you expect the loss to happen. Your journey could have begun when the prognosis was made or if something very sudden and tragic happened you are left in a total tailspin. There is a sense that this is all a bad dream, there is shock and denial. We need this because if the whole reality came in it would annihiliate us, it would wipe us out. We need this drip feed. There is anger too, we can't make sense of all this. Why did it happen? It's very like a cork in a champagne bottle."

She says we do not grieve all losses in the same way. "We need to recognise that the way we move through our journey is totally unique to each of us. Losing a spouse can feel like an amputation or if a parent dies it is as if one of the pillars of your life is gone and you are not as secure as before. If you lose a child the experience is intense, traumatic and devastating."

Manage their loss

Brid believes people need to learn how to manage their loss rather than loss managing them. "Often we keep busy all day and do not  allow ourselves to deal with our loss, we try to block out what is happening. I see many people I work with [as a bereavement counsellor] and they don't allow themselves to go there.  They put on a face for their work colleagues but inside there is a whole different story going on. Stuff keeps coming up that needs to be addressed. You can end up having a coping style, that you won't go certain places. But if we go to those places we may find nuggets, joyful memories beyond the pain."

Brid Carroll says it helps if the bereaved allow themselves to grieve. "Maybe if you take some time for your grief in a day you might not feel so bad. Some people say: 'I'm fine all day long then at bedtime the clocks ticks 12, 1, 2....' It's almost like they pushed the dam back and then the floodgates opened. Try to stop in the day for five or six minutes and sit with your grief. Do not over analyse it, just reflect. Sit with your coffee or look at a photograph, allow yourself to sit and process your grief, a little more. Now you are taking charge of it, instead of it taking charge of you."

Sometimes the grief-stricken can feel they are going mad, she says. “To the outside world you might be coping but inside you feel you are going mad. You are doing daft things, you go into the bedroom with the kettle in your hand, for instance. But you are not mad. Grief is crazy. You want to rail against this loss, it is so damn unfair. Death can feel like that. You will find your concentration is poor. Your eating pattern may be affected too. Often you will find yourself sitting there saying 'Ah, sure it's awful to cook for one.' Or we comfort eat. Our zest for life is gone."

It is important to remember that all this is normal, according to the bereavement counsellor. "You go into the supermarket and take something off the shelf and then you realise you don't need it anymore. It's like a knife going through your heart. We hit reality as time goes on and when we hit it, we experience a huge loneliness. We are in the dark wondering will anyone ever find us and take us out of there."

The bereaved can get caught up in regrets and self-blame, she says. Guilt, especially can be an issue. "People say 'I was in the hospital 24/7 and then I walked out of the hospital one day and he/she slipped away. This happens very often according to hospitals." 

The bereaved are not only mourning the loss of a loved one. They are also grieving for "what might have been", their plans for the future which have been shattered, she says.

"Part of us grieve for ourselves too, we are robbed of someone significant in our lives, we have lost the relationship as we knew it."

Grieving does not follow a set pattern, explains Brid Carroll. "It does not go along in a nice, neat line. It goes from side to side. We need to learn to manage our day-to-day lives and our loss at the same time. It is good to take time out from our grief sometimes to do something ordinary. We may feel guilty for laughing, that's the crazy thing about grief. It is important not to be hard on ourselves."

Magic formula

You begin to ask yourself questions, too. "Who am I without this person?" We need time to allow ourselves to walk the walk and process it. There is the social side of grief also. You return to work, a job you loved and now you have no enthusiasm. You have no sense of purpose, only emptiness. But that's OK. In the first year of loss somewhere there is a notion of magic formulas, that once you get through the first year things are going to be OK. But they are not going to change overnight. It can get tougher in the second year and onwards as the reality of it all is sinking in and your support network is busy. You are left to do the hardest part of your journey on your own. You will struggle to accept your loss for the rest of your life but you will get to a place of accommodating it."

Men tend to grieve differently to women. They often grieve in silence whereas women tend to talk out their pain, says Brid. Men will often physically lose themselves in a task as they grapple with their loss.

"I'm 30 years counselling and I've learned a number of lessons from men. One is that if you give a man a task in his grief he will work solidly on it. There was a case where a man lost his daughter tragically in a road accident. He went on to build a shed and he said he put a lot of tears into these blocks. Men need to have these tasks."

She says young boys or male teenagers who lose a parent are very often told they are big boys now, the men of the house, and are urged to "step up to the task". They end up stifling their grief.

"We are constantly putting this onus on our menfolk rather than letting them process their grief."

Siblings who lose a brother or sister have lost a unique relationship, she outlines. "Perhaps they were each other's confidantes. Maybe [the brother who died] was the family clown, the life and soul of the party and now everything is gone so serious. We need to stop and listen and ask the right questions. Those young people are longing to be heard. Children aged 12 to 15 years don't want to know the loss has happened. They bring down the shutters."

Eventually the bereaved find a "new normal", according to Brid Carroll. "You just have to look at the resilience of the human spirit. We have resources we don't even know we have. People who have lost someone they love can still have an enriched and full life in the future."

She believes there is "not enough education around loss" in schools. At home too we need not try to shield children from the reality of death.

"I would say to parents: 'Don't replace the goldfish, leave it as a learning experience.'" 

The Galway Cathedral Bethany Bereavement Support Group's series of events to remember the dead and help the bereaved cope with their loss will conclude on Monday night at 8pm with a special Mass. For further information on the group contact (085 ) 2258827.

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