Coming to terms with loss

December 6, 2017

After two and a half years of painful struggle with leukaemia, my father eventually surrendered and passed away peacefully.

After his passing, I was preoccupied with managing the funeral, the estate, legal matters, comforting and supporting my mother and family. I then focused on completing all my father’s unfinished business and all the personal projects that I had put on hold while caring for him. I had “no time” to grieve.

However, I often woke up crying after dreaming of my father. I realised I was keeping myself extremely busy and productive as I was running away from my own grief.

Examining our grief

Julia Samuel, who is one of the world’s leading grief counsellors and author of a profound book, Grief Works, recently held a panel discussion as part of the Pureland Series: Grief, the Price We Pay for Love. She says: “As humans, we naturally try to avoid suffering … But contrary to our instincts, to heal our grief we need to allow ourselves to feel the pain; we need to find ways to support ourselves in it, for it cannot be escaped.”

Samuel is the founder patron of Child Bereavement UK, one of the country’s leading organisations for supporting bereaved families. She says that 500,000 people die in England every year, and with each death affecting at least five people, millions of us are hit by the shock of loss, whether expected or not. “Grief is hard work,” she adds, “but if we do the work, it can work for us by enabling us to heal.”

In the UK, there is surprisingly little support, official or otherwise, for the newly bereaved, according to a 2014 report Life After Death from the National Bereavement Alliance. Three-quarters of people who have been bereaved say they didn’t get the help they needed. In 2012, fewer than half of those who wanted to talk about their feelings with someone from a health, social care or bereavement service were able to do so.

Yet clearly a vital part of recovering from loss is being able to talk about it. According to the Alliance, feelings of loneliness and isolation are some of the most common difficulties for people after the death of someone they loved.

In Life After Death, the charity says: “There is an ongoing taboo in society about talking about dying, death and bereavement, which can inhibit people from reaching out and offering support.”

Strategies for mourning

Victoria Mulligan, who was also a speaker at the Pureland Series event, spoke of coping with almost unbearable grief after losing her husband and daughter in a boating accident, which left Mulligan herself with life-changing injuries. One of her legs was amputated.

“None of the stages of grief are linear,” she says. “Anger, fear, regret, acceptance – you come in and out of them. I miss being able to talk to a partner who really cares about you. I feel so alone. I used to be so organised, so in control.”

Mulligan has supported her own recovery by sharing her story with others, something she encourages on her website. In a section titled “You Are Not Alone”, she explains: “I want to create a place where we can share our feelings about grief and loss and in turn feel that we are not alone in our grief.”

And like Samuel, she emphasises the need to face the pain of grief. “It is important to work through this pain as this pain is honouring the love you had for them. If you didn’t love them so much, you wouldn’t be hurting so badly.”

Both Mulligan and Samuel agreed the best strategy to cope with grief is not to have “closure”, but to continue to acknowledge the deceased and continue to allow him/her to be part of our lives. Child Bereavement UK recently launched its “One More Minute” campaign, asking people to share what they would say if they had a bit more time to talk to the one they have lost. Mulligan said she still held birthday celebrations for her late husband and daughter. Instead of erasing the memories to avoid pain, we can try instead to accept that our missing loved ones can still be part of our lives in a different way.

Dr Atul Gawande says in his book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Happens in the End. “The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not.”

In his book When Breath Becomes Air, which was published posthumously, the doctor Paul Kalanithi described his own diagnosis with terminal cancer and explored what it meant. He concluded: “Life is not about avoiding suffering, but about making meaning.”

Finding acceptance

For a long time, I tortured myself over what I could have done differently for my father, and there was much I might have changed in hindsight. However, one thing I couldn’t do even if I had tried was to spare him from death. Had my father lived longer, he would not have lived better.

There are many definitions of grief. In my mind, grief is the distance between what could have been and what is now. Traveling that journey between those two points helps us to process grief and come to an acceptance.

So perhaps what I learnt was that while my father went on his journey, I had to go on one of my own. Death may take away our loved ones, but their memories and love can still live within us.