For many of us in Western cultures, it can be the case that we get into our thirties before even losing grandparents. We’re a long way from the ancestors who would have lost siblings and friends as a normal part of growing up, and from a world in which death was a normal part of life. The Victorians had a huge culture around the etiquette of mourning. So many older cultures had complex rituals of death and grief, but we’ve lost that. And so, when death comes into our homes, it comes as a shock, with little framework to support you and little information about how to cope.
My friendship circles have always extended well beyond my age group, and I’ve always had a lot of people in my life – at least as casual acquaintances, which I think is part of why I’ve had more contact with death than many people my age. There are a number of things that can be surprising in the aftermath of losing someone, but which are entirely normal. If you can think of more, please do put them in the comments.
Shock and disbelief are very normal reactions, and they can come and go. You think you’ve got to grips with the idea of the person being gone, and then you imagine telling them about something, and the enormity of grasping that you can’t have that conversation, comes back. This just takes time, unpicking your life from the life that is over, and rebuilding a sense of reality in which the lost one is no longer a physical presence. There can be a sense of guilt, sometimes especially when a younger person dies. There can also be a sense of being abandoned or in some way betrayed. This is really hard to acknowledge because, suicide cases aside, it seems irrational. The person did not choose to die and leave you, and yet it can so often feel as though they did. Why couldn’t they wait for you? Why couldn’t they still be there when you need them? It’s part of what death does to us, and the best advice I have is work it through, and don’t beat yourself up for feeling it.
Somewhere after the bereavement, you may start thinking about the future, all the things you won’t get to do, or share, all the things they will never see. These hurt, and again, there is a process of reconciliation to go through. I’ve found I also think about the past, the things I got wrong, the things I never thought to ask about. All the stories, knowledge and life history that I didn’t absorb, gone forever now, lost to me. I regret the things I never said, and never did, and I think we all do. Death tends to bring that into focus. The best thing to do with that focus is not to obsess over what cannot be changed, but to look to the living, to the people you still have and those other lives where there is room to do more. Older relatives, the ones who were always there, are easily taken for granted, death can teach us to do differently and view the time we have as precious.
When a younger person dies, the sense of unfairness is crippling. All the things they will never do, and the sheer lack of justice in it can make you question everything. For people who believe in benevolent deity, this can make for a very testing time. Why did it happen? Why did the benevolent deity not prevent it? People have been facing this one since the dawn of humanity. Standard answers include the gods having a plan we do not know about, the gods gathering the best ones to them, and so forth. Deep grief is probably not a good time for this kind of soul searching. Try and hold a space in which you can grieve, do whatever it takes to get you through and consider your relationship with reality later, if you can.
It can be hard to know how you are ever going to laugh, or smile, or feel good about anything, ever again. The idea of even being happy can feel like a betrayal of the dead one. Looking around, you see the potential for death in everybody else, and the certainty of loss. The world is terrifying when you can see death in everyone’s eyes. In many ways, this is a good sort of fear. It makes us hold more tightly and love harder. Take that fear and turn it into love, because that really is the only thing you can wield against death. Love survives, and what we carry of a person within us survives, and something goes on.
Tell stories. When you are in pain, tell stories about the person you lost. Find other people with stories and get them to share. Keep telling those stories. Even if you do it with tears streaming down your face and a lump in your throat so big you can hardly speak, keep talking. You honour the dead by remembering them, and you will ease your own heart by speaking in this way.
The most important thing to remember is that it is a process. It’s often not a coherent process, it seems to throw you back and forth. Grief is something that happens to your body and your mind, and that needs to be allowed to work through. Fighting it makes it worse. The deaths of people we care for are an inevitable part of life, and we do not talk enough about what happens to the living at that point.