Tag Archives: grief

Processing grief

There’s a violence to grief that surprises me no matter how many times I go round it. This is not simply an issue for grief around the deaths of loved ones. It comes up around other things and people that I’ve lost. There is a force to it than rams into me like a punch in the gut, and that can come out of nowhere.

Grief is at its most powerful, raw and predictable in the immediate aftermath of loss. You expect it then, there is a degree of preparedness and the people around you are likely to know and be supportive.

However, with life-defining grief, it can come back at any time, a sudden body blow that may put you on your knees in entirely literal ways. There are still days when the death of my grandmother hits me like a blow. There are friends whose absence can suddenly and unexpectedly reduce me to tears. There are cats I have mourned for twenty years and more. Usually this is quiet, and invisible, and sometimes it isn’t.

I’ve never liked the idea that grief is something we have to get over. A terrible loss is not something to forget or put aside. It becomes part of who you are, and you learn to keep moving as best you can while carrying it. Grief is deeply intertwined with love, and it is the memory of love without being able to ever see the beloved again that brings the body blows.

The worst kinds of grief are laden with regret. Those are the hardest to keep carrying, and often the most violent. It’s the things that can’t be said, or fixed or changed that hurt most, I have found. It’s a different negotiation to learn how to carry on when full of the grief of regret. It’s as much as anything, a process of self forgiveness. Processing the regrets isn’t easy, and is best not done alone – it can be hard to get a decent perspective on these things when you are overwhelmed.

Grief that is rooted in love becomes bearable over time, because we learn to carry the love and cherish the pain of loss as a measure of that love. Grief rooted in regret offers no such consolations and making peace with it is a harder process.


Working with Fear

Fear is a difficult emotion to experience, and is harder to work with. All too often, what we do with fear is to take it out on someone else in the form of anger. When you do this, you get a brief sense of having power and being in control. This can be uplifting in the short term because fear is usually underpinned by a loss of power, or the expectation of powerlessness. However, venting it as anger on whoever is to hand is a quick route to more stress and less emotional support. It also doesn’t solve the original problem.

Unprocessed fear can also turn inwards, and become an anger we take out on ourselves. Self-blame, shame, obsessing over what we can’t change, obsessing over the risks and spiralling into every more despairing thought patterns doesn’t really solve anything either.

Our bodies do a very short term fear response when we need to get out of situations. Fear should kick in our flight/fight responses to get us out of trouble. When we’re dealing with something other than immediate, physical danger, it needs a bit more thought. However unattractive a prospect it may seem to be, the best thing to do with fear is sit down quietly with it and examine it.

Fear is most often underpinned by love and pre-emptive grief. That love may be directed towards ourselves – we are afraid of suffering or dying. We are afraid of what we may lose that we value. We fear for that which we love – be that people, landscapes, wildlife, cultural features… Conscious that we are threatened with loss, we can enter into pre-emptive grief processes. We can go through grief stages over things and people that are not yet lost to us but probably will be. Sometimes this can turn out to be a useful coping mechanism, sometimes it brings the reason for fear into sharper focus.

I think the best way to deal with fear is to get to grips with what you are afraid of losing. What you’ll find there is what matters to you. Your love. And if at first glance what you find seems selfish and all about you, then it is simply your love for your own life and experience that you are afraid of losing.

Fear isn’t a simple thing. It isn’t a ‘negative’ emotion to try and avoid. It can teach us about what matters most. It can show us the truth of what we value. It’s easy to lose your real values under layers of social conditioning, but fear can cut through that bullshit at a terrifying pace to tell you what is most important, least bearable and in that insight, is the scope to find your heart.

In the end, we all die, we all lose everything. We’re all on that trajectory together and there’s not much point being afraid of our unavoidable destination. But along the way, we can take care of what we love, make the most of it, cherish it while we can.


Forest, Vale and High Blue Hill

At the weekend I went to see Johnny Coppin’s All on a Winter’s Night – a beautiful evening of seasonal music. I came home with a CD that included all of the album Forest, Vale and High Blue Hill and it has taken me on something of a journey. This album was part of the soundtrack of my childhood, and is full of songs about Gloucestershire. This is not a review for the album, but it is a wholehearted recommendation to check it out.

There are many Gloucestershire writers of course, some of whose poems are set to music on this album. Child-me knew nothing of this before I encountered the album, and had little sense of who the poets were. What struck me, between the words and the music, was the experience of having my own landscape expressed. For me, this album captures a sense of the Cotswolds and Severn Vale as an enchanted place, full of beauty and wonder. I think it likely that my sense of the possibility for enchantment in the landscape began here.

When I left the Cotswolds for the Midlands, these were the songs I turned to. I learned some of them and sang them as a way of retaining a sense of connection with the land I grew up in.

Listening to Forest, Vale and High Blue Hill as an adult, back in this landscape I’m painfully aware of what I’ve lost. I’ve been examining my feelings of disenchantment, and much of it comes down to cars. Car noise is everywhere. You can see, hear and smell them. There are rare places where the sound doesn’t permeate, and going out at night and early in the morning can be quieter. I find the intense presence of cars in the landscape a source of disenchantment. I can’t hear the wildlife, or smell what’s natural. Heavily used roads distort my experience of the land. The lanes are dangerous.

Cars do such a good job of turning the land into something we can use and consume. They insulate us, give us the big views, take away the experience of being in a place. There are so many people driving up onto the commons, and out to the beauty spots that it impacts on the very reason they are there. Leading to people traipsing round carelessly, often with dogs, leaving poos in plastic bags, filling the landscape with their noise. What could have been magical becomes a playground for those who can afford it.

I don’t know what to do about my own disenchantment. Johnny Coppin’s voice has, at times, something eerie and otherworldly about it, which I love. A quality that cuts through to the part of me that still wants to be enchanted, and reminds me that this is possible. Which mostly results in me crying pathetically, but there we go – it’s what I’ve got at the moment. Better to feel grief than to feel nothing.

No doubt the Gloucestershire poets have contributed to the making desirable of this part of the world. The weekend homes, the retired money moving in, the unaffordable villages. People come here looking for Laurie Lee and cider with Rosie and all the rest. They come here because rich and famous and royal people have come here. And there is no silence left in the hills most days where the magic can seep in.


Grief and Identity

This autumn I entered into a grieving process for the many things I had not previously been able to grieve. I’m not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg here – whether I can do this because my sense of self has shifted, or whether my sense of self has shifted because I’m doing this. Either way, it’s a feedback loop.

When I couldn’t grieve, it was because I didn’t feel safe to do that. My emotional responses might well bring more misery down upon me, affirming the impression that everything wrong was basically my fault. There were so many things I experienced as my fault, even though I had no control over them. Every shortcoming and imperfection, every innocent mistake, the limitations of my body, and how that body looked. I grew up thinking I was a bad and unloveable child, that I could never be good enough and that unless I was hyper-vigilant about everything, I would do something awful.

Grieving is not only allowing me to process those experiences, it’s allowing me to rethink my own story. As I grieve for my child self, I’ve been able to think differently. I wasn’t entirely awful – I was largely trying to be good. Having now parented someone myself, I have a different perspective on what can reasonably be expected of a child. As someone who teaches, I’ve learned the importance of holding space in which it is safe to make mistakes. Deliberate malice and cruelty are the only things worth getting angry about, and most children don’t do more than dabble in it as they try to figure out what’s acceptable.

I’m in a process of re-writing my story about the kind of child I was. I wasn’t a bad child. I’m not convinced any young child can be ‘bad’. They’re just learning and making mistakes.  I wasn’t a lazy child, and I don’t think it’s necessary or good for children to be super-motivated to work and achieve. It’s ok to want to be a child, to want to play and mess about and be silly. There’s a lot to be learned from mucking about. I wasn’t a fat child. I’ve got some old photos of me and I’m the same size as other kids. I was continually fat shamed. That’s not ok. It still wouldn’t have been ok if I’d been fat.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to justify my existence. Trying to make up for being inherently inadequate and unloveable. Trying to atone for being a bad person.  I’ve invested so much time and energy in trying to be good enough, trying to prove something about my worth so as to turn off the flood of self-hatred that has always been within me. All I ever needed was to be able to consider myself adequate and tolerable – it’s a pretty low set bar.

So I grieve for the little girl who had trouble learning to skip, and who just wanted to draw trees the way other kids drew them, and who wanted to be able to mess about during the holidays. I grieve for the child who was constantly afraid of being punished, and who just wanted approval and for someone to say ‘you are fine as you are’. I grieve for the unwinnable setup of having to get the best marks but being told off for getting too big for my boots if I made anything of it. I grieve for my wedge shaped Minnie Mouse feet, my arms like  a baboon, my rats teeth,  my singing like a cat, my funny-looking face, my fat, unloveable body. I grieve those stories, and what they did to me, and who I’ve been as I’ve lived with them as an adult.

I had a beautiful moment last week when it dawned on me that I grew up listening to, and adoring Steeleye Span. Child me did not sing like a cat. Child me sang like Maddy Prior.


Delayed grief

There was never time. There was always someone or something else that was more important. Bills to pay. People to appease. Bullied for mourning the death of a friend because the person I was living with at the time felt that as a personal attack. Told there wasn’t time for me to cry when I lost my home and had to pack my stuff. The things I was not allowed to mourn. The things I did not realise at the time that I deserved to grieve over – harm done to me that I had been persuaded was my fault and no more than I deserve.

Grief isn’t just for bereavement. What I do know from studies into bereavement though, is that grief you don’t deal with at the time will haunt you, and reappear in unexpected shapes and be harder to deal with.

So here I am, and there’s a lot of it. I have carried this a long way. In my mind, in my body. There are so many implications, and so much I need to work through so odds are I’ll be talking about this on and off for a while. Hopefully there’s someone else out there who will find it useful.

What I’m noticing at the moment is the massive shift in thinking that allows me, for the first time, to see myself as entitled to grieve. I’ve stopped framing my distress as a failing on my part. It’s so often been framed that way for me. The idea being that what was happening was fine, and what was unreasonable was my response to it. Things that hurt me, were hard for me, frightened me, and stole away my confidence were not things I deserved. I was never that bad a person (is anyone?). “That’s not fair” was a statement I was not allowed to make for too long. Well, it wasn’t fair, and I can say it now, and in doing so change how I think about my former self.

It wasn’t ok that I was afraid for so much of the time. It wasn’t ok that my feelings were mocked and treated as irrelevant. It wasn’t fair that I wasn’t allowed to have preferences or to express myself, or to have any and all emotional expression treated as emotional blackmail. It wasn’t ok to be put in situations that made it difficult for me to sleep, and it wasn’t ok that my sleep problems didn’t matter. It wasn’t ok to have things that should have been at least a bit about me arranged entirely for other people’s benefit.

I have lived with rage directed inwards and self-hatred because of how I’ve been de-personed and made responsible for what was done to me. I’ve lived with shame and fear, and stories about how the very nature of my body justified what was happening to me. I’ve lived with unspeakable, un-acknowledgeable grief that has been crushing me for pretty much my whole life. I’ve lived feeling unable to talk about it because I don’t want to make anyone else uncomfortable and there are people who, if they read this, could feel uncomfortable. But unless I square up to all this, I can’t change anything. So here, in this space that is my space I am making some room to assert that there a great deal of things in my history that really weren’t ok.

I’ve been giving myself permission to feel angry about this. It’s been a personal sort of process, I will not take that anger to anyone else, to do so would serve no purpose. But I can be angry for me, and for the person I was and the person I could have been. And I can grieve it, and keep saying that it was not justified, it was not my fault, I did not deserve it.


Grief and religion

One of the things that religions have in common is that they offer answers to human suffering. It may be in the form of strategies to relieve that suffering by living in certain ways. It may be through stories of divine oversight, grand plans, or afterlife recompense. This is one of the ways in which I’ve always found organised religions problematic. Not least because so often, those consolations don’t turn out to be that helpful for people experiencing grief and trauma.

When you have to ask why your God wasn’t there for you and why terrible things were allowed to happen, you either undermine your faith or start having to believe that terrible things are somehow part of a grand plan for your own good. It’s a bigger issue for omnipotent Gods who are supposed to be benevolent.

We suffer in so far as we care. Love and grief are two sides of the same coin. Everything in our world is finite, and will end, or die and if we care about that, or about ourselves we are bound to be hurt by this. To care is to be vulnerable to loss.

In my late teens, I first encountered existentialist thinking, which responds to the grief of life and the apparent meaninglessness by owning it. We may have to make our own meaning. There may be no other meaning. It was the first approach I’d found that genuinely comforted me and it did so because it let me own what I was experiencing. This may be all we have. There may be no grand plan. Everyone dies. If you care, it hurts.

Rather than follow a path that has anything to offer by way of more conventional comfort, I’ve lived with this on my own terms. I see loss and grief as part of life. I see them as intrinsic parts of my caring and loving. I’ve not sought a path that would free me from pain, rather, I’ve tried to embrace it as part of what it means to be human. I find more comfort in the idea that there isn’t a plan, that terrible things happen for no real reason at all sometimes, and that we certainly do not get what we deserve. I think it’s kinder not to assume we get what we deserve.

When we try to protect ourselves from pain, we may close our hearts to what’s around us. We may delude ourselves. We may not do today the things we will no longer have chance to do tomorrow. When you live knowing that everything and everyone is going to die and you let that colour your world view, it becomes more necessary to live fully. It becomes more important to tell people you love them. It becomes more important to try and sort things out here and now, and get them right in the first place.

I’m never very sure what I believe when it comes to deity and afterlife. What I am sure is that it works better for me to live as though there is nothing else but this life and this body I have to experience it with. To love as much as I can and to accept what that means and to embrace grief as an aspect of love makes the most sense to me.


Grief and love

Grief is the painful but necessary process of dealing with dramatic changes around love. If that which we have loved is gone, there’s a process to go through responding to that. Either we choose to let the love go as well and move on, or we learn how to carry it. We adjust to loving that which is no longer present in our lives. I’ve always felt strongly that no one should be obliged to get over a loss of someone or something they truly loved.

Learning how to carry the grief of loss is not at all like letting go. It is a process of making that love a part of you, no longer dependent on anything exterior to you. To accept the loss, and refuse to let go of the love. To decide that the love you have is bigger than death, bigger than distance, or destruction. I think it’s a good choice to keep what you loved alive by continuing to love when it is no longer there to directly inspire that love.

Sometimes grief takes another form and of the two, I find this one harder to deal with. If we are betrayed by someone we love. If what we loved turns out to be lies and illusion, if we have been manipulated, let down, led astray. If our love has been accepted only to control us and put us on a leash… And there comes a point where this is visible. The object of our love may be right in front of us, just the same as always. What dies here is our capacity for love. The grief that follows the death of love is different from the grief that follows the death of a loved something or someone.

It may be that the illusions were of our own making. We put our faith and trust in an idea we had, and reality can’t bear it out. That hurts, and is likely to bring a lot of soul searching and distress. Unpicking and understanding the illusion after it has been revealed is tough work. Dealing with the memory of love for something unfeasible can be painful, humiliating. It can be waded through, and it is better to be free of such illusions even if the short term cost of dealing with them is really high.

It may be that we have been deliberately misled and betrayed. The death of love in this way is an entirely human issue. A creature won’t do this to us, nor will a landscape, a house, a musical instrument. They are what we are, and if we love such things for what they are they will never deliberately let us down. People are a whole other issue. Whether we love enough to endure betrayal is something you only find out on a case by case basis. Sometimes it may be a good and noble thing to keep loving in the face of terrible let-downs. Sometimes it may be the bars on your prison that keeps you locked in something abusive. Sometimes it is better if love dies, and you live.

Most spiritual traditions uphold the idea that love is good, and ideal and what we should be working with. There’s not much practical advice out there as to what to do to stay sane and functional in face of serious betrayals of trust. We have plenty of cultural information around us about dealing with the loss of what we’ve loved, but precious little to help a person navigate around the death of love itself. We tell each other that love should be eternal and unconditional, and we don’t tell each other what to do when we find we really can’t deliver on that.

As a consequence, the death of love can feel like a personal failing. Having been monumentally betrayed, the victim of this may be left thinking that they should still be able to love and give and feel compassion for the person hurting and harming them. It may seem that the onus is on them to be bigger, kinder, more generous. I know from experience that if you have what it takes to keep loving someone who abuses that love, they will just keep cutting you down and making you smaller and less able to function. Sometimes the death of love will save your life in a really literal way.


Grief and healing

“Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience.” (Wikipedia, summing up a definition I’ve seen in lots of other places.)

Grief is a process that we know about. Around matters of bereavement, people who grieve at the time of loss, cope. They may carry a lot of pain with them, they may never ‘get over it’ but they will be functional, they will find a way. Grief is an adjustment process, and while it may hurt like hell, it is the way forward. People who do not grieve at the time of bereavement will get a delayed grief experience. When it will happen, and how, and with what force is unpredictable, but it’s reliably much, much worse for delayed grief people than for people who can grieve in a timely way.

Grief is not just about death. It can be about all manner of losses and wounds, shocks and setbacks. However, what often happens when we hit a crisis, is that we get a lot of support to cope. Stiff upper lip. Soldier on. Push through. The smaller the crisis, the more pressure there is not to make a fuss about it. How many of us have working lives that are basically running low level crises? Or family lives of that shape? Or financial problems that are just small, constant nightmares. And how many of us hit bigger things and find there’s no room to do anything but keep going?

I spent years with this one, when there was always something else more important than how I was feeling. Running from one crisis to another – most of them not of my making, fire fighting, coping, keeping going, doing all the important things. The one important thing I did not do during those years, was grieve for my losses, my wounds. I spent a lot of time trying to be brave for everyone else, to keep a good face on it. I was put under pressure to be jolly and co-operative, for the good of others, at times when that was unbearable. So I smiled, and bore it as best I could.

When grief is suppressed and undealt with, there is no room to integrate the experience. There’s no time to absorb and process, to make sense of what’s happened. There’s no room to let go and put it properly behind you.

The result is that it comes out sideways, unexpectedly. There aren’t always obvious triggers, except that its more likely to happen when you feel calmer, safer, more able to accommodate it. Why there is the sudden drowning in grief may be impossible to explain, and certainly if it hits you years after the event, its much harder to get the emotional support that’s more readily available to people who have recently been hit by a thing.

When we think about trauma, we tend to think about big, dramatic events. However, the accumulation of lots of smaller, unprocessed losses also takes a toll, but leaves a person with nothing they can obviously point at.

It’s important not to rush people through grief. If you can make any space at all to deal with things as they come up, you will do better. I know it seems like helping to tell someone to keep going, chin up, smile, don’t let the bastards grind you down, but keeping going in the short term can mean really not keeping going in the long term, and its worth looking at the bigger picture.


Mournful Poetry and the power of despair

This is a poem that came out of a number of things. I think it makes sense without the explanation, but I also think the explanation is interesting in its own right, so here we go. The content for this poem came out of two lunatic walking expeditions, one which took me over, the other under a motorway. In both cases, the increasing impact of the motorway sound on what else I could hear was quite a distressing experience, and on one walk produced a great sense of horror in my son. Most people only get near motorways when driving on them, which reduces this horror considerably. To stand in a field and hear it roar, is a whole other thing, and not pleasant at all.

Thing number two was an article about how you can hear the absences in ecosystems, and that any listening orientated science is hearing the hush descending on the non-human word. A deathly hush of absence.

Thing number three is Miserable Poet’s Cafe, which I went to last night and for which I needed material. This is the one I did not end up reading – there is a glimmer of hope at the end – and there wasn’t time. Still, I did win a bottle of very cheap wine.

 

Silence falling

Allow me to render you unquiet, and unhappy

For there are uneasy truths I would inflict

Of deathly silence falling on ecosystems

No dawn chorus but a quiet straggle.

I invite you to be glum, to despair.

Have you heard the fox at midnight?

No wolf will howl for you, not on this shore.

Have you heard the haunting crane call?

Or the bittern boom at the edge of viability?

Owls and orcas, nightingale and narwal

Passing into myth on our watch

For future generations to place beside unicorns.

Have you heard the roar of motorway

The ever busy sound wound carving

Its angry self into land and air,

Always hungry, raging over miles to eat up

The subtle songs of hedgerow dwellers.

Have you heard the fevered squeal of late night

Just having a laugh at 80 would be racers

Thunder of aircraft tearing the sky, the insidious whir

Of fans, coolers, air conditioning, the sound

Of life being stolen from the future,

One loud pluck at a time.

I invite you to hear the ruined world song

And despair.

Only in grief will there be hope.

 

(*and yes, I know there are people trying to reintroduce wolves to the UK, but I’ve never heard one here and most of us never will.)

 


My Sadness Tantrum

“All sadness is a tantrum” – I’ve seen this thought on facebook, the author has several hundred thousand page likes, so a lot of people got this message recently. Welcome to my sadness tantrum, feel free to lie on the floor beside me, thrash about and howl if you need to. I’m not ‘enlightened’ enough to have stopped feeling pain, and I’m enough of a blasphemer against this position to think that sadness is a good thing.

I have my personal sadness around loss, setback, frustration and physical pain. Things that scare me make me sad. I see these as aspects of my being human and I am not ashamed of them. Empathy makes me grieve for the suffering of friends and share in their sadness. It makes me cry over the things I cannot fix or undo. I believe that sorrow teaches us compassion. Then there is the place beyond sadness. The rage and anguish caused by images of war, and fracking; the horrors we inflict on each other and on this world. I weep over those. I invite you to weep too, because our salvation may lie in the spur to action that comes from our broken and bleeding hearts. Howling is magic. Grief harnessed begets transformation. This is where powerful, positive change starts – when we can no longer bear things as they are.

I have not achieved enlightenment, I’m not expecting to any decade soon. I’m so far from that state, I haven’t a clue what it means, and whether getting there means you dispense with human emotion. I rather hope not. I think our emotions are often our saving grace as a species; grief and joy are twins that inspire and enable us. If enlightenment means losing that, I guess I’m opting out of the spiritual race. So, I know nothing about this stuff. I do however know a bit about tantrums.

“Tantrum” is the word we use to describe a perception of disproportionate emotional outbreaks – usually from children, or from people we wish to ridicule and undermine by likening them to undisciplined infants. To class something as a ‘tantrum’ is to belittle and dismiss it. If something is “just a tantrum” it lacks worth, and relevance – it can be ignored.

Small children are prone to disproportionate emotional outbreaks, from an adult perspective. I’ve raised a child, I’ve hung out with parents, this territory I do know. Your toddler knows nothing of torture, murder, war and crime. A tiny setback and a minor pain can be the worst horrors they have ever endured. The frustration of being thwarted is unbearable because it is quite literally the worst experience they have ever had and it totally challenges their sense of self and their place in the world. Ideally as a parent you have to do two things with this, and they are equally important. You have to help your child gain enough perspective to cope with life, without traumatising them about the state of the world they have joined. This is a process. It takes years. You have to do this, ideally, whilst not undermining their sense of self. That means not entirely invalidating their emotional responses, not making them feel stupid or worthless because they cried when you thought they shouldn’t. It is a bloody difficult job.

You don’t get to fast track on this one. You don’t get to be an emotionally mature adult without first being a shrieking toddler and doing whatever you do with the chaos of adolescence. There are no shortcuts, so I’m prepared to bet that if enlightenment is available, there are no shortcuts there either. I also suspect that knocking someone back doesn’t help them grow. We are where we are – however flawed that is, however far from where we think we ought to be. You have to start from where you are, but if you start out ashamed of your point of departure, that isn’t a lot of help. More the opposite.

I don’t know what enlightenment looks like, but my gut says it should not be smug and toxic, invalidating the struggles of people who are ‘less advanced’.