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Articles, Thoughts and News on Bereavement, Grief Recovery and Loss Issues

How to show True Courage in Grieving

I seem to listen to the radio mostly when driving from place to place these days. Whilst it makes my journeys seem shorter, it does have the annoying effect of picking up snippets of really good stories without knowing the full context. Last night, for instance, I heard a programme about a young former army officer who had lost his leg in an IED attack in Afghanistan and who has gone on to do amazing things.

The headline for the programme was about the fact that he regularly rides as a jump jockey, but what I (and he) found really interesting was the inspiring work he did with a whole range of people in this country and abroad, using his leadership and motivational skills. His matter – of – fact description of his injuries, subsequent recovery and the way he chooses to present and ‘frame’ these got me thinking about the nature of what we call ‘courage’.

When we think of ‘courage’, many of us immediately think of some sort of extreme, traumatic event, often with military/ violent overtones. I used to think that courage was something to do with a sort of flinty eyed, chisel jawed refusal to be afraid and battling through insurmountable odds.

I now see true courage as being very afraid, but doing the right thing anyway - a very different virtue and a very different process.

For example, in my Grief Recovery® practice, I have seen huge courage in those with whom I have worked. The first part of that courage comes in picking up the phone and calling me for the first time. To recognise not only that we are not coping, to reach out for help and make ourselves vulnerable like this not only takes a great degree of trust, but also of courage. I am truly humbled and feel privileged to work alongside the people I see who have this (and many other) type of trust and courage.

One of the Six Myths of the Grief Recovery Programme® is “Be Strong”. We are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly!) taught, told and led to believe that ‘being strong’ for ourselves and others when faced with bereavement and other losses is a great virtue and will help us and others through these challenges. I certainly applied this myth myself for many years. I was so busy trying to ‘be strong’ (in much the same way as my early views of courage – see above) that I ended up burying and effectively denying my own feelings of loss and grief, with inevitable pressure cooker results. I’d describe this as ‘Be Strong Version 1’.

There is a sense in which we can ‘be strong’ in a way that is helpful to us and others after a major loss, but it is a strength of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, being honest about our feelings and allowing and encouraging others around us to do likewise (‘Be Strong Version 2’). In order to accept that our grief is the natural and appropriate response to the loss we have experienced, we need to fully experience the grief, just as we fully experienced the relationship with the person or thing we have lost. It’s not self - indulgent or mawkish, just plain good sense and critical if we are going to assimilate the loss with all the other parts of that relationship.

In my work with bereaved children, I often see the effects parents and carers can unwittingly have by using ‘Be Strong Version 1’ to help their children through their loss. Of course it doesn’t help the children at all – they get the message that strong feelings are scary things to be avoided at all costs, that shutting down our emotional selves is what works, that they can’t talk about what they feel because “we have to ‘be strong’ (Version 1) like Mummy, Daddy, Grannie, Grandpa…..” and, above all, they also learn the lesson that this is the way to deal with our grieving – and so it passes to the next generation.

In bereavement and other losses, as in all things, true courage lies in experiencing fear and doing the right thing anyway – it’s not easy, but it wouldn’t be courage if it was, would it?

19th March 2019

Bereavement and ‘Ambush Moments’

I would guess that pretty much everyone who has experienced the loss of someone they have loved and the resulting grief will also have had their feet swept from under them by an ‘ambush moment’.

We can be listening to a piece of music or song, tasting a particular recipe or item of food, someone who looks just like…., hearing special words spoken or suddenly be aware of a particular smell and immediately, bang!, we are overwhelmed with a huge rush of sadness, joy, loss, a certain memory, deep pain, laughter, or possibly all of these, and more. One of the strange parts of ambush moments is that they’re not always negative feelings that we experience – they can manifest as warm and loving feelings – often with laughter and broad smiles. We know the feelings are absolutely connected with the person we have lost and that they are hugely powerful and come as a shock. Usually we don’t immediately know how or why this particular sight, sound, smell or other sense has affected us so deeply. We’re too busy dealing with our physical reactions to these ambush moments.

The strength of the feeling can be shocking in its intensity – we are often left literally gasping for breath by the strength of the ambush moment, as well as feeling confused and sometimes frightened at where the feelings have come from and why they feel quite so powerful. Painful ambush feelings, such as loss, yearning, loneliness and abandonment can feel especially devastating and, even if we can’t do so at the ‘point of ambush’, we need to talk through and get support from someone we trust with our vulnerability.

We’re often surrounded by other people when having ambush moments and the sudden breathless tears, smiles, laughter and/ or sobs are difficult for us and them to deal with. We can end up feeling embarrassed at best and unbalanced or slightly deranged at worst – we should be able to control our feelings, surely?

The good news is that there is nothing wrong with having ambush moments and that they may actually be a good thing. After we lose someone (or some thing – they don’t just apply to bereavement, but also to all sorts of other losses – such as health, job, relationship, faith, home), consciously and unconsciously we put strategies in place to cope with the pain of our grief. We might ‘keep busy’, steel ourselves to ‘be strong’ for others and for ourselves, or we might drink more alcohol/ food or any one of numerous other behaviours we turn to at such times. There is nothing inherently wrong with many of these strategies – some may help us to cope initially.

However, they can all have the effect of keeping us away from our real feelings of loss, or at least from the true strength of our feeling. The feelings we experience during ambush moments have no such filters – we feel the feelings full on, with defences or barriers in the way – that’s why the effect is so breath-taking and overwhelming. So, although ambush moments can be somewhat startling, we can be sure that what we feel is real, both in the type of feeling and in its intensity. We are having the full fat version, unmuted by our rationalisations and strategies – and this applies for sad or painful feelings, or the joyful, funny and warm ones that can ambush us – we can often feel several hitting us at once or in quick succession. Would we really want to edit or blank out such feelings? It could be exhausting to feel them all the time, but to experience them full on is testament to and proof of the relationship we had with the person or thing we have lost.

So, the next time you have an ambush moment, think about welcoming it as a true messenger of your feelings about what you have lost.

20th January 2019

Tom felt like his heart was broken. His much loved dog Charlie had died 3 months ago and he had felt lost and hurting since then. He missed everything about Charlie – the fact that she was always so excited to see him – even at the end, their walks together and the solid pressure of her on his side when she lay on the sofa with Tom and his wife.
Tom and Sandi had agreed to put way Charlie’s collar, bowl, lead and numerous toys after she died, but they had said little else to each other about losing her. It was as if neither could bring themselves to raise the subject – it was just too painful and Tom didn’t want to upset Sandi.

He probably meant well, but Tom had been shocked at his lack of understanding and so simply closed down on the subject from then on.

Tom knew that he was eating and drinking more than he should – but it seemed to stop him feeling the loss so much, but in his heart he knew that he was simply blocking the pain – it always came back again.
As he lay awake at night, tired but unable to sleep, the unwanted thoughts and feelings played through his mind – of the day Charlie died, the vet saying that there was no real alternative but to put him to sleep. Sandi had been too upset to say yes to this, so Tom had to and now he felt guilty for agreeing to their dog being put down. His head knew it was the right thing to do, but his heart still ached for the time he held Charlie while the vet was giving her the injections.
Questions ran through his sleep deprived brain – had he really dealt with losing his Mum or his sister in law. Was he going crazy, feeling like this about a pet dog?

Eventually Tom went to see his GP and told her what he was feeling. She listened carefully and suggested he try a course of anti – depressants, but even as Tom left with his prescription, he wondered to himself if this was simply a lie advising him to eat or drink more to keep the pain away.

It was then that Tom called me – he later told me that this was one of the most difficult calls he had ever made in his life – and also one of the most important. I work with people who feel as though their hearts are breaking because of a loss or losses. It is often bereavement that prompts people to contact me, but it can also be one of many other losses we can experience – loss of relationship, career, home or faith to mention a few. When I say ‘heartbroken’, I don’t mean the sadness immediately following a loss, but a deep and lasting feeling that seems to take away the ability to truly feel or enjoy what we once found good, feeling untouched by what once made us happy or feeling emotionally closed down and not looking forward to the future. It can also mean that people get ‘stuck’ in the loss itself – they don’t feel able to experience emotions other than those from the loss itself, or they find it difficult to speak at all about the person or thing they have lost.

Tom later told me that whilst talking to a complete stranger about his feelings felt incredibly hard to do, it also felt as though a weight began to lift from his shoulders and that he was able to say things that he never could to those he knew and loved.

I work with people using the Grief Recovery® method. It provides information about loss and grieving that dispels many of the unhelpful myths that can actually harm and hinder our grieving. It then provides a series of steps that not only help us to identify the source of our unresolved grief, but also the way to move through this to start living our lives fully again. Many counselling and therapeutic approaches are good at helping us to see why we feel as we do, but do not then give us a way forward. The process is, not surprisingly, emotionally challenging, but feels safe and achievable as I provide confidential support and guidance throughout.

So, what of Tom? He has completed the programme and, as he suspected, it not only helped him deal with the loss of Charlie, but also to work through the loss of his mother and sister in law. He is able to talk about Charlie to other people now – the happy and funny memories as well as the sad ones. He has felt strong enough to talk with Sandi about his feelings and. They may get another dog and they’ll wait until they know whether it’s the right thing to do – the decision isn’t a problem any more.

They’ve talked about other losses and for the first time in months, maybe years, it feels like the barriers are down and OK to talk openly and honestly. Above all, Tom is looking forward to the future – each day has possibilities and hopes for him again.

15th October 2018

He also felt stupid talking with her about his feelings – after all, Charlie was only a dog at the end of the day. Except, it just didn’t feel like that. Tom’s mum had died 3 years before and then his sister in law 6 months later and he thought he’s coped OK with that – he’s been strong for Sandi over the loss of her sister, so how could he feel like this about a dog – even one as special as Charlie?

Tom didn’t feel able to talk to anyone at work or with his friends – how could he explain feelings he could not understand himself and he was afraid of what they would say. Someone he had thought of as a friend told him that Charlie had a good life and he should think about getting another dog. 


Simon Arthur © 2019