Grief, Guilt, Death, Denial: a different experience for all

by Mel Menzies

There is a tendency to assume that, following a bereavement, grief must adhere to a certain pattern to be real. But this is not true. The process of mourning, following the loss of a loved one, is different for everyone, and looking for a set response from someone is a dangerous expectation. My reactions, when I lost my adult daughter, may be quite different to yours in a similar situation.

And yours, in turn, may be opposite to someone close to you. It is important to grasp this concept, especially between parents who have lost a child, where the death, and emotions that follow, may differ quite drastically. At a time when each needs the support and understanding of the other, it could be quite damaging if one believes the other to be unaffected simply because their way of coping is not the same.

THE WAY DEATH AND EMOTIONS ARE HANDLED MAY VARY

Numbness, and a denial of death, is a perfectly normal initial response. This is the body’s defence mechanism kicking in, to ensure that the ill-effects of trauma are minimised before they become overwhelming. Gradually, various emotions, including grief and guilt, will then begin to seep into consciousness over a period of time.

However, there are aspects of grief which many mourners experience in common with others, though not necessarily in the same order. Chief among them are:

  • Denial and Disbelief
  • Guilt and Regret
  • Anger and Depression
  • Pain and Sadness

DENIAL & DISBELIEF

To begin with, you may find yourself quite unable to accept the situation. Denial of death is commonplace. You expect the person you’ve loved and lost to come through the door at any moment. You may catch yourself laying a place at the table, and experience a sense of unreality when you realise the futility of your action. You imagine that you hear their voice, lift your head to see them, and are surprised to find no one there.

This pattern of death and denial is a normal reaction. When people said nice things to me about my daughter, following her death, I found myself thinking, quite rationally, that I’d be able to share them with her; that it would be an encouragement to her to know how positively she was viewed by others.

GUILT & REGRET

You may have regrets following a bereavement; a sense of ‘if only’. If only you had done this. Not done that. If only the deceased had taken more care of himself. If only she’d heeded your advice. Some of these regrets may be completely irrational. Others will be genuine misgivings. Either way, you have, at some point, to come to terms with them. Talking to a friend or counsellor, or sharing with others on a bereavement support group may help.

Guilt, too, may rise to the surface, with or without foundation. Instead of ‘if only’ this emotion is dogged by ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’. You chastise yourself for your ‘thoughtlessness’, real or imagined, your ‘selfishness’, your ‘indifference’. If you’ve had a row shortly before a sudden death, you are more than likely to whip yourself with shame and self-reproach. You find yourself going over every detail, every word, every action.

Guilt may also arise as a result of relief. When death has occurred at the end of a long illness or disability, the grieving process, in terms of the emotions experienced, may be similar to that of sudden death, but there will be differences. The main distinction is that mourning is done – for the most part – prior to death. If the patient’s suffering has been acute – as is the case with many cancer patients – then death may, actually, come as a relief. The same is true when the life of a loved one has become meaningless to them and an unmitigated burden on the carer – as with those suffering either mental or physical impairment such as dementia or motor neuron disease. In either case, a sense of relief may be mingled with guilt. Guilt over the fact that you are glad to be relieved of the burden. Or guilt that you still have life when your loved no longer does.

ANGER AND DEPRESSION, DEATH AND DENIAL

I was fortunate enough to experience neither anger nor depression when my daughter died. Research carried out by the Royal Free and University College Medical School in London found that those with a spiritual belief fared better in coping with bereavement than those without. When you have faith to trust that you will see your loved one again, there is little or no experience of anger or depression.

But for many people anger and death do go hand in hand. Blaming the deceased, though irrational, is a natural tendency. So, too, is the lethargy which may follow. Combined with a state of deep sorrow and sadness and a desire to withdraw socially, this may easily lead to depression. Disturbing dreams may add to feelings of despair and helplessness. And fear of a future alone may intensify those feelings.

PAIN & SADNESS

A sense of physical pain and overwhelming sadness is a normal part of grief. When we experience loss, we naturally curve into ourselves as if we’re suffering the acute stage of a belly-ache. We wrap our arms around ourselves; hug ourselves; rock too and fro. Lying down and curling into a ball – a foetal position – we adopt a childlike helplessness, and behave as if grief were an illness. Because that’s how it feels!

Let no one minimise the depth of feeling experienced by some people. But these intense experiences will pass. And eventually you will experience an acceptance of death which, though you may never entirely be rid of the pain, will bring you peace of a sort.  This can’t be rushed; it must be at your pace; your time.  Be kind to yourself.  But allow yourself, also, to look to a future that offers you hope.

© Mel Menzies, February, 2009

Mel’s latest book, A Painful Post Mortem, tells the story of a mother dealing with the loss of her daughter. Inspired by her own loss, it is a moving tale with an uplifting conclusion. BUY MEL’S BOOKS at http://www.melmenzies.co.uk/books/ ALL PROCEEDS ARE FOR CHARITY

Find SELF-HELP ARTICLES on Bereavement, Debt, Relationships, Parenting, Personal Growth – and many other topics at http://www.melmenzies.co.uk; or subscribe free for creative writing course.

A Sunday Times No. 4 Bestselling Author, Mel is also an experienced Speaker and has addressed live audiences of between 20 and 700+ in addition to participating in TV and Radio chat shows. She has led Family Forums, Marriage Enrichment and Writing Workshops.

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