19th October 2006
Exploring Grief Creatively.
We all know there are only two things in life we can be sure about and that is life and death.
Being human, we form attachments to others: to partners, spouses, lovers, families, places, pets, possessions and even old clothes. So it follows that loss is inevitable in the course of a lifetime.
Attachment represents the heart connections we have and explains the acuteness of the sense of loss we experience. We use language to express this when we speak of being “broken hearted”, or of someone who “died of a broken heart”. When we say things like “my life can never be the same again” or “there is a hole in my heart that can never be filled again”.
So the depth of attachment determines the acuteness of the sense of loss. This needs to be felt. This is what the mourning process is about.
Today our western society has largely medicalized our hearts. We call the doctor when someone dies to medicate and sedate the “patient”. Other more traditional societies have mourning rituals in which wailing and crying as a vocal expression is encouraged, or rather expected. In which people visit the bereaved and sit with them for days in respectful silence. We no longer grant ourselves this time in our busy lives and so we mourn alone.
I once saw an woman whose son had been badly mauled by a wild animal and I remember well how she described her grief and anguish. She ran out of the house, she said, flung herself onto the lawn and wailed and wailed loudly. Nothing less would have served her on her journey from feeling to healing.
Sometimes we are told to be brave and that life goes on, but psychologists believe that unless feelings are acknowledged and expressed, they may go underground and reappear later on as depression or resurface after a second experience of loss with doubled intensity. People come to see me with depression and when I ask about their lives, and how events have impacted on them, there is often a story of loss.
No-one likes to feel pain and we all try to avoid it in various ways. One young girl lost her beloved father, was sedated and then went onto tranquillizers. When those were finished, she tried street drugs, eventually went off those and back onto tranquillizers. Now, several years later she is not taking anything. What she talks about is the fuzzy time when her dad died. That she did not mourn him.
The second aspect of bereavement relates to the meaning we ascribe to our losses, the meaning that the person or animal or object of loss represented. I remember a woman in her fifties who did not marry and when her little dog, a companion of 14 years died, she simply fell apart. This dog had great meaning in her life. He was always there for her, she did not feel lonely, she had something to go home to, someone who depended on her. This was the meaning of her attachment to this little animal. Healing for her consisted of compiling a photo album of her life with her pet. In this way she honoured herself too.
If we depend on another person and believe that we cannot manage without that person for whatever reason, a great hurdle has to be overcome. We’d need to look at ourselves and start believing that we can manage and start to do so little by little. This is quite common in long marriages where partners played different roles. So there can be a sense of being unable to function which complicates grieving. Yet sometimes a woman who thought she was not capable of surviving without her husband can surprise even herself and vice versa.
It can be easier to accept the death of a person who has suffered greatly and lived to a ripe old age. However, we still miss the person for the role they played in our lives and the attachment we had.
So attachment and meaning are the things we look at when someone mourns. I love to ask a person about the meaning the deceased had in their lives. This can help the healing process as it is a way of chrystallizing the importance of that person and of honouring another’s life.
Loyalty too, plays a role in grieving. There are times when people start recovering from mourning, and start experiencing small periods where they manage to forget and live in the moment and they may feel guilty for doing so. It is normal.
Rituals can carry us through difficult phases as they structure our actions and provide containment for our bruised emotional selves. I’d like to share some of the grieving rituals I have devised together with my friends. Poetry, journaling, painting, crying, group therapy, helping others who suffer, talking and so forth are some of the ways. Not everyone will want to write poetry. For some it is enough to be listened to. I try to match the ritual to the person’s preferred way of expressing him or herself.
Remembering practices are rituals we cocreate with clients. It is a way of holding on whilst letting go. Just letting go and moving on can disconnect us from these important relationships – psychologists think it overemphasizes the finality of death.
So we try to find a way to keep a person’s memory alive – to honour our connection with that person. In this way grief becomes an opportunity for developing an ongoing story and not an unpleasant task to be worked through as quickly as possible.
A young teenager, suffering from depression, lost her father as a child. She knew very little about him and just felt sadness. Her mother had remarried and moved on but she had reached the age at which she needed to define herself and that involves knowing those who contributed towards your life. We started on a journey resurrecting her deceased father. I’d prod her with questions and she’d go off in search of answers from family members. She would dig up photo’s, drawing on her own memories and together we’d see what we could tell from these photo’s. Gradually she built up a picture of him that was rich and varied.
She finally wrote him a “letter” in which she told him all about herself.
Her depression lifted.
A young woman, Jane, sat down in my office one day and declared: “I wish there was someone to hold me and tell me everything will be OK”. Her father died some eight years ago. At the time she went into denial. She threw herself into her studies, she partied hard, tried dope, had the wrong friends, even married. The marriage did not last. She also tried to commit suicide, not once but twice. She did everything except mourn. (I have found it very typical of people in their twenties to not mourn.)
I asked her what her father meant to her and this is what she said: “He’d put his arms around me and I’d just stand there. He’d hold me and in that silence I’d know that all is well. My world is safe.”
He died before she could discover a sense of safety within herself. Our work together would consist of internalising such a sense of safety. Once we knew what he represented to her, we could focus on this process in a conscious way.
Another young woman, whose dad had died, kept what she called her “feeling journal”. She wrote her feelings as well as positive thoughts down in this journal on a daily basis. She also withdrew to a study for 10-15 minutes each day, with a photo of her dad and she’d talk to him. She spoke of her connection with him and how she was missing him in her life. She says “letting it all out” provided her with a sense of release. When the tears stopped and she had nothing left to say, she could carry on without the heaviness.
Apart from attachment and meaning, belief systems also come into play when someone close to us dies. Our beliefs are sorely tested at the time of trauma, loss and death. There is comfort to be had in our beliefs yet many question the existence of a God that allows suffering.
One young woman had been told as a child that a person who dies became a star in the sky and that an angel would be watching over her. She waited for this but experienced “nothing of the sort” and decided it was all “rubbish”. There was no comfort for her, other than keeping his memory alive.
An octogenarian gentleman whose wife passed away, leaving him unconsolable, found comfort when he saw her in a vision. He had no belief in an afterlife.
Maris, a young woman from Soweto, had to be helped to my office as she’d lost the use of her legs when her son died. He was murdered by tsotsi’s. She saw him in a vision one night and with his assurance that he was fine, she could smile again and regained the use of her legs.
These experiences have made me aware of how respectful we need to be of what others believe, whatever the case may be.
I would like to end off with a poem by Bob Commin (Becoming Human,1999), a local priest.
Death must be different
Death must be different
from how we perceive it.
Don’t think you are
unattractive when you die
in old age.
I have been at the bedside
of many women
the curve of the lip
the slow physical response
the click of the teeth across the mouth
the eyes, still whole like the soul
magnetizing the wrinkled flesh,
give the first real glimpse
of your naked spirit
the shape and colours of your soul
so absent, as though hearing a distant music.
So withdraw the embarrassment
There’s something new with you
Like the spring coiled, waiting for release
which I am privileged to feel.
The cumulous forms of
the emerging soul of you
bursting out, beyond
the frontiers of this room.
Dr Aneta Shaw
Clinical Psychologist - Gordon’s Bay
Tel: 021 856 5487
Cell: 082 686 8118