It is fair to say that death is an important part of my work, although in my current parish I have been involved with very few funerals. However, I have stood closely with the grieving and learnt from their courage. I am often asked amongst their tears , "Is this normal?"
Perhaps we all suffer from a cultural aversion to death. Even within the church there is often very little mention of this universal subject. It is therefore, not hard to understand why, when grief comes we might face concerns over whether we are acting in a normal way or grieving 'well'.
Following the death of a loved one you will invariable experience an intense but personal array of different emotions. These may be expressed in physiological as well as psychological terms and many grieveing individuals suffer from symptoms that can appear very similar to depression (although it essential to note that depression and grief are not the same). These can include sleeplessness, lack of apitite, anxiety, panic, a lack of interest in pleasure, lethargy, hoplessness, anger, numbness, hyperactivity and dispersonalisation.
What is extremely hard to know is when and how intensely you might experience a range of these emotions. It is essential that you grieve your way and don't subcribe to an idea that you should feel certain things at certain times.
Many grief stricken individuals find themselves immediatley numb and spend the first three of four weeks unable to cry at all. they might busy themselves with the funeral arrangements and be very practical. Partnered with this may be a strong sense of guilt and shame that they are not being more expressive. However, their grief may be realised more strongly later on, when they have been able to process the loss more deeply. Hence, we cannot qualify one individuals grief over anothers.
Equally some individuals may find themselves overcome with emotion very early on, unable to stop crying, felling overwhelmed and even out of control. This is also a normal reaction. It is helpful to know that we can feel anger or feel resentment to others becuse they don't appear to be grieving at all. Remember that however un-moved another family member may appear, they will be grieveing in their own way and time.
If there is a 'Good grief', I want to suggest that it is a fully engaged grief. Again , this cannot be quantified by the strength of emotional reaction that an individual displays. Instead , it reflects the individuals habituation of the death of their loved one. If there is a bad grief, it is no grief at all. Denial, avoidance, shallow engangement, distraction and substance mis-use will only deny the process of habituation and the 'good grief' that should take place.
My best advice to newly berieved people is to fully involve themselves in the process of saying goodbuy. This includes seeing the body in the 'Home of Rest' if at all possible, followed by involvement in the planning and certainly attendance to the funeral or cremation. The decisions that are made over those few hours have life long consequences in terms of memory and peace. Grieveing people often feel guilty about things that they left unsaid to the deceased, this can be compounded or greatly relieved at the funeral. It will also provide such a helpful marker on the early journey of grief.
In the following weeks and months, I suggest that grieving people talk about their memories, both good and painful, of the deceased. This can really help to work things through, please don't be afraid of making others emotional, you will be helping them grieve in a positive way by sharing your own memories. Some people attempt to stifel their emotion in an attempt to protect other people, particularly children, from the realities of grief. But this only serves to create un-helpful bariers to a helpful process.
It is a mistake to believe that grieving has an end point. Instead I believe that grieveing has various stages and changes, but that ultimately if we loved a person, however resolved we are about their death, we will still miss their presence and therefore grieve their loss. It is impossible to say how long the more intense peiod of grief lasts for. When pressed, I generally suggest that a grieving adult for a parent should not expect to be free from the strongest emotions before two years. This time frame is dramatically different for a parent grieving for their child.
Dealing with grief takes courage; courage not to run away from memories and emotions that cause emotional distress. I believe that having hope in grief is as important as findong hope in depression. It can be the light that leads us out of the dark woods of pain. Finding hope in these times is not easy and I believe only Jesus can provide it. In John 16:22 it says, "So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy." I hope that Jesus promise to you will be a comfort on this hard journey.
Will Van Der Hart, 05/03/2008