Liv­ing with grief

The loss of a loved one is one of the tough­est things we’ll ever ex­pe­ri­ence. But, as Caron Kemp dis­cov­ered, the pain can lead to un­ex­pected growth

Women's Health Australia - - CONTENTS -

What can neu­ro­science and per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence teach us about loss?

I’ve lost count of the num­ber of times peo­ple have told me how strong I am. Con­sid­er­ing I rarely set foot in a gym and my body bears the signs of hav­ing car­ried three chil­dren, I’d be sur­prised if they meant phys­i­cally so. Rather, they’re talk­ing about the re­silience I’ve shown since los­ing my mum to cancer in 2016.

The tragedy is, every­body will ex­pe­ri­ence grief at some point or an­other. And even more dis­tress­ing is that it seems to be more dif­fi­cult to process than other neg­a­tive emo­tions. Why? Be­cause se­ri­ous loss doesn’t just af­fect the way you feel – it has a very real ef­fect on the work­ings of your body, too.

“While each of us deals with grief in our own way, we know it causes tremen­dous con­fu­sion and of­ten phys­i­cal pain,” ex­plains neu­ro­sci­en­tist Dean Bur­nett, author of The Idiot Brain. “The con­se­quences are not metaphor­i­cal. Grief is a trauma, and your body’s au­to­matic re­sponse to that is to flood its sys­tem with cor­ti­sol, which can have harm­ful ef­fects.

The brain is forced to try to re­turn to nor­mal func­tion­ing and this can take con­sid­er­able time.” All this cer­tainly rings true for me. Al­though, while the stages of grief seem to be com­mon knowl­edge – de­nial, anger, bar­gain­ing, de­pres­sion and ac­cep­tance – there’s no fixed time­line to fol­low. It’s like a pen­du­lum, for­ever swing­ing back and forth be­tween them all.

WHY IT HURTS SO MUCH

Ex­perts be­lieve grief hits us so hard be­cause we process the loss as a re­jec­tion – a tie or re­la­tion­ship sev­ered for­ever in a way that we can’t ex­ert any con­trol over. “When some­one re­jects us, even in a mi­nor way, stud­ies have shown that it’s pro­cessed in the same re­gions of the brain that deal with pain,” says Bur­nett. “While re­cent ev­i­dence sug­gests that it’s more ‘psy­chic’ pain than the phys­i­cal kind we ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s just as mis­er­able.” And it’s not sim­ply the loss of that one per­son you have to process

but the ef­fect this has on your own iden­tity. “Brain scans show that when par­tic­i­pants are asked to think of those peo­ple clos­est to them and the groups in which they feel a sense of be­long­ing, this trig­gers ac­tiv­ity in the same parts of the brain that hold in­for­ma­tion re­lated to your sense of self,” says Bur­nett. “Es­sen­tially, the peo­ple you sur­round your­self with be­come a big part of who you are and how you see your­self.” The con­se­quence? When some­one in­ter­twined with your char­ac­ter passes away, it causes huge dam­age and dis­rup­tion to all th­ese neu­ro­log­i­cal pro­cesses and all your ex­pec­ta­tions and un­der­stand­ing of how life works. And this causes se­ri­ous un­cer­tainty and stress for the typ­i­cal brain.

This ex­plains the feel­ing that, with my mum’s death, a part of me dis­ap­peared, too. I looked like her, thought like her, doted on her. I spoke to her ev­ery day, we’d meet for din­ner at least once a week and she was a con­stant source of sup­port, both emo­tion­ally and prac­ti­cally, when I be­came a mother my­self. When her ill­ness hit and the gru­elling chemo­ther­apy took its toll, I planned my en­tire life around her hos­pi­tal stays; I all but felt the pain etched on her face as the drugs tried to save her life.

It wasn’t to be; and when she died, I was left heart­bro­ken along­side my dad and sis­ter. It’s easy to as­sume that hav­ing oth­ers to share the ex­pe­ri­ence with would be some com­fort. If any­thing, the pain seemed to mul­ti­ply be­cause I knew they were hurt­ing as well. Ex­perts agree that when it comes to the griev­ing process, it’s any­thing but a sim­ple case of ‘a prob­lem shared is a prob­lem halved’.

“When some­one in­te­gral to a fam­ily unit dies, that whole sys­tem turns on its axis,” ex­plains psy­chother­a­pist Julia Sa­muel, author of Grief Works. “Each per­son is griev­ing in their own way and the ex­pe­ri­ence de­mands a com­plete re­cal­i­bra­tion of dy­nam­ics to con­tinue on to find a new nor­mal­ity.” Yes, it’s cru­cial to em­pathise with each other, but Sa­muel sug­gests that grief dif­fers from other per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences, be­cause it may not be wise to turn to those you’d usu­ally con­fide in. “There’s a risk that more than one per­son drown­ing in loss can ac­tu­ally be a hin­drance. Open com­mu­ni­ca­tion is key, but it’s im­por­tant to recog­nise that you have to look fur­ther out for sup­port, be­yond those who are griev­ing for the same per­son you are.”

A FRIEND IN NEED

This is when friends come into their own. Never have my friend­ships been so vi­tal, and stretched to such an ex­tent. And, un­for­tu­nately, some haven’t passed the test. “You can’t be an­gry at the per­son you’ve lost for what they’ve left be­hind, so some of this fury is dis­placed,” says Sa­muel. “Then it be­comes ex­is­ten­tial dis­ap­point­ment when you recog­nise that oth­ers may let you down when you need them most. You’re al­ready griev­ing for the fu­ture you feel you’ve been de­nied, so there are a lot of echoed feel­ings when friends fail to live up to your ex­pec­ta­tions.”

For Vai­jayanti Drumm, a consultant who works in the men­tal health space, the is­sue lies in friends’ un­will­ing­ness to let down their own de­fences. “Hu­man be­ings mir­ror each other – we are in a con­stant feed­back loop,” she says. “So when some­one is griev­ing, in or­der to em­pathise, we need to mir­ror and feel the range of neg­a­tive emo­tions that our friend is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. This makes us feel vul­ner­a­ble and out of con­trol. But, in avoid­ing this, we can end up be­ing dis­hon­est in how we com­mu­ni­cate. We try to say the right words, but our body

lan­guage gives us away, and this dis­hon­esty in com­mu­ni­ca­tion means we don’t al­ways de­liver for the griev­ing per­son.”

I un­der­stand that this past year or so has been dif­fi­cult for my friends and col­leagues, just as it has been for me - though I don’t al­ways have the headspace to ap­pre­ci­ate it fully. There’s still a sense of taboo and awk­ward­ness around grief, far more than other un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tions or feel­ings. In part, peo­ple worry that by men­tion­ing what’s hap­pened, they’ll make things worse (hon­ourable in­ten­tions, yes, but per­son­ally it’s more up­set­ting), or they don’t know what to say, so choose to say noth­ing at all.

Over time, I’ve ad­justed to dripfeed­ing my­self frag­ments of pain: mem­o­ries of the di­ag­no­sis, those fi­nal few months, weeks and days be­fore her death or the in­sta­bil­ity of the af­ter­math. Then, be­fore the tears take hold, I shut them down and re­turn to dis­trac­tion to keep the sor­row from suf­fo­cat­ing me. “We have de­fences for a good rea­son,” says Sa­muel. “It’s about let­ting your sys­tem do what it needs to do. In­cre­men­tally, ev­ery time you move be­tween ex­press­ing your sad­ness, and find­ing things that calm you, you ad­just a bit more to this re­al­ity that you don’t want to be true. You can’t bear wit­ness to the ac­tu­al­ity to be­gin with, so it be­comes a slow ad­just­ment over time.”

This os­cil­la­tion be­tween flirt­ing with the loss and seek­ing respite from the hurt is one of the most re­spected the­o­ries in stud­ies of grief: the dual process model of cop­ing. “We can’t stay with the pain too long, so we move to­wards restora­tion in­stead,” says Sa­muel. “But then, when ready, we move back to the pain in or­der to con­front it. By mov­ing in and out of the in­tense grief, with key pe­ri­ods of dis­trac­tion, the re­al­ity of the loss can be tack­led in more man­age­able doses.” This con­stant back-and-forth is one of the worst things about grief – any time I’ve felt like I’m get­ting some­where, I then hit a par­tic­u­larly dark pe­riod.

No won­der, then, that grief re­treats ex­ist, here and over­seas. Loss expert Donna Lan­caster co-founded The Bridge in the UK – a five-day heal­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that com­bines med­i­ta­tion, vi­su­al­i­sa­tion, jour­nalling, group shar­ing and rit­ual. It’s based on the renowned Grief Re­cov­ery Method and re­search un­der­taken by Har­vard Univer­sity, which con­cluded that rit­ual when griev­ing helps suf­fer­ers to re­gain feel­ings of con­trol. Fo­cus­ing not solely on the be­reaved but also loss in gen­eral, par­tic­i­pants are en­cour­aged to find ways to turn their pain into a pos­i­tive. “If you don’t tell your story, you’ll show it phys­i­cally,” says Lan­caster. “I’ve seen so many peo­ple’s un­pro­cessed pain leak out as anger, which then has a mas­sive im­pact on their own well­be­ing. Once they be­gin pro­cess­ing grief in a way that res­onates, phys­i­cal is­sues in­clud­ing di­ges­tive prob­lems, mi­graines, back pain and rigid pos­ture can lessen.”

MOV­ING FOR­WARD

So, is grief some­thing that you should aim to ‘get over’? “In terms of the hu­man brain, it can adapt to any­thing over time,” says Bur­nett. Al­though life won’t ever go back to the way it was, even­tu­ally your body will re­sume ‘nor­mal’ op­er­a­tions. “The brain works by pro­cess­ing ac­tions and out­comes, so if you do some­thing for long enough and it proves to have no no­tice­able out­come – for ex­am­ple, you feel pain but that suf­fer­ing doesn’t re­sult in the per­son com­ing back – it will learn to ac­cept this.”

From a psy­cho­log­i­cal point of view, the process is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. “You don’t get over grief, but you’ll learn how to take the pain, feel the emo­tions and ex­press them in a healthy way,” says Lan­caster. “By al­low­ing your­self to face the range of emo­tions head on, the loss can be turned into a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.”

While it seems in­com­pre­hen­si­ble that there could be any bright side, Sa­muel also agrees with Lan­caster. “When you al­low your­self to live with what you first find im­pos­si­ble to com­pre­hend, there is a sense of growth. By be­ing able to recog­nise that life in­volves pain, as well as joy, your ex­pe­ri­ence in this world deep­ens. Com­pas­sion can deepen – you may find you’re more able to em­pathise with oth­ers – and your per­cep­tion of what mat­ters, and more im­por­tantly what doesn’t, can change en­tirely,” Sa­muel says.

What I’m com­ing to re­alise is that th­ese feel­ings of grief are the price you pay for the love and joy that came be­fore. Bad things hap­pen and to­mor­row holds no guar­an­tees, so it’s cru­cial that I live my life in a way that would make my mum proud. Whether or not she’s here to bear wit­ness to what I do, I’m learn­ing to find so­lace in know­ing that, even af­ter her death, the val­ues she held dear are the ones I’m do­ing my very best to up­hold.

“YOU DON’T GET OVER GRIEF, BUT YOU’LL LEARN HOW TO TAKE THE PAIN, AND EX­PRESS IT IN A HEALTHY WAY”

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