When I am counselling clients who have had a bereavement it isn't usually long before the question arises, 'how long will I grieve'? I think what most are asking is how long will I feel like this? I often imagine this question as a foreign movie with subtext. If I could see the sub-text it would probably read, 'because I cannot bear the way I feel, so please tell me when it will end'.
Annoyingly there is no map or stopwatch for individual grief. What I will say is that the amount of time often reflects the strength of the love. Having said that conversely, if someone has had a difficult relationship with someone, perhaps a parent, sometimes the grieving can be protracted and extremely hard. That is one of the myriad of difficulties which face those who grieve.
From my own experiences in my family, from talking to clients and watching other families who have experienced the death of a child, I believe no parent ever 'gets over' the death of their child. I had a moving conversation with my Mother shortly before her death. She told me that my brother, who died in 1979, came to her in a dream, which was a very rare event for her. When I asked her what she thought it meant she said, 'I think after 30 years I am finally getting used to it'. So for parents, the 'piece of string' is life long and I am pretty sure they wouldn't want it any other way because their grief is an important ongoing connection to their child.
In sessions, I usually ask a client how long they imagine their grief will be part of their life. I often hear, a few months, six months and occasionally someone might say a couple of years. I tend to err on the side of two years. In the Robert Peston Interview Show with Eddie Mair
, Robert talked with Julian Barnes about their grief following the loss of their wives. Julian Barnes made the point that his grief started to feel better at five to six years, and that he felt less ambushed by it at that point.
In the deeply moving book, Can I Let You Go, My Love? by Kay Van Dijk, she beautifully depicts four years of her intense thoughts and feelings following the death of her beloved husband. What is different about this book is that the words are written in real time like a diary, so the length of time of her grief and the waxing and waning of her feelings and thoughts are laid bare over a long time. There are many widows who have found this incredibly helpful as it is truthful and I generally suggest that they read it in 'real' time, corresponding with where they are in their grief. It then validates their own experiences, and helps them to understand they are not going mad, they are just grieving deeply.
This is the point I think, grief does not have an end. It is more a case of learning to live with it and the way it shapes, colours and changes our world. The way I describe it to my clients is that in the beginning grief is like a radio that it turned on full blast, high volume, very intrusive and unbearable. Over an undetermined
amount of time, the volume and intensity is 'turned down', until eventually it sits at a comfortable low volume, maybe barely perceptible sometimes but of course, like any radio, the volume can be turned up by oneself or occasionally others (or situations) unexpectedly. What is true, is that at a lower level, the volume or the grief feels less raw and more manageable and that makes daily living easier.
For those of you who are supporting someone who is grieving, I would implore you to be patient with the one who is mourning. You cannot hurry them along, you cannot make it better, you cannot (nor should you) stop them crying and there is no definitive end point
. What you can do is listen, listen and listen more. You can be patient, you can empathise, you can carry the load when they are overwhelmed, you can offer them solitude or company when they need it, give time and hugs, but mainly, try to take on board that they are probably in this period of grieving for a long time and because of that they deserve as much understanding and support as you can possibly muster.
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