Death Literacy Intros: Acknowledging the individuality of the grief 'process'.
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
Death Literacy - a coin termed by Dr Kerrie Noonan. "Death literacy is defined as a set of knowledge and skills that make it possible to gain access to understand and act upon end-of-life and death care options" (Noonan, et al 2016).
Today I invite us to think about grief, time-frames for processing grief, and how we can better, and more respectfully, support those around us who are in grief.
Several days ago an actor from the USA named Luke Perry died of a massive stroke. Mr Perry was 52 years old, and his death was unexpected. Perry's teenage daughter Sophie Perry - in the midst of raw grief and the opening stages of navigating the loss of her father, took time away from her own needs to respond to trolls on the interwebs because apparently Ms Perry wasn't doing grief 'right'...
“YES I am hurt and sad and crying and beside myself with what happened to my dad. It’s the worst thing to ever happen in my life. And I am torn the f**k up over it. But I’m not going to sit in my room and cry day in and day out until the internet has deemed it appropriate for me to do otherwise. And if you knew my dad you would know he wouldn’t want me to. So you shouldn’t either. So to those of you shaming me for my language and my wardrobe and most disgustingly, my grieving process, do us both the favour and just unfollow. It’s a waste of both of [our] time.”
Well stated Ms Perry.
Grief has been on my mind a fair bit over the last several weeks - I have an upcoming set of Death and Dying guest lectures for WSU's Health Psychology unit, I undertook the evidence-based EFT training for health practitioners with a personal focus on complex grief, trauma, and PTSD, I have been working with several people who are coming to terms with loss at various points in their lives - often just beginning to acknowledge the depth of their grief -and wrote a poem for the Hunter Writer's Centre's Grieve Project competition. (Actually, this last one is only one of several aspects of grief I have been writing about lately, but I am particularly pleased with the outcome. I will publish the poem here after judging is finished in May.) There have been several grief-related articles popping up in my newsfeed on various socials, too.
Clearly, grief and grieving are in the air.
Of all of the facets and aspects of grief that I have been thinking about of late, the three that seem to be the most important - and that stand out the most for me - are:
There is a current, visible, zeitgeist about allowing people to simply grieve in their own way, without judgement. And without having to apologise; Ms Perry's online statements embody this zeitgeist perfectly.
We have a good deal of public acknowledgement that grief is definitely approached in one's own time-frame.
We all pretty much want to be left the bloody hells alone whilst we get on with grieving. Support may be negotiated (I do recommend regular check-ins on the negotiated support, too), but interference has no place.
I agree with all of these, and am happy to include them in my own death literacy boundaries. What do you think, Gentle Reader?
Essentially, grief is rather like body shape and gender identity - if it is not yours don't talk about or comment on it, unless invited to. DEFINITELY do not proffer unsolicited comments, advice, or anything that you try to frame as 'well-meaning' when it is just about trying to make your own self feel better. A grieving person does not owe you their time, energy, input, or explanation - this is not about you. In much the same way that we should not offer hugs without checking in with a grieving person* we should keep our opinions to ourselves about the way someone expresses grief. Laughing jags, crying jags, silence, over-talking about unrelated subjects, fixating on the dead person/s in conversation (aka monologuing), excessive care-taking of yourself as a visitor/guest - all of these may be challenging to sit with, however grief has a myriad of ways of coming to the fore. If you are deeply uncomfortable with someone's behaviour, but it is not dangerous behaviour (different story if someone is actively discussing self-harm/harm to others, contact mental health services and/or emergency services right away if this is the case) then limit the time you spend on visits. Instead of an hour, plan for 30 minutes of time, for example - in this way you can be supportive without straining your own limits, and respectful of the grieving person's needs for processing the new 'after' reality that they are coming to terms with.
*Hugs are fine, don't get me wrong, but hugging someone in deep grief may be a weasel way of either A) getting someone to stop crying/emoting/talking/laughing so that we ourselves can be more comfortable and 'in control' of the situation/emotion, or B) a weasel way of getting comfort so that we feel better physically/emotionally because we are now the centre of attention. Both of these are about control, and they are also about flipping the narrative and focus away from the grieving person. Rule of thumb if you feel like you need to adjust a grieving person, or control the moment? Just don't.
One of the most important and truly supportive things we can do is offer a person in grief is a non-judgemental presence. If you aren't sure what to say, try not saying anything; silence is under-valued in our own society, and can be incredibly comforting for someone who is deeply sorrowful. Especially useful for deep, raw, immediate grief, silence removes any pressure on a person to talk for the sake of it, or to feel an imperative to put words around emotion and personal experience that they probably don't have words for yet... Bear in mind some loss remains unspeakable, and this is where tapping, music making, art making, physical movement, or non-verbal vocalising* may all be helpful.
*If you have questions about any of these techniques for helping to frame and process grief please get in touch with me. I am trained in all but music therapy (but I am able to put you in touch with music therapists if this is the best fit category) and I hold boundaries and silence incredibly well.
Time is an enormously personal factor not only in grief, but in the way we as individuals and a society view grief - this can be quite problematic in Australia where we have 'harden the f**k up', and 'get over it!' as common phrases for almost every situation in life. In 21st century Western societies, too, we are pressured to move on - with everything and anything - as soon as possible, presumably so we can go buy the latest whatever is being promoted on TV and social media sites. Grief is not actually, however, anything we necessarily get over. When someone important to us (human or pet) dies, there is automatically an irrevocable and immutable "before" and "after". The after for some of us is always out of reach in terms of moving through our anger, sorrow, numbness, denial, or guilt - I have actually met someone whose sense of identity was so entwined with that of a dead sibling that I kept calling them by their sibling's name rather than their own because they used their sibling's name in conversation so frequently. I did struggle for a while with my own sense of 'time' in this case, and it was a good learning experience for me: just because I thought three years after a death was absolutely enough time to process deep grief did not make it right or appropriate for the person experiencing the deep grief. I am happy that I kept my mouth shut and processed my own responses in silence, rather than making a grieving person responsible for pointing out my own arrogance, but I do hold this memory close because I need to remember that someone else's grief is not about my timeline, my expectations, or my comfort. This last is especially important in my work as both an an end of life doula and grief and loss psychotherapist and counsellor - and I offer my own reminder story here by way of admitting that even after all these years of working in the field of grief and loss I can still make mistakes about time, too.
For me, the concept that grief is what happens to our love when we no longer have a place to put it is the best encapsulation I have yet encountered for explaining the whys and hows of the intensely individualised process of grief. This concept is also useful when we are thinking about grief from point number 3 above - leaving people alone to get on with grieving in their own way. If you would not express grief the way someone around you is, then fine, express your grief differently. However, do not decide it is your place to determine what is the 'best' way to grieve based on your own biases, opinions, or ideas. Let people get on with their own business of grieving, and if you do want to show support, start a conversation by asking how you can best support them at this time. Then, listen to them. Act on their wishes, and check in periodically to try and ensure you are still offering the kind of support and appropriate presence they need.
Grief does, for most of us, eventually begin to shift and change, so our needs around support and communication will change over time, too. Check your impatience at the door, and if you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed at someone's apparent 'stuckness' in anger, helplessness, fear, obsession, or sadness with a death then circle back to my earlier point about putting some quiet personal boundaries around the time-frames of your interactions. You might also want to have a long truthful look at what bothers you so much about the other person's grief journey - what are you yourself afraid of? If we are afraid of something, we generally want it to stop or go away very, very quickly... take a moment or two and unpack what is going on with yourself, but remember it is not the grieving person's job to make your own process easier for you.
This last point is vitally important when the experience of loss someone else lives with is outside of your own range of experience. For example, pet owners often have disenfranchised grief because we are only now beginning to understand that humans can grieve pets more profoundly than we may do the people in our lives. Pet owners whose pets have died may be ridiculed, belittled, or humiliated for wanting to talk about their overwhelming grief, or judged when they get a new pet "too soon" because they are ready for a new companion in their lives. Violent death, unexpected death, exposure to trauma in death (particularly common amongst military and para-military persons) all come with differing kinds of complex grief processes and grief/PTSD responses that deserve sensitivity and a respect for the time and space that may be needed to navigate personal processes of grief in a meaningful way. Parents* whose children die before they are born, or die shortly after death, live with a lifetime of anniversaries of that which never manifest, and it is important to recognise that any parent whose child dies young lives with this kind of loss and ongoing cyclical grief.
*One of the most compelling reasons I tend to refer grieving parents to colleagues is that I am child-free by choice and will never know this kind of loss myself, and I think it is important to be able to relate to a death in order to professionally support someone effectively. Personal support is of course different, but I note professional support here because this is an important aspect of selecting someone to work with in a therapeutic way.
In short, be respectful, offer space, don't offer opinion about time or coping strategy unless someone is in danger, and check in regularly. Grief is part of life, because death is part of life. The sooner we make space for acknowledging grieve and grieving more naturally in our conversations and everyday awareness, the stronger our communities will be, and the healthier our relationships will be - with ourselves, as well as with each other.
If you would like support, presence, comfort, or stress-management tools to help you better understand your own grief process (or that of someone you know), please do not hesitate to get in touch with me. I am an end of life consultant who is a seasoned grief expert, and I offer a variety of grief-based techniques for coping, stress-reduction, and safe processing. I am here to be with you, and you can determine how much or how little you choose to share about your grief and your love without a place.
Let's talk (even if that means being silent for a while) - email firstname.lastname@example.org for your appointment.