Processing Grief



Like all of us, I have grieved losses in life. The feeling of grief arises whenever we have to let go of something. That might be the life of a loved one, a beloved pet, a relationship, a home, a job or a particular time in ones life. Grief exists because we form attachments. We form relational bonds with our family and friends, with our work colleagues and pets. We can become attached to places or even certain phases in life where we were on a 'high' and life felt really good. With hindsight, I think many of us are realising what we took for granted in our lives before the pandemic, and in turn have grieved the (hopefully temporary) loss of connection and sense of safety. When we think we have something good, we are understandably unwilling to part with it. The 'having' is soon exposed for the illusion that it is, as the only inevitability is continual change. People pass, relationships end, and time carries us on through countless places and situations.

Grief is complex. My grandmother suffered with vascular dementia. One of the days I visited the care home to take her out for tea and cake, we sat facing each other and she asked me what I did for a living. In that moment, I was a kind stranger, joining her for afternoon tea. I told her I was a teacher, and for a moment her face lit up. She became more alive than she had been in previous times I visited. She shared how she had been a primary school teacher, which I remembered because she used to take me to the school when I was a child and I'd join in and help her students with arts and crafts. She shared with me all about her job which she clearly loved, as if we were still there, in that time. Later that afternoon back at the home, as I was cutting her fingernails she said "I know you, don't I?"

Some part of her knew it, even as we were polite strangers over tea and cake. I said gently, "Yes you do. And I know that you are a teacher because I came to that school with you when I was a little girl." She smiled. I was deeply happy and desperately sad, all at the same time. It was one of the most beautiful moments I think I've ever experienced for the complexity of the grief I felt. How do you mourn someone who is still alive?

My Nan also suffered Alzheimers and the experience was the same in many ways. Except with her being the first, I wasn't as prepared for the gut wrenching moment when she no longer knew who I was. The second time round, I was older, understood more and was able to personalise it less. With dementia, grief starts the moment of the diagnosis, because it is then that you become acutely aware of the reality that was actually always the case. This person that you love so much is mortal, and is going to pass on to another state, something different. They won't always be here. The change is faster for those with terminal illnesses, but we will all change state continually until we reach the same exit point.

My thoughts about grief relate strongly to my last blog about acceptance. When caring for a loved one who is sick, continual acceptance of their current state is essential, otherwise the suffering is intense and unrelenting. If I spent my limited time with my gran, continually pointing out when she wasn't making any sense, when she'd lapsed into another timeline or thought I was someone else, that wouldn't help her or me. She'd be upset that she was getting things 'wrong' and I'd be frustrated that she wasn't the same person she used to be. Instead, being open to live in her reality with her in that moment, made things unique and beautiful in unexpected ways. We have every right to feel angry, and sad, but our emotions do not change the facts.

I'm reminded here of the Buddist notion of non-attachment. This can be confused with numbing, distancing or dissociation. Non attachment isn't an invitation to duck out of life, or a form of avoidance. It's definitely not 'don't get close so you can't get hurt.' It's actually a way of more fully immersing in what Eckhart Tolle might call the 'nowness' of life. It is exactly what I shared with you about being with my gran suffering from dementia. Accepting the version of her that presented itself at any given moment and engaging with that version, as if there was never any other- with no clinging or attachment to the previous version of her. Easier said than done, truly a lifetimes' work. But it is worth it for the joy and pure presence of being able to fully embrace each moment in life as if it was meant to be this way. Because it is. When we spend our time clinging to the way things used to be or the way we think they 'should' be, we are opting out of the now. We are closing off to the gifts of the present.

Grief is powerful and at times overwhelming. It requires acceptance to allow oneself to feel it, but this is the only way to process it. With all tough emotions, the only way is through.

There is so much more I could say on this topic. I've only just scratched the surface. But that's enough for today. So many of you out there are grieving the loss of loved ones right now, and I want to send you all the warmest love.

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