Wellbeing Matters: A word about grief

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Our weekly wellbeing spot returns, and Jane wants to have a chat about loss.

Hello, and welcome to Wellbeing Matters, our regular spot to talk about life, the universe and the stuff that might be bubbling away under the surface. Let’s stop and have a quiet moment, and a think about grief. Chances are you’ve been through a major bereavement at some point in your life. Possibly more than one.

Grief is universal. It’s a stage of life that we all go through, the absence of a person who has been a cornerstone of our lives. And it can be complicated. Not all relationships are harmonious, but that doesn’t negate the love that can still be felt, even when fraught with misunderstandings and disagreements.

Yet grief is also painfully individual. We remember different facets of the ones we’ve lost, like a cheeky grin and impish sense of humour. The shape of a hand we used to hold. The digits of a telephone number that’s been disconnected, their ghost in your mobile phone.

It catches you unawares. How do you delete that voicemail that holds someone lost? You can’t airbrush birthdays from memory. You know there’s a gap there, at the table, and it fells you every time. Year after year, even when your mind tells you it should have passed.

It’s true it does come in stages, but they are unique to yourself. There’s the ricochet of bureaucracy, the exhaustion of the immediate aftermath of tying up someone’s life. Of placing them in tick boxes and cardboard boxes.

Then there’s the void. When everyone has paid their respects and left, and the hollowness of absence kicks in. Where every action, every thought is tinged with sadness. A sense that you are expected to have returned to normal. Whatever that is.

Our grieving period can be defined in three days compassionate leave, perhaps a week if your employer is generous. Sometimes returning to the routine of work is helpful. Sometimes the wheels come off, and you need to park yourself in the garage for essential care and maintenance.

Some of us find we need to move to a new vehicle entirely, find a new gear, a new speed with which to move forward. Or simply, there’s a need to slow down and find your own two feet to keep you standing. And then there are the days you need curl up in a ball and sob.

There’s no timescale to grief, no neat linear period. You can be tracking along just fine further down the line, when a photo in a box takes the legs out from under you. Sunlight slanting on a crooked smile. That hand you still instinctively know how to hold.

We’re not so good in acknowledging the devastating effect of grief. We have work, mortgages, bills to pay. We can’t necessarily take the time out that we need to process it. And people often don’t know how to approach someone who is struggling. They may care, and care desperately, but they might not be able to find the words to ask if you are ok.

One simple suggestion for dealing with moments of overwhelming grief that may hit when you are at work is to carry a card that you can leave on your desk or workspace. This could say simply that you need a moment to yourself, and are stepping out to get some air. Not everyone might respect the card (and not every employer endorse it), but it is a simple way of communication when you may be unable to speak, or don’t wish to draw attention to yourself.

There’s no panacea to it, no easy solution, but there is help available if grief becomes overwhelming. The charity Cruse (https://www.cruse.org.uk/) provides online, phone-based and local one-to-one support for people who have been bereaved.

Perhaps use the NHS as a starting point at https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/coping-with-bereavement/

Grief really is universal, and there are people – some strangers, some family and friends – who will provide a sympathetic ear if you need to talk.

We never forget those that we’ve lost. There’s a little piece of them forever embedded in the centre of our hearts. And they would want us to look out at the world, and yes to remember them. But they would also want us to live, and feel joy without sorrow. As Carl Sagan put it, ‘Even through your hardest days, remember we are all made of stardust.’

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