Grief is the range of human emotions we experience when we lose someone we love who we will never see again because they have died. All hope has gone. There is a finality to the situation. People talk about the fog of grief. It can include negative as well as positive emotions in the form of remembering and maybe seeing it as life altering and a step on the road to a different pattern of life. Grief involves physical pain in the form of heartache, sadness, emptiness, missing the person and never stopping thinking about them or holding thoughts of them close to you. The world feels like a big and scary place without your loved one.
The description above is the collective view of about twenty funeral professionals I met on a grief training course in London, run by Caroline Lloyd who calls herself the Grief Geek and has written a book on grief. This blog is about what I learned on the course; it’s my interpretation of what I learned and what I gleaned from the course and not necessarily a reflection of what Caroline believes or the message Caroline was imparting. You would need to attend the course yourself. I am a funeral celebrant in West Sussex and you can find my website and contact information here: https://beautifulfuneralsussexkent.co.uk and here: http://www.naturaldeath.org.uk/index.php?
When you lose a significant person you love you go through an identity crisis. Who am I now? What is my new identity? You lose your identity in relation to the other person and it’s a confusing time while you reestablish your place within your family, society and friendship circles. As funeral professionals we cannot make assumptions about relationships and it’s best to ask the bereaved what is the hardest part you’re dealing with? What does the loss mean that person? Sometimes we grieve for what we didn’t have in the relationship, unfulfilled expectations, broken promises, and we are now coming to terms with the hurt and pain the person caused us.
As professionals we mustn’t tell someone how we feel, for instance, “I know what it must be like for you.” We don’t know. Don’t hijack another person’s grief. Ask open ended questions and above all listen and emphasise. Our role as funeral celebrants and funeral arrangers can be difficult because often families will turn the deceased into saints and as we deliver the eulogy we are met with confused frowns because some of the mourners don’t recognise the true person we are talking about.The phrase “we all have our own personal feelings about this person” can be useful in the funeral script. We have complicated lives and complicated relationships and we all grieve differently and so will communicate differently. We must never underestimate how debilitating grief is.
It’s better to use phrases such as “I can imagine how you are feeling”, “I’m lost for words” “I’m sorry I don’t know what to say but I’m here to listen.” Use open questions not closed questions. Say something authentic. When I lost my baby my doctor looked at me and said “Life’s a shit.” It was best thing anybody could have said and much better than the harsh words of my aunt “you need to forget it happened and move on to the next pregnancy.”
It is also difficult because we are dealing with a range of people in a family. Sometimes different family members don’t get on, they have different relationships with the deceased, don’t see things in the same way and there can be a grief hierarchy within families; people who think they are more important and who own the grief while sweeping aside the feelings of other members of the family. We need to tread carefully and be sensitive.
The bereaved do not go through stages of grief. There is no order to feelings and emotions as they pop up or engulf us. It is not prescriptive. We must never make assumptions about how someone feels. There is no length of time in the journey of grief either. We are all different. But the person who has received the diagnosis that they have a terminal illness and there is nothing that can be done will go through stages of grief as they come to terms with their diagnosis. The phrases are: 1. Denial/avoidance. We don’t want to accept death. The brains natural instinct is to protect us. We shut down. It’s too much to bear. 2. Hope. We someone think that maybe the doctors are wrong and that all will be well and maybe there are alternative forms of treatment, etc. 3. Guilt. For all the things we haven’t done and said. 4. Sadness and feelings of loss.
When someone dies there is an expectation that you will get over your loss and often we put barriers up and other people think we have got over the person but of course we haven’t. They might ask ‘how are you?’ We reply ‘I’m fine.’ We aren’t truthful. To reveal or feelings doesn’t feel like a safe place to be in but we pay a price by not saying how we feel because we lock our feelings in and this slows our recovery from the pain of loss. As a nation we deal badly with this badly. The First World War changed how we were. Villages lost so many people, whole families. Death was commonplace. There were just too many deaths and so we locked our feelings in. It was too much to cope with. We developed the stiff upper lip. In today’s world we have unrealistic expectations about life. We expect longevity. We expect the medical professionals to cure us.
You don’t get over your loss. The reality is that you learn to grow around your loss. You will and can never be the same again. You learn to live without your loved and carry them with you. They have, in a sense been relocated… to your heart and mind.
Complicated acute grief that goes on for years needs help from a counsellor and doctor because this is not a normal pattern of grief.
Caroline Lloyd discusses the concept of grieving types. She suggests that there are two types of grievers or bereaved: the introvert and the extrovert. Introvert grievers find energy within themselves and use their mind to process their grief. Extrovert grievers are charged up, they blurt out their emotions. Men and women tend to, although we must be careful not to label and make assumptions here, grieve differently. That’s what research has established anyway but maybe the reality is that we act differently each time we lose someone or it will depend who they are and the other things going on in their life. Life is never simple.
Caroline also talked abut what she called intuitive and instrumental grievers. Intuitive grievers are more likely to be women. They are open, chat more about their grief. Instrumental grievers are action based. They might process their grief cognitively, refer to self help books and even benchmark their grief. They try to impose order where there is chaos.
As funeral arrangers and as funeral celebrants being aware of the instrumental and intuitive types is useful because it can help us to help the bereaved in the way they want us to help them. The instrumental and introvert griever will need clear timescales, a more formal and planned approach, no affectionate attitudes or platitudes, hugs. They are often old school. They want professional, friendly but distant. They want the funeral to go to military clockwork. The expect us to be competent, knowledgable on options and choices. They don’t want to know our personal experiences. This isn’t helpful to them.
The intuitive and emotional grievers will obviously expect us to be professional too but they look for a different approach. They find our insight and experiences helpful. They need the box of tissues and to blab. They aren’t stiff and starchy. They reflect and talk about signs like feathers falling and other indicators that the deceased is giving messages to them. They want conversation rather than paperwork and leaflets to take away. They want advice and options.
After the funeral we can signpost the bereaved to useful organisations for help and counselling such as Cruse, Sands and Roadpeace. (Loss due to a road traffic accident)