DARK HOURS BEFORE DAWN
Floating to the surface of sleep, I felt my tears, heavy, wet, unstoppable. Yet they were easing the heaviness that lay between my heart and my throat, filling the dark empty well where my heart had once throbbed. Suddenly I was aware of two remarkable things: I had actually slept for a few unbroken hours and the numbness in which I’d dwelt for the months since my husband’s terminal cancer diagnosis and death had disappeared.
Since my first article, which revolved around death and dying, started at the end of my husband’s life, this one is about what happens afterwards. When one door closes, another opens.
So while death is an end, it is also a beginning. It’s a platitude, but Life (and love) doesgo on for everybody else, even if shrouded in grief. Many things other than conventional medicine can help us get through these times and to find meaning in life again. Below I mention some, but I am certain there are many more.
Briefly, the recognised stages of grief (first suggested by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book Grief and Grieving) are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. A sixth — meaning — has recently been posited. Not all people feel them in that order, or for days or months at a time. Emotions are constantly changing and amongst those six are many others including relief, guilt, sadness, rejection, resentment, annoyance, and self-chastisement to name a few. See The nature-of-grief
All these emotions are exacerbated by the fact that people are often exhausted and sleep-deprived from caring for others, worry about the future and concerns around money. Also, there is often a lot of paperwork to be done and financial decisions to be taken without delay, just when you want to be left alone. There may be family upsets too, since everyone grieves differently.
Of course, death is not the only bereavement, nor the only time we feel grief. The end of a love affair, being ‘dumped’, divorce, redundancy, the loss of a job, or a business, moving home, moving school, leaving home, a terminal diagnosis — all are endings and all carry an emotional charge. We will all be affected by more than one of these things because they are part of being human. Things that might appear small to others — growing older, losing our looks, deteriorating health — all are personal tragedies.
Then there are the enormous things, the loss of country, family, home and opportunities because of war, famine, the greed of others, natural disaster and climate change. As I write, the bush fires in Australia are lessening, but the loss is gigantic. I have friends and relatives there who have lost all their possessions and are struggling with their health because of the smoke in the atmosphere. That’s the human side. The loss to the animal population defies description. Forests and farms are gone, and yet the fires continue to smoulder and blaze.
To many, (dare I mention it?) Brexit has been a source of real grief and sadness, no matter which way they voted in the referendum. To lose the security and support and the known status quo that has existed for probably all of their lives is a real and tangible loss. Like others who grieve, an uncertain future faces us. Sadly, too, the Brexit battle lines have not disappeared and the rifts caused, even within families, are still extant.
In all these circumstances we need to allow ourselves time and space to mourn, and then more time and space to heal. If we allow it, these times of intense sadness and loss are opportunities to become wiser, kinder and more understanding. If we join with others in emotional need we may find support in community and communal grief.
I am very grateful to the funeral director who sent me a link to a series of bereavement counselling videos that she had commissioned. At a time when I felt I could face no one, it was easy to listen. What I heard allowed me to embrace the normality of such feelings and to allow myself to grieve. Most of us are self-critical and need permission from someone in authority to surrender to feelings that are all too often categorised as self pity.
Free bereavement counselling is available to all who need it. Information is available from the NHS site www.nhs.co.uk. You can also contact one of these organisations: www.cruse.org.uk or www.mariecurie.org.uk
While well-meaning friends often advise to see your doctor to ‘get something for’ your misery, the use of conventional medicine for this purpose frequently only delays the time when you have to face the fact that you are miserable, depressed, sad and full of emotions that are difficult to express in words — even if you feel like talking to someone. Many don’t. They keep their grief and other emotions locked up in their bodies where they will eventually do great damage. To avoid this, and to help express your feelings it can be good to write.
Write anything. Just start and let the words tumble out of your head and onto the paper. A friend likes to write love letters to those she has lost, others write stories or poems. Here are some ideas:
For me, meditation proved invaluable, although I found it difficult to meditate until the first three months had passed after my husband’s death.
The natural instinct of the bereaved is to become more sedentary, (although this affects women more than men) The Effect of Widowhood on Husbands’ and Wives’ Physical Activity- The Cardiovascular Health Study Nevertheless, research suggests that the more active a person is following bereavement, the easier the adjustment is likely to be. Exercise and Well-Being – A Review of Mental and Physical Health Benefits Associated With Physical Activity – PubMed
Most types of exercise raise the levels of serotonin in the brain, and it seems from my research that walking, swimming and singing — yes, it helps enormously with the breathing! — are all very beneficial.
Here are some more links that may prove useful:
Exercise helps, but taking that exercise out of doors helps even more. Recent research showed that spinning on a fixed bicycle was far more effective for raising mood and increasing blood supply when the bicycles were stationed in a field rather than a sports centre.
Walking, running, or simply sitting in natural surroundings has a tremendously beneficial effect. It is for this reason that social prescribing by doctors of exercise outdoors is so effective at improving overall health and wellbeing as well as diminishing pain. We lead such constantly busy lives that we have become divorced from Nature and seldom think of its healing powers — or even take the time to just ‘be’.
When we are grieving we tend to want to curl up and withdraw from the world but a meditative walk in a park, a wood, or by the sea comforts the soul. We are part of Nature’s cycle and becoming aware of it shows us that new life springs from death. Nearly all indigenous people honour the passing of the seasons and the rebirth each Spring after the cold death of Winter.
Often the most difficult part of coming to terms with grief is the difficulty in sleeping. Not only is sleep disrupted by strong emotion, but often a bereaved person will have been the caregiver for the deceased. Whether caring at home, always aware of the need to be available at a moment’s notice, or visiting in a care home or hospital, the constant anxiety is a continuous drain on the care-giver’s resources. Lack of sleep seems to breed lack of sleep, so that it becomes habitual. Breaking the cycle can help, as can meditation before sleep and all the usually suggested pre-sleep hygiene.
More help and suggestions can be found in these resources:
Food and Supplements
In the first few weeks of bereavement, it is common for the appetite to disappear, replaced occasionally with a feeling of emptiness or simply disinclination to have anything to do with food. Others may find some comfort in eating anything that comes to hand. Both are ineffective in assuaging grief and can have long-term effects on the general health. If you have lost a member of your family it is at mealtimes that you probably feel their loss most. Adjusting to cooking for one is awkward, and eating alone is lonely.
Nonetheless, taking care about what you eat, remembering to balance your meals with protein and vegetables and to cut down on too many carbohydrates (no matter how comforting they are!) will help both your physical and mental health and also your feeling of well-being. I personally advocate a diet that is as organic as possible and incorporates local seasonal produce. Going to the local Farmer’s Market is enjoyable and not only makes sure that you actually leave the house, but also kick-starts social interaction in an easy way.
Grief and food do go together, and always have. There have always been funeral feasts — even 12,000 years ago! Food is offered in many cultures as a comfort and prop, and also as a symbol of caring. Here are some articles that offer comfort as well as advice:
Ever since I took a course in nutrition back in the early 2000s, I have been convinced of the efficacy of taking supplements order to stay healthy. I do not suggest many, but a daily good multi vitamin and mineral supplement together with essential fatty acids is a good start. During the colder months I add in a large helping of vitamin C since our bodies cannot manufacture it and, because it’s water soluble, we lose it during the course of a day and need to replenish our supplies regularly.
If you lose your appetite and inclination for food while grieving it can be useful to enhance your diet with supplements which will also help with the grieving process. A nutritionist can give valuable advice tailored to your precise needs.
Touch is vital for reassurance and comfort. We may feel we want to be left alone and that we can’t bear others near. But pain does recede through simple touch. Someone holding your hand, a touch on the arm, a hug — all express feelings that cannot be conveyed any other way. For this reason, any of the ’touch’ therapies (massage, aromatherapy, Reiki, therapeutic touch, Shiatsu) can be very helpful. Physiotherapy, Chiropractic, Emmet Technique, Bowen, Acupressure, Zero Balancing, Rolfing, Acupuncture, Polarity Therapy, EFT — the list goes on — appeal to others.
In fact, any complementary therapy that attracts you will be what you need at that particular time, whether or not it includes touch. Your needs may change, so listen to what your body, mind and emotions tell you.
For me, the therapies that helped most were those that work on an energy level: Aromatherapy, Homeoepathy and Bach Flower Remedies. I found these particularly helpful in the early stages when grief felt overwhelming.
Essential oils of Rose, Frankincense, Geranium, Lavender, Bergamot, Jasmine, Cypress, Neroli, Petitgrain and Sweet Orange, Vetiver and Myrrh were the ones I chose. Sometimes I used them singly, sometimes in combination. I suggest you choose ones that recommend themselves to you. You can test this by taking a long sniff at the bottle of essential oil and noticing how it affects you, especially mentally and emotionally. The sense of smell is connected straight into the limbic (reptilian) brain and has an immediate effect. For instance, the citrus oils (of those listed above Bergamot and Sweet Orange) instantly uplift the mood and spirit.
Aromatherapy also helps with physical pain that may be induced, increased or influenced by grief: see Frankincense and myrrh suppress inflammation via regulation of the metabolic profiling and the MAPK signaling pathway
My homeopath reminded me that Ignatiais the primary grief remedy and a single dose took the edge off the rawness of my emotions. Nat Mur was recommended for the sudden tears that arise in ordinary conversations, and Buddleia (the first plant to grow on bomb sites) for utter devastation.
For me, flower remedies are invaluable. They work quickly on the mental/emotional aspect of our being. Apart from Bach Rescue Remedy, which is always useful, there are many more that can be of benefit depending on your requirements at the time. Again, you may find one particular remedy always works for you , or you may feel the desire to experiment with others.
Onwards and Upwards
Having endured the anguish of five deaths — those of my dear father-in-law, my only and much-loved brother, our special dog, my beloved husband, and my best friend from university days — within the past four years, the whole landscape of my life has changed irrevocably. I am learning to release those dear people from my expectations and demands of them, and to be gentle with myself as I learn to walk in what feels like a very new world. I had never lived on my own, yet suddenly I was alone.
At first, through the numbness, I felt fearful, but within a few months I had embraced the freedom of aloneness and begun to rejoice in it. I had no-one to consider except myself; I could eat whatever I fancied whenever I wanted, go to bed early or late without disturbing anyone, take the car for a spin, go for a walk or coffee or to the cinema.
Sadly, a number of my friends have also lost their life partner, either through death or dementia, so I have always had support from those who have gone through something similar, but, for me — and I know it wouldn’t suit everyone — my recovery from the depths began when I acquired a greyhound from a Rescue Centre. An ex-racer, she was almost four years old and had lived in kennels all her life. We loved each other instantly. Apart from devotion, she has given me so many reasons for joy — watching the exuberance with which she races around the garden every morning fills me with delight — made it imperative for me to get up in the morning and take my exercise in the shape of a walk, but most of all she has given me companionship and a living being on which to lavish love.
Yes, I still weep. Yes, I miss all those who have died, particularly my husband, all the time. Yes, I feel at a loss and abandoned. But I know that I have the resilience, and the tools mentioned above, to pull through the grief, to find the essential ‘me’ and to continue along my healing path.
The anguish of grief, the shadow side of love, lessens with time.
Love itself never dies.