Is Grief just sadness:  a one dimension emotion ?

*Trigger warning – Sensitive content, this article discusses death and the feelings we may experience*

Written By Chris Graham – View employees own – Is Grief just sadness:  a one dimension emotion ?

My mum Mig and my dad Mike, are both dead. Mig died of dementia, Mike died of cancer

My mum lived with dementia for twelve years, whereas my dad died within two months. Mig’s death was a slow fading of who she was.  Bit by bit, she lost her memory and awareness of the people who loved her. A scan early on, revealed she had vascular dementia. She and all her family knew what would happen but for Mike he was hit unexpectedly with aggressive stomach cancer that rapidly spread to his brain. Mig spent the last seven years of her life in a care home. There was plenty of opportunity to spend time with her, reminisce about the good and bad times. 

Mike just wandered off, finding himself in A/E. We did not know why. We suspect that he knew something was wrong but did not tell us. He was admitted, they carried out tests and we waited for the results. We were told it was cancer, then had to wait what the prognosis was. We were told it was terminal but the clinicians could not say how long. We did not know much what was causing him to die, but our gut feeling it was very serious.  Within a week, the hospital phoned us to inform he was dead. My mum had spent a few hours with him as did my sister. For the first time in his life he had told my mum he loved her. They had a complex and at times, a difficult relationship. Me and the rest of the family did not have an opportunity to spend much time with him. My son was born three months before Mike died, He and Mike never had a chance to get to know each other as granddad and grandson. He has no memory of his grandfather.

What might be the differences in how my family emotionally reacted between my mum and dad ? It was more than just sadness. 

My mum’s death was : Predictable and anticipated over a long period of time. We knew what the disease was and what it would do. She gave both me and my sister power of attorney as she knew  that she would eventually lack mental capacity. In the care home she wanted us to allow her to slip away when her quality of life was nonexistent. We spend lots of time with her. We all had plenty of time to adjust to her dying. The hospital and care home services were used to responding to people with vascular dementia, the journey from onset of the disease was well known. This was anticipatory grief. 

My dad’s death was unexpected, it happened very quickly, leaving his home without saying anything, ending up in a hospital bed. My dad did not know what to do, We had to wait for the cancer test results When we were told it was cancer, the NHS informed us he is likely to die, but did not know when.  My dad  did have the opportunity to say how much he loved my mum in spite of a turbulent relationship. Many of us including me had little chance to spend time with him. I remember travelling from Cumbria to see him, When I entered the room, I was shocked to see a large tall man reduced to skin and bone. On seeing me, his face lit up and smiled, raising his body to greet me. I did not respond but just stood there, frozen. The smile faded and he slumped back in the bed. I regret I did not respond. The hospital services once the diagnosis was confirmed, switched from clinical treatment to helping my dad to die with as least pain as possible. But he died when we were not there, we got a phone call to say he had died. 

Imagine a circle which is you and your life. When grief of someone you love, happens  there not an area of your life which is not affected by that grief. That grief does not get smaller over time, fading and disappearing. Instead grief stays the same but our life grows and expands  around it.  The life circle just gets bigger. At certain times, like anniversaries and Christmas, life shrinks, the circle gets smaller then bigger. Grief remains there, you don’t move on but you learn to have grief as part of your life and who you are. 

Is grief simply sadness ? The death of a loved one  is universal, a natural thing that happens to everyone at some time. When it does, the emotional pain can be horrible and overwhelming. Here are some common grief experiences: I’ve heard their voice and keep thinking I see them. I’m so angry with everyone. I feel anxious all the time. I don’t feel anything. I feel like I’m physically ill. I can’t sleep. I can’t eat.

The grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it cannot be forced or hurried.  There is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Think of grief is like a series of “pain waves”, joined together to form one continuous wave-like pattern. Following the death, waves are very intense, not much of a break between them.  As time goes on, the waves decrease in intensity and hit a little less often.  Gradually the break between each wave starts to get longer.  Then, out of the blue, a big wave can strike again. To put it another way, grief is like you are a “box with a rubber ball bouncing around inside”. There is a “pain button” inside: on one side of the box. Early on in grieving, the ball is very large. Going through the day is like the box is moving around. Because the ball is so big, it frequently runs into the pain button. Rattling around the box on its own in there, grief feels unpredictable, smashing into the pain button again and again. Sometimes it hurts so much it feels unbearable but you cannot control it. As time goes by the ball gets smaller, so misses the pain button far more often. Grief is tidal, in time it can recede and leave us with a feeling of peace. Only to wash back with crushing hopelessness. Back and forth it goes, each with a retreating drift of despair. 

Grief is not simply sadness. 

Grief is the normal process of reacting to the loss.  As a family goes through a life-threatening  illness, many losses are experienced, and each triggers its own grief reaction. Many people think of grief as a single instance or as a short time of pain or sadness in response to a loss: like the tears shed at a loved one’s funeral. But grieving includes the entire emotional process of coping with a loss, and it can last a long time.

Sometimes people can feel that the second year after someone dies is even harder. You might find that people around you may have gone back to normal and you don’t feel there’s space for you to talk about your feelings. As time passes, most people find they are able to adapt to their grief and return to some kind of normal life. While some experiences will still trigger your grief (such as films, songs or smells) you have learnt to grow around it and find space for other things in your life. 

How can you cope with grief ? Imagine drawing on a piece of paper, the most wonderful experience you have with that person. Now, how do you feel if you tear that paper into tiny little pieces ? The positive memory has gone. When grief controls you, all those precious memories are sucked up and deposited into a “safe box” in your mind. It is really hard to open that safe and remember happy times with that person. It takes time and effort. Here is my way of positively reminiscing this Christmas. This is for me happiness. It takes a particular form: gratitude. Gratitude is so much more than saying thank you. It is a strong feeling of appreciation for what the person has done to help you. Gratitude changed my perspective of parental grief. Gratitude replaces the many unpleasant emotions of grief.

My mum is Swedish. Swedes in the days of my mum, celebrate on Christmas eve. Every year, I and my family and close friends repeat my mum’s Christmas eve.. There are lighted candles all around the room. The meal starts with toast and pickled raw herring. We wash this down with Scandinavian aquavit, served in a special tiny glass. I have a very old “generation handed down” glass dog filled with “ice cold” aquavit. Before we eat the herring, We give “Skol toast” to my mum and in one go, gulp the icy liquid down. A warm feeling envelops your body. Every year, at this point, I share a fond special memory of my mum. Mig lived in Tumba, near Stockholm. When I was young, she used to tell me, in the winter, how she skated to school down a frozen river or skied across the snowy fields. 

For the main meal, we have a Swedish style roast ham with red cabbage my mum made every Christmas. I have the recipe: lots of golden syrup, red wine vinegar and apples and a couple of “secret ingredients”. This recipe will be given to our three kids. Before we start, I get down from the attic, a brown cob-webbed glass bottle of beer, my dad had made from his ”home brewery”. There were 20 bottles left when he died. Every year, I open one and offer those at the Christmas eve table to taste. Some politely refuse as they are now “years old”. It always tastes lovely, triggering a pleasant memory. I remember my Dad one day asking me “fancy a pint ?” Yes I replied. He takes me to Blackbush airport, in Camberly, Surrey where he kept his light aircraft Chipmunk. (why and how he flew.. is another three stories !)  “Get in”  he said. We flew to Dorset, it took over an hour, landing on a farmer’s grass field. (that’s another story) I asked him why are we here? He replied: “the pub is a five minute walk”. We drink a pint laughing and then we flew home. These memories keep my relationship with my parents alive. 

Let’s go back to that old glass dog bottle used for the aquavit. There was a big crack in it but it does not leak. All around the world, cracks appear in the living when someone special and close dies. Cracks are made of suffering. Suffering is part of the human condition. Grieving is not one way. When you feel grief, those cracks open up, letting the sunshine out, those wonderful memories of times spent with joy. If you do not know how  open out that “safe box” and share a memory with others, that person could fade away. When your children hear your relationship experience, they then can pass onto the next generation: the person lives on. This is why TV programmes like “who do you think you are” and “the repair shop” is so special and popular. To appreciate our “whole selves” means understanding the lives of previous generations, who they were, what they achieved. Keeping treasured items they used, in good condition keeps that attachment link, which can be passed onto the following generations.

It is myth that there is a sequential path of emotions: “the Kubler Ross five stages of grief”. 

Imagine grief is like playing the game bingo. Your grief emotions are the labelled balls fed into the bingo machine, that spins around, so the balls bounce around. The charity cruse say that Kübler-Ross in her writings, make it clear that the stages are non-linear. People can experience these aspects of grief at different times and they do not happen in one particular order. At any time, the caged wheel “abruptly stops” and an emotion ball is ejected. 

Denial and isolation. It can last anywhere from a few hours to days or weeks. Feelings experienced may be fear, shock, or numbness.  You may have pangs of distress, triggered by reminders of the person.  You may feel emotionally “shut off” from the world. 

Anger.  Death can seem cruel and unfair, especially when you feel someone has died before their time or you had plans for the future together. You may be preoccupied with thoughts or images of the person they lost. You may feel angry towards the person who has died, or angry at ourselves for things we did or didn’t do before their death.

Depression. Grief in depression is different from clinical depression. Grief doesn’t typically involve low self-esteem and self-blame. Intense feelings of emptiness which tend to be associated with thoughts of the deceased.  This depression usually diminishes slowly, sometimes excruciatingly slowly, but surely over time. Clinical Depression almost always includes a diminished sense of personal worth (self-esteem) or feelings of excessive guilt. The depressed mood is more persistent, refuses to budge  and not tied to specific thoughts or preoccupations. In grief, the focus is the loved one. In major depression, the  focus is the self.

Bargaining. This emotion happens when a grieving person is struggling to find meaning for the loss of their loved one. They may reach out to others and tell their story.  We start to make deals with ourselves, or perhaps with God if we’re religious. It’s common to find ourselves going over and over things that happened in the past and asking a lot of ‘what if’ questions, wishing we could go back and change things in the hope things could have turned out differently. In doing so, they may begin to think more clearly about the changes brought about by the loss of their loved one.

We may never ‘get over’ the death of someone precious, but we can learn to live again, while keeping the memories of those we have lost close to us. Acceptance is  when people find ways to come to terms with and accept the loss. Usually, the person comes to accept the loss slowly over a few months to a year.  Some of the factors that affect the intensity and length of grieving are:

  • Your relationship with the person who died
  • The circumstances of their death
  • Your own life experiences

When grief enters the workplace.

Grief is one of the most common factors affecting employees’ performance at work, with an estimated 1 in 10 employees affected at any point in time. Research has shown that bereaved people are being failed by a lack of support in the workplace. Child Bereavement UK’s 2016 Omnibus YouGov survey reported that less than 32% of British adults working at the time of their bereavement said they had felt very supported by their employer. Key based on research by Comres, which polled some 4,000 people, included: 

  • 32% of those who had been bereaved in the past 5 years, and who were in a job at the time, felt they had not been treated with compassion by their employer.  
  • 56% would consider leaving their job if their employer failed to provide proper support if someone close to them died.

What can you do to help someone you work with, who is grieving  ?

Here are six tips from the charity childbereavement UK.  https:

  1. Acknowledge their grief early on: Simple honesty is better than avoiding the subject. 
  2. Be led by them:  A quick thank you and a change of subject mean they probably don’t want to talk at this point,  a more open response may show that they do.  If in doubt, ask them. 
  3. Offer support that you can deliver: Be honest with yourself about what support you can practically and emotionally manage. Offer to find information for them: The practical considerations surrounding a death can be extremely difficult to take in. 
  4. Be patient:  Grief can make anyone very sensitive, anxious or short-tempered.  It may feel like you can’t say or do anything that will help.   Just being there for them without being intrusive may help them more than you know. 
  5. Keep in touch: Stay in regular touch and ask the person again a few months later if you can help, as people’s needs change. Remember anniversaries and special days: Those special days may be very difficult. Send a card or text. Just saying that you remember, may be very much appreciated. 
  6. Seek support for yourself:  Spending time with someone who is grieving often puts us in touch with our own losses.