by Alina Barrowcliff
Death and it’s attendants loss, anxiety and suffering are the givens of existence that we are all forced to confront. Death cannot be avoided or denied, it is something we will never experience but always anticipate. Bereavement is the natural, painful and often devastating response to the loss of a loved one. In grieving, feelings related to this loss affect all aspects of our being, the emotional, spiritual and physical.
Each person will respond uniquely, depending on your individual situation, your age, personality, cultural background, religious beliefs, previous life experiences and personal circumstances. There is no ‘normal’ or ‘right way’ to grieve, but you may be struggling to cope with some of the following feelings.
Shock: you may feel numb and unable to feel, perhaps living as if nothing has happened or disorientated as if you have lost your place and purpose in the world.
Anger: death can seem cruel and unfair especially if you feel your loved one has died prematurely. You may feel angry with the person who has died or with yourself, with what you did or didn’t do.
Pain, sorrow and distress: which feel overwhelming and frightening.
Guilt and regret: perhaps you feel are somehow to blame or that you didn’t do enough, especially if you had a difficult or confusing relationship with the deceased.
Depression: when you may feel that life has lost its meaning.
Longing: thinking you hear or see the person who has died often when you least expect it, or you may be unable to stop thinking about them. This occurs when someone is still processing and acknowledging the finality of death.
Responses of others: you may be feeling lonely, isolated and cut off from friends who don’t know what to say or fear they will say the wrong thing.
Fear of forgetting: the way the person looked, their voice, your shared times together and not being able to keep their memory alive.
If you are struggling to cope you may be more likely to experience stress related reactions such as struggling to sleep, illness, deteriorating relationships, alcohol and substance misuse, self-harm, and other risky behaviours. These are normal responses perhaps to arm and defend against such painful feelings. We understand and can help you.
Existential therapy offers a safe caring space to be yourself and show your feelings, to begin connecting with the meaning of your responses to this life-altering situation and authentically come to terms with living in a world which is irreversibly changed. The length of time this takes will be unique to each mourner.
Existential therapy is individual to each client but may include exploring your relationship to the person who has died, your relationship to yourself, and the strategies you may be using to defend against pain and loss, as well as your relationship to mortality and suffering, your own and others and discovering what this means for you and your life. Often the death of a loved one results in new understanding about the meaning of this life that is given to you and the possibility of fully engaging in living.
The process of mourning may also reveal other losses that may be feared and defended against such as youth, retirement fear of change, the loss of a home, job, friendship, sibling or parent. It underlines how much we have to lose, loved ones, possibilities and opportunities, hopes, ambitions, and our physical and mental capacities.
Irvin Yalom describes how by taking hold of ‘our brief time in the light’ we are able to savour the preciousness of life. By facing death this process is sharpened, and by engaging with death and loss we can live our lives more fully.
Yalom ID, (2008) Staring at the sun: overcoming the terror of death. London Piatkus.