HOW do we cope with the untimely deaths of close friends? How do we find meaning in grief?
I was overwhelmed with this question recently when I found my old address book and realised that so many friends were no longer around. I was reminded of all the women and men I’ve loved who died so young, leaving young kids or bereaved parents behind: three of cancer, one of Motor Neuron disease, one of a heart attack, two in car accidents, one by suicide.
And I wondered how other people deal with the grief from all the losses we’ve suffered and the impending losses we know are yet to come?
I was again reminded recently of this question when watching a very moving documentary about an art project called Rider Spoke, created by a group called Blast Theory — an interactive work which was brought to Sydney in 2009 as part of the British Council’s Creative Cities program.
The viewer becomes a participant. The piece involves people putting on headphones and taking out bicycles that they are given by the hosting gallery, and going for a ride alone in the dark around London. As they ride they listen to the voices of other participants who are answering intimate questions asked of them by the artist, and they speak into the microphone for others to hear.
As time went on for the cyclists, fear started coming up in the dark, or loneliness; they all started talking more honestly about their thoughts and feelings and what they regretted most in life or cherished. In a very compelling scene a young man was saying: “What I most value now is the ability I have to make choices. Mostly because of all the people who no longer can. Danny and Rose and Eddie and . . . who made so few choices at all.”
But also because of the women and men I’ve loved who died so young.
So how do we cope, what do we do with the grief from all the losses we’ve suffered and the impending losses we know are yet to come?
A new friend said to me: “I’ve been to too many funerals this month. I cope by enjoying every moment that I’m alive. I do it in honour of those who can’t do it any more.” Another told me she no longer does anything or tolerates anyone she doesn’t like. “Time is too short.”
It’s not as if we can ever let go of the pain and fear of loss. But living well and living passionately is our only defence against the nagging truth of mortality. And if our departed loved ones could talk, they would echo the mantra: “Dance as if no one is watching.”
Write on my blog. How have you dealt with loss?
Share your stories of loss. How have you coped with grief and loss of a friend. family member or even pet?
MAL AND DIANNE MCKISSOCK THE SYDNEY BEREAVEMENT CENTRE
Elisabetta, thank you for your honesty please write more to me if you feel you want to express your experiences with handling such sad experiences, Ruth
Grief, after losing 2 children 1 cot death, one to anothers hand @ 17 4 years ago, it is hovering at the edge of an abyss, so therefore cannot think about it too hard for fear of falling in. One can live a quite ok life on another level and have good relationships with other people etc. I do not ask why because I belive I will find out when the time is right.
I’ve been reading everyone’s commentary over the past few days and been feeling most reluctant to write. This is most unusual as I am usually at my most comfortable putting words down. But I have come to the conclusion that I’ve been a little fearful of what I may find out or admit to myself freely ie. the grief is still there (from parents passing away within 12 days of eachother, both in complicated circumstances and my not being able to see either of them prior to their deaths, with many unresolved difficult issues).
Ruth, you are so right. One cannot ‘squeeze the last drop out’. It doesn’t go away, and that’s ok. It becomes a part of who we are.
Sandra, I think you must have viewed the 9/11 programme on ABC last Sunday night. It was truly wonderful to see people so honest with their grief and perhaps they were most fortunate in having the opportunity to verbalise it and cry so openly – making it better for others by doing so. Brave people. We all need to be brave with our grief don’t we?
Amen Jo-anne. And bless people like you who work in the difficult field of Pallative care
David, as far as i know from my own past experienced there is no ending to grief. Having grieved denotes you can squeeze the last drop out and then its gone. 17 years after my Father’s death and I still get tears in my eyes every time I say the words “my father”. I don’t expect the tears, the regrets, the sadness and the wishing he could see my daughter, will ever dry up. And that makes me feel better about feeling the way I do.
I have been a reader of your columns for years. The latest on grief hit a nerve. I am still trying to establish whether somehow the Universe decided that I needed to revisit family loss issues, which I may not have dealt with over the journey.
I was the eldest of 3 boys…my middle brother died in a car accident with his best mate when he was 20. My father died just over a year later aged 53 from cancer. My family (overseas) didnt cope. My mother died 10 years ago and my youngest brother drowned 2 years later in mysterious circumstances. So they are all gone!
I have a family of my own here in Australia and a grandson…with twin girls on the way with my youngest daughter. That is so good but I feel betrayed that my family left and never said goodbye. I will never be able to show them my family and grandchildren. Its so very empty. Have I not grieved? David
Having watched many programmes on 9/11 this week ,the survivors 10 years on are all real inspirations, whether they suffered physical injuries, and have had 10 years of surgery, or the pain of loosing their loved one. Every one has a unique story, how they cope day to day, and it seems that is how so many have made it through the last 10 years. Taking one day at a time.
I can only admire their resilence and bravery to carry on and face another day.
I am 53 years old and have never experienced my own personal loss. I am howver a nurse who has worked in oncology and palliative care all of my nursing career. I have cared for many increible, brave inspirational men, women and children and have grown spiritually with every death. I have grieved and still do for the very special ones that have touched my heart. I embrace every day and want to have no regrets in my lift. I love the blog written by Dennis #31. I agree that all experiences become part of life and make you the person you are.
I am so glad I found this story Dennis, my silly computer put it in SPAM but it is so profound, and so uplifting. Many thanks from all of us for this gem
You are very strong, even writing this email. Such a thing might have done me in. I often think that I couldn’t endure such suffering. I have buried many dear friends, a father (young); and many others – too many to name. Each death does not make us stronger. It just makes us grieve again for all those that came before. But to lose children is unthinkable – I take my hat off to you dear lady. And wish you well in your travels through this strange experience called Life.
Not inadequate John. It is impossible to control how people grieve. Even with help some people remain bottled up about it. That it is your own children who are hurting must be very painful for you but in time they will find their own way forward.
My wife passed away 21 years ago.A heart attack at 39 left my two children, then 18 and 15, stunned and confused.I involved myself in my work as a bank manager,and worked extra hard as a homemaker,cook, and domestic hero. I embarked on romantic escapades and,in my own pragmatic fashion,gradually stopped counting days,weeks and months.It morphed into years and a new and happy marriage.Both of my children shunned professional help,and I believe the hurt lingers strongly for them.They are still not comfortable discussing it in adulthood. I feel very inadequate and powerless to help them.
I lost a close friend a few years ago. I mean very close. I looked after him when he was in great need, I gave him a roof, I fed him and made him part of my family. When he got back on his feet a few months later. He was totally dedicated to myself and my family. He came to see me every day to share his stories of new beginings and new awareness. He was a warrior, in body and in soul. So I was devestated when the police turned up on my door to announce his death in a car accident. After the initial grieving my partner and I, in trying to make sense of it, realised that he was in our hearts and always will be. I learn’t to appreciate the fact that I had met such a man and had the rare experience of love and deep connection with another being. Brett has become part of my life experience and part of who I am. So when I looked at it in that light, well, it wasn’t so dark anymore.
Hello Ruth, what I have discovered is that I’m not as strong as I thought. In younger years I had such belief in myself and felt I could cope with anything. Over the last 8 years I have lost my two eldest sons, both aged 43. Such a waste of fine young men. Life can be very cruel. I try to remember only the good thinks about their lives and to make the best of every day. Life can be very short.
Thanks for an excellent article.
Beautiful words – the rawness of grief; that every death is unique. Thank you for your referral to Solace. I hope other people find emotional safety there. Please post contact details.
Not obsessed, just a deep feeler, like me.
Yes Judy it never ends, every loss brings up the one before. But I try to remember that I love enough to grieve hard. Many people never experience the power of deep love and thus the profound grief at the loss of it. Ruth
Thank you for this profound letter, so deep, so sad, so true. I will not give sweet one-liners only to say that I hope your tree continues to grow well and strong. Ruth
Dear Janet forgive me for not responding – my SPAM chewed up lots of letters today for no reason. But I found your brave letter. My ex husband was also born in Germany but just after the war, Nevertheless spent years in a deportation camp with Holocaust survivors. He never got over it. And I lived for 2 decades with the trauma of war.
Funny how these things are never discussed. Its not just war but the generations it effects so profoundly. And yes, suicide is another issue we never discuss enough, Ruth
This is a sad and beautiful letter Theo. Please do read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a book written after he survived The Holocaust. It will help salve the sadness.
This is the one I recommend http://www.bereavementcare.com.au Mal and Dianne McKissock
Thanks Lucy i like hearing your opinions each week
Thanks Iain nice to hear from you again
Hello thank you for your beautiful letters, there is a wonderful grief counselling service run by Malcolm and Dianne McKissock http://www.bereavementcare.com.au. They are fantastic. If you are not in Sydney call and they will recommend others.
Great piece Ruth
I like to be flippant about death and loss being a conspiracy between doctors and undertakers but what you say here makes a lot of sense and I thank you for your insight
Yes, grief counselling would be a good idea. Also relevant to divorce, “the burial without the corpse”. So, it is not just death or dementia or coma which separates us but the living fact that others may not want to be part of our personal world any more. That’s just horrible to deal with!
My mother died 10.5 years ago to the day and it still affects me. How can it not? Sadly, I live in a culture surrounded by people who insist that when grief is encountered that it needs to be silenced, suffocated, or stymied by trite talk like ‘you have to move on’. 10.5 years after mum died, I still feel grief and LOSS. Abandonment and lament are other feelings. No one can tell me not to have them, though many try.
I am a Christian pastor and I wrote recently wrote about the role that grief and lamentation have in worship experiences at church (http://proverbspurple.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/expressing-lament-and-sorrow/); sadly many in church are the same as everyone else: grief is something to be ashamed of, and we need to maintain a stiff upper-lip and get on with the business of life, even as the grief eats us up. I find so much comfort knowing that God Himself experienced grief (John 11:35). Many places in the Bible, such as Psalm 88, Psalm 77 and Psalm 22 indicate that the Bible is not abashed when it comes to grief. The book of Lamentations, by far the blackest and darkest in the Bible, is ruthlessly open about it. In Psalm 88, the grief vented has no “closure” (whatever that’s supposed to mean), but it simply laid bear, the psalter content just to vent his sadness and demand for justice. Yahweh God listens to the vent and doesn’t reject the man, which is a tremendous comfort.
In Jesus, He was a man who knew all about grief. He’s the one who was called the ‘suffering king’, a man acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53). His parents abandoned Him for 4 days, His good friend Lazarus died, His friends ran out on Him, His closest ally Peter denied Him, Judas did it with a kiss, and when He died on the cross He LAMENTED, “My God, My God, why have You foresaken Me?” His people today, the church, are always letting Him down even as they try not to.
You might not be religious- I’m not!- but I find incredible comfort in all of this because God empathises with grief. Jesus knew it and FELT it and I am able to process my grief, anger, and loss in Him because He understands it so well. I couldn’t manage any of it without a God who understands: that’s not to put down anyone reading this who is not Christian, but this is my belief and experience.
I really believe in grief counselling-rather than have yourself locked in to the loneliness
There are brilliant grief counsellors to be found.
Being a cool, calm and collected, sober, hard working gentleman completely devoted to me and our beautiful 6 yr old daughter, my husband committed suicide. Picture post-card family, no dramas going on. A phone-call saying don’t wait up me and look after our daughter for him.That’s all. Police pulled up the next day. No family for support. Few friends weren’t compassionate at all. I went into actual shock for about a week. I drank heavily for 13 yrs to null reality but kept up a professional life. Sober now for 3 yrs. Somehow daughter at 23 is a lovely, sensible young lady with 2 degrees. I can’t look at photos of him because of the pain. I rationalized his suicide with his early life, born 1939 in wartime e Germany etc but with guilty thoughts of “This is what you made me do” Haven’t been happy since, though re-married. Suicide Re4membrance day today. Can’t imagine how the Bris father and son in news will ever be able to cope. The mental torture and stigma of suicide is very difficult to deal with. I enjoy your articles Ruth. Regards.
Ruth and fellow posters, tough this one.
Few people realise just how perfect the world is until you experience profound personal loss. Such strength and beauty then a pall of desolation and sadness.
Responses are individual. Unless you have been through the loss of a very close friend you possibly do not know what may be happening to the grieving individual. And even if you do know the experience theirs may be very different from yours. Different modes and ages of death produce different responses. Being there and often nothing more is the best council.
Two observations from the first person I met who evidently knew what I was dealing with: “Everything you are going through is okay. You will learn to live with it but that is all.”
A piognant tale: A elderly and dear friend had been a POW in WWII. He regularly lost comrades during his internment. In subsquent civilian life his eldest daughter predeceased him. When my wife died suddenly his support was invaluable.
Some time after my wife’s death he lost his older brother. A particularly strong friendship had drawn to a close. He rang me,
“I want to apologise, I thought I knew what losing a very close friend would be like. I now realise I didn’t know.”
A little while later my youngest son (of two) died suddenly. It was the only time I heard the old fellow swear. “Bugger” he said. His last public outing was attending my son’s funeral. He died three weeks later. We both loved trees. At the funeral he gave me a gingko to plant for my son. It grows well.
This society does death badly. And yes partly in response to that we also do life badly. No worries about living here. Never was, just tinged with sadness that some of the best aren’t here to still enjoy it with me.
I wouldn’t wish what I have been through on anyone. It is bloody awful. Give each their own space to come to grips with this. Sweet one liners and sentimental thoughts are better left unsaid.
“Half a Life” by Darin Strauss (ISBN978-1-926428-30-7) Gives a good personal insight into many of the issues confronting the grieving individual.
We all have different way of coping in situation where the future is uncertain. Are we traumatised or perhaps scared about our own insecurity caused by the sad loss of a cherished and loved one, or perhaps in what lays ahead after death? Or both?
After the time and space limitation of our human life, it may be nice to return to the omnipresence of our soul in the universe(?) This is just one of my ways of coping with the passing of a relative, friend or acquaintance.
I find it more soul searching in the way a human being has to go through before being allowed to die. What has to be learnt by them when they have to go through debilitating sicknesses or accidents before being allowed to pursue their journey?
-After my Dad spent some time walking in the forest picking berries, mushrooms and hazelnuts, with his beloved wife, a pastime he cherished, he went for a rest and didn’t wake up.
-My younger brother died after a long debilitating sickness. He fought to the last day. Not only to try to improve his physical condition, but to understand the significance of his life, sickness and his predicted human death.
These two examples give me hope and a direction in the way I live my life.
The next two examples give me sadness but also a direction in the way I conduct my life.
-My mother is in a home, not recognising anybody for the last couple of years.
-After a belated rescue from a heart attack, my older brother is vegetating in a home for well over a decade now.
My humble way of coping with the prelude of death is to understand what may be important in the way I conduct my life so as to be a positive example for the people surrounding me and perhaps helping them to cope as well.
Your column, Ruth, provides me with the opportunity to indulge in my favourite pastime: Soul searching. And, boy, do I need it.
On the day of my 31st birthday I sat at my mother’s kitchen table drinking tea with my mother, her sister and my great aunt. Four women of varying ages, I being the youngest and the only one widowed. The day before you see, my husband had been killed in a car crash. I was pregnant with our second son.
Sitting with my family that day,drinking tea, listening to the advice they all gave, I knew then that in time I would have to find people I could relate to. Women or men who’d been through the loss of a partner. And I found exactly that in a support group known as Solace. In Solace I was safe to cry, safe to share the dark side of humour that can arise from death and safe to share how I really felt. We met monthly in a little church hall, but other times we met at the local yachting club for dinner where we laughed , drank wine and held hands. I was 6 months pregnant when I first joined Solace, and I was still heavily encased in denial, my favourite stage of grief I tell people. I now have two grown sons, who’s grief and loss has often been overlooked, a step daughter who’s mother died young and a teenage daughter who knows that growing up in a blended family can also mean growing up with a couple of ghosts. Talking can slowly help to erode the rawness of grief, being with others who are themselves grieving can be a real comfort, although it needs to be said that every death is unique, every families loss different. But if you look for the similarities you can find support.
I have huge sympathies for all those people in their losses – particularly the grand-child. Horrific. What about Kubler-Ross’s 5 stages of grieving: Denial, Anger, Negotiation, Depression, Acceptance. Yes, very true. I saw my father go through all of these 5 stages at 80.
I grieve about lost friends and relationships and cannot get over these as I did the death of both parents. I grieve over lost romance and friendship literally for years and years. I must be obsessive because it takes me a long, long time to get over it.
I remember reading one of your columns afew years ago Ruth, regarding the loss of your pet I think? you said something along the lines of..once you’ve lost someone you love, every subsequent time you lose another..it’s like you’re back at the first. I can so identify..my darling Mum died two and half years ago, and I’m still grieving..and then our little dog died last weekend, and I keep waking at 3am and jusst crying. Cant stop the tears, for Mum, for Rocky..for everyone Ive ever lost. Love is love. Whether its a pet Jennifer, or your child or husband- its such hard raw grief for the first little while. But it does soften and you do have good days- with gratitude and beautiful memories of them.
Hi Ruth I’m still in shock over the death of a friend. I am not coping.
You need grief counselling – yes even this many years later. I will provide the name of excellent grief counsellors in an hour or so, Ruth
My cat got a lump and they thought it was cancer. It was just a bowel obstruction because he’d eaten chewing gum my daughter left stuck on the bench. I was knocked for five, crying all the time. While he was in surgery I was every bit as nervous as any other person I love. Yes I feel sick with guilt that I should love that silly fluff ball so much. But I do.
Hey Ruth I cried when I read some of these letters. I lost an animal recently and have been grieving for months. I don’t know how this sounds to people who have lost children, and grandchildren. but it turned my life around. I can’t have kids due to having endomentriosis as a young woman. therefore my two dogs are my children. My other dog is devastated too. I wonder if other people have such intense feelings about losing their pets. I feel a bit guilty.
I also lost a boyfriend in a car accident. He was so lovely. But he drove off a cliff. Here is the funny thing or rather tragic thing. He was trying so hard to give up cigarettes, Its all we ever talked about. He was obsessed with not getting cancer.
I’m a man in his 80s, made it this far, but buried a grandchild. I may as well have buried our darling daughter and my wife too, as neither have overcome the horror of it. For them I can see that life has lost all meaning. I read Viktor Frankl’s Mans Search for Meaning, and gave it to my daughter but she won’t read it. It’s not that I don’t grieve its that if we all fall to pieces who will keep things going for the other family members? We have another son and he has two young children. I am not sure how I’m supposed to feel. There you go. That’s the truth of it.
Grief, I’ve been to so many funerals, I wince every time the phone rings. I’m 60. They say that if you make it to 60 your own the home strait, most people who are going to die are going to die between 50 – 60. It certainly seemed to be the case with my friends. I am in grief but I cope by the thing your friends says – I stay happy and grateful out of respect for those who have gone.
Hi Ruth this is a very raw subject for me. When I was young I was in love with a boy but I was too shy to tell him. I know he was sweet on me. But I acted as if I was indifferent to him. I don’t know why i did. I’ve thought about it so many times over the years. I guess it was that hard-to-get thing girls do. One night on the way to a party that I was going to be at he was killed in a car accident. He had only had his licence for 6 months. I think of this often. I am now 49 and I can’t ever get it out of my head. I had dressed beautifully that night too, in anticipation of seeing him. I wonder if I hadn’t been so stupid, how things might have turned out. Would he have picked me up that night and not collided with the other car; maybe I would have been with him and died too. Ruth how does one get over such things? I am unhappily married, so I also feel guilty for thinking so frequently about this boy.