Let’s get one things straight – grief is exhausting. The emotional, physical and psychological turmoil our mind and bodies go through following any loss is draining; you feel like you are trying to cope in a world that is falling apart at your feet. It has suddenly turnt into an unfamiliar place where routine, simple tasks become daunting. However, although coping with the reality of death can be unbearable, this is the period when some inner healing takes place. When we have a better understanding of how grief affects us, we are better equipped to deal with it.
The stages of mourning and grief are universal and are experienced by people from all walks of life. There are five stages of normal grief that were first proposed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book ‘On Death and Dying’. In our bereavement, we spend different lengths of time working through each step and express each stage with different levels of intensity. The five stages do not necessarily occur in any specific order. We often move between stages before achieving a more peaceful acceptance of death.
- Denial: This is the first, initial reaction to the loss of someone close to you and is a normal reaction to rationalise overwhelming emotions. This kind of avoidance is normal and can last for weeks.
- Anger: As the masking effects of denial begin to wear, reality and its pain re-emerge. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family. Anger may be directed at our dying or deceased loved one. Rationally, we know the person is not to be blamed. Emotionally, however, we may resent the person for causing us pain or for leaving us. We feel guilty for being angry, and this makes us more angry. The feeling of guilt is also very common.
- Bargaining: The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control. Secretly, we may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable such “if you do this, I will never…” or “I promise I will stop… If you…”.
- Depression: Two types of depression are associated with mourning. The first one is a reaction to the practical implications relating to loss. Sadness and regret dominate this type of depression. We worry about the costs and burial. This phase may be eased by simple clarification and reassurance. The second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private and isolating. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell. It is in these moments when we unconsciously rely on the people around us. A message or a phone call to make us feel like we are not forgotten.
- Acceptance: Learning to accept what has happened to you is not a moment of happiness and joy. You do not get a medal for working your way through the stages of grief in whatever order nature has decided for you. It is in this time when you may start to see a future for yourself again, that there is hope again and you do not feel the wrenching pain you once did when you thought about your loved one. Yes – you will still feel sadness and there will be unpredictable episodes of intense emotional pain whether it’s an anniversary or, particularly in infant loss, you see another child that would be the same age as the child you lost. But you may find the joy in living again.
Alla Reneé Bozarth’s book ‘A Journey Through Grief; Gentle Specific Help to Get You Through the Most Difficult Stages of Grief’ highlights “.. in grief we become emotionally, unstable and unpredictable [and] it is natural that if we are hurting and have experienced loss, it’s reasonable that our responses are unreasonable”. I think it’s important to understand that when we are grieving the loss of anyone close to us our responses are different as no two people will grieve in the same way. It is for this reason that you should look after yourself through your grief. This may not be the most important priority on your mind but it is important to understand why you should keep yourself hydrated and rested as much as you feel you need to.
Particularly in later infant loss grief when you have lost a baby through late miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death and you are able to spend time with your baby, I found that this had its positives and negatives. I found that my life revolved around seeing my son, which at the time was fine. When I was still in hospital, the nurses would bring him up to see my family and I and until I saw him, I couldn’t even eat. I have never felt happiness like I did spending time with my son. When I was discharged from hospital, my partner Paul and I would travel everyday to see him in the hospital mortuary until he was transferred to the funeral parlor and we would see him there. Having time to spend with the baby you just lost is a gift that takes more than it gives. It is draining and exhausting, especially when you have to travel – even if it’s twenty minutes in the car. Yes – you can create memories with your baby like we did and like many people do and each minute with your baby is precious; But it demands a lot from your mind and body. I found myself taking longer to accept what had happened to us, sometimes even hallucinating that I would see him move. This I have heard is fairly common to experience when you get to spend time with your baby but for me it meant that holding him for the last time two days before we cremated him was, in a way, like losing him all over again. I experienced very intense, painful emotions but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I imagine I would have felt even a bit more strength if I had been well nourished and hydrated or even if I went for a little walk to gather my thoughts and stretch my legs.
Dr Catherine M Sanders wrote in her book ‘Surviving Grief’ that “we become so weak that actually feel like we have the flu. Because of our lack of experience with energy depletion, this weakness frightens and perplexes us. Before the loss, it happened only when we were sick”. This kind of weakness is aided when we do not look after ourselves. Another common trait in grieving is a detachment from reality. We have suddenly lost the most basic skills required for survival and we depend heavily on those around us. Our days are now measured by the loss – one day after he died, one week or one month – and perhaps this is nature’s way of slowing us down to heal. The most important tool to aid you through grief is patience. You are not going to feel better overnight and you will almost never feel like the same ‘you’ again which is OK. Do whatever it is that can help you through this difficult time in your life whether that’s drawing upon your faith or getting in touch with either your GP or a professional that you can confide in if things become too much. Here are a few tips:
- Face your feelings: the sooner you can accept what has happened, the quicker the healing.
- Express your feelings: If you’re worried that your baby will be forgotten like I was, then communicate that to those around you.
- Look after your physical health: keep hydrated, go for a walk, eat a balanced diet.
- Don’t let anyone tell you how you should feel: no one will understand the magnitude of your loss but yourself as no two people grieve the same. Only you know what is right for you.
- Plan ahead for triggers: Until you’re feeling more confident and strong within yourself, try to avoid things that could trigger an emotional memory ; Whether that is a park or a particular restaurant. Please note, particularly in baby loss, you will not avoid everything such as other pregnant women etc and that is a good thing in the long run. Limited exposure to things that may cause you to become emotional will help you to become stronger whereas completely avoiding everything and everyone by staying your house will only prolong that process.
The truth is, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief affects us all differently and when that grief is a result of the loss of a baby, you are not only grieving for the baby you have lost. You are grieving for all the hopes and dreams that came with your baby. Doing what is right for you is crucial during these difficult times and eventually you will find a place where you can begin to move forward.