Happy Birthday Charlie

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An Alternative Perspective on Grief and Bereavement During Challenging Times

With so much being written about death, dying and bereavement recently, I feel that a post focussing on a more positive narrative might be helpful to counterbalance some of the predictions of negative grief outcomes during this very challenging year.

I’ve chosen today to publish this blog because it’s my nephew Charlie’s birthday.  Charlie died from cancer when he was three and a half years old in 2005, so today he “would” have been nineteen.  So I’ve written this in his memory to highlight that whilst the depth of loss remains the same, our perspective has changed as we’ve adjusted over time.

Bereavement “outcomes” may be considered to exist on a spectrum ranging from post-traumatic growth, through a wide range of what may be considered “normal” adjustment to losses and at the rare end what may be considered by some under the umbrella term “complicated” grief.  (Although it should be noted that many expert academics do not subscribe to the notion that grief can be pathologised into a “complicated” category; this is a contentious area.)

Death and grief have dominated the headlines this year and affected every part of our lives globally. However, despite some of the polarising views on approaches to policies concerning Covid-19, what is clear to me is our overarching capacity for human empathy and compassion for the vulnerable, for key workers and for the bereaved. 

In this short article I’d like to particularly address three items:

  1. The potential impact of Covid-19 restrictions on funerals
  2. The “good” news
  3. What we know helps bereaved people

The Potential Impact of Covid-19 Restrictions on Funerals

The prevailing Western narrative is that the increase in deaths, and restrictions imposed on funerals, will lead to excessive negative bereavement outcomes.  One recent study published by Dr Becker and colleagues in Japan report:

Conducting a full funeral (as opposed to an abbreviated or direct cremation) significantly correlated with overall satisfaction at the funeral. Overall dissatisfaction with funerals correlated with an increased amount of time later lost from work for health reasons. Higher dissatisfaction with funerals somewhat significantly correlated with physical symptoms of grief (p = .038).

However, conversely, the same paper also states:

Boelen  (2019) and Birrel (2020) found no such correlations. We were unable to show that positive appraisals of funerals result in positive health and productivity, but we did find that negative appraisals and abbreviated funerals correlated with lower productivity and higher medical/social service costs thereafter.

From these two excerpts we might consider that Becker’s study is situated within a Japanese Buddhist environment, whilst the Birrel et al (2020) was predominantly UK based and the Boelen et al (2019) study was conducted in the Netherlands so contextualisation needs to be considered.  Every bereaved person will have their own perspective on funeral rituals and what may be considered a ‘positive’ experience by one person may be deemed a ‘negative’ experience by another.  With this in mind, we should be aware that we do not yet know what the long term psychological or social impacts of restricted funerals during 2020 will be within a Western environment and whether they will be short term or long term.   We can however address some of these potential future costs by providing adequate professional support which includes for example; planning other ritualistic events post “lockdown” such as memorial services or other personalised rituals, providing adequate, accessible bereavement support, or providing additional flexible working practices.

The “good” news

Whilst varying mental health issues as a result of the pandemic are currently being recognised and talked about openly, there are many studies that indicate humans are more resilient than we may recognise.   For example, Tony Walter states that; “Shared adversity can foster a sense of community and affinity…”, further, Bonanno and many other academics have published multiple academic texts highlighting the following:

Many people are exposed to loss or potentially traumatic events at some point in their lives, and yet they continue to have positive emotional experiences and show only minor and transient disruptions in their ability to function. Unfortunately, because much of psychology’s knowledge about how adults cope with loss or trauma has come from individuals who sought treatment or exhibited great distress, loss and trauma theorists have often viewed this type of resilience as either rare or pathological.

Perhaps then we should be questioning the perception that all restricted funerals or all deaths during the pandemic will lead to “complicated” grief?  Additionally, with notable experts such as Bonanno, Walter and others publishing extensively on the resilience of individuals, and societies in general, perhaps we should also generate a narrative of positivity post pandemic?  “Language is a powerful tool and, used without consideration, can cause emotional and biological damage.  Neuroscientists have determined that human brains tend to dwell on negativity (it’s a survival mechanism)…” (Lloyd, 2017, p. 48).

What We Know Helps Bereaved People

But what about those bereaved people that are struggling, particularly those who are isolated during “lockdowns”? For those people who may not have access to technology or are unwilling or unable to engage with it, it may be helpful to reach out to them in other ways such as by telephone, or in extreme circumstances; with a socially distanced personal visit.in general, we know from studies such as Newsom et al’s that there are various levels of support for bereaved people and for most, family and friends are a huge source of shared support, where stories of the loved one are told, retold and memorials/rituals are engaged in. Peer support can also be hugely helpful as is evidenced by organisational support such as Compassionate Friends (bereaved parents), Widowed And Young (Widow/ers under 50), Roadpeace (road crashes), SANDS (stillbirth and neonatal death) and Child Bereavement UK (parental and child bereavement) and Good Grief Cafes to name only a few. Professional support is also appropriate for others in the form of specialised grief professionals that can be found at Cruse, Griefchat, and others.

Ester Shapiro eloquently explains in the Handbook Of Bereavement Research why it is important for bereaved people to have social support options available at various levels:

Interventions that use relationship strategically as sources of both emotional regulation and meaning making can help establish more complex perspectives on previously overwhelming experiences as well as more multidimensional and functionally adaptive relationship representations

What is important, in my opinion, is that we, as humans, connect with other humans in the most appropriate way during these unsettled extremely stressful times.  We don’t know, as yet, what the long term effects on bereavement may be following this pandemic but we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that a. humans are resilient and b. post traumatic growth will also be an outcome for some.  The constant pathologization of grief in the media and prediction of increased “complicated” outcomes due to the events of 2020 may lead to some people literally talking themselves into that frame of mind whereas ordinarily they may not have had that outcome.  Supporting the bereaved in the most appropriate way when needed is important for a normal grief adjustment, but we also shouldn’t focus all of our attention on potential disruptive transitions and completely lose sight of resilient or positive outcomes in the long term.

In conclusion, I’d like to thank Professor Schut for his positive feedback on this blog and leave you with a citation from his, and Professor Stroebe’s, 2020 journal article on this subject:

“…there is so far absence of empirical evidence linking features of COVID-19 bereavement
situations to health outcomes. Severe negative consequences have been consistently
predicted by authors. There is still relatively little consideration of positive or compensatory processes or the possibility that these could alleviate the effect of the
shocking, traumatic circumstances.” (Stroebe & Schut, 2020, p. 500).

Thank you for reading this, and special thanks to Dr Jennie Dayes for her generosity in providing critical feedback on the first draft of this article.   I wish you all peace during these challenging times.

Further Resources

For further reading on grief and bereavement you may find my book, Grief Demystified, helpful.

As always, these blogs are copyright protected and may not be used without my explicit permission. If you’d like to contact me I’d be delighted to hear from you at: thegriefgeek@yahoo.com

Adolescent Babyloss Experiences

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Its been several months since I originally published this post and the response has been incredible. I’m very grateful to each and every one of the women that has participated so far.  For anyone looking for more information please read the following:

My PhD research is exploring the experiences of adolescents who experienced a gestnatal death whilst in secondary school.  Originally we were using the word “perinatal” but due to the fact that it is defined differently in various countries and organisations, I’m unable to use it for research purposes.  Instead we are using the word “gestnatal”, defined as: “The death of a human life from conception to 28 days’ post-birth inclusive.”

Gestational and neonatal deaths can be divided into two groups: biological (miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death etc.) and non-biological (abortion, therapeutic termination etc.).  My research is encompassing all gestnatal deaths because we are exploring the grief, social, and educational impact of the event.  My research design is split into two parts; firstly, there is a questionnaire to gather as much broad data as possible and I’d like to extend my deepest thanks to the women to who took the time to complete this questionnaire.

Secondly, interviews are currently being undertaken by me to dig deeper into the data summarised following the collection of the questionnaires.

The purpose of this study is to provide information on these experiences so that we can inform policy makers, teachers, medical professionals, school guidance counsellors etc. so that they can better understand and support these teenagers and subsequent women.

If you experienced a gestnatal death whilst in secondary school and are willing to be interviewed, or if you would like more information on this research, please email me at:  lloydca@tcd.ie

Once again, thank you to all the participants who have completed the questionnaires so far, and to everyone who has volunteered to be interviewed.

Death & the Maiden Guest Blog

Not only does Caroline Lloyd refers to Death and the Maiden as glamorous and cool (thank you Caroline!) she shares her personal and professional journey of grief. Experiences that became the motivation behind her new book: Grief Demystified. The book she wrote that she so desperately wanted when she had disenfranchised grief and had no idea that that was even a thing.

via The Grief Geek — Death & the Maiden

To read my guest blog on the Death and the Maiden website, please click on the link above, or here:

The Grief Geek

 

 

When grief is complicated but it is not complicated grief…

This is a letter written by a grieving daughter who would like to remain anonymous. She’s asked me to post this in the hope that it will help someone else in a similar situation.

Not all relationships are straight forward and ‘ideal’.  Ambiguous or complicated relationships can (but don’t always) lead to ambiguous or complicated grieving.  This is not the same as “complicated” (Prolonged Grief Disorder) grief which is different.

If you’d like to know more about why grief is so individualistic, or what complicated grief is, or have any other questions, take a look at my new book “Grief Demystified: An Introduction”:

Grief Demystified on Amazon

“Dear ‘Dad’,
I’m pretty confident you’ll be wondering why the inverted commas. Of the few communications I’ve ever received from you over the past 50 years, you have always referred to yourself as ‘dad’. My opinion is that the label has responsibilities and expectations that you have never demonstrated, so you are not worthy of that title.

Your daddy’s girl was left bewildered and devastated when you left without telling anyone when I was 6 years old. I thought I’d done something wrong and I was being punished. No-one told me any different. No-one talked about you, but I do remember your mother chasing you down the street with a bread knife threatening to kill you… that image pretty much sums up the memories of my childhood: violence, shouting, fear, neglect, suffering, confusion. I found out many years later, that you had left after coming home and finding my mother on the floor having taken an overdose of pills. I guess she couldn’t take your drunk or drugged up violence and the trips to the hospital any more.

I tried to get to know you when I was a teenager; I even emigrated to the country you were living in to do so. In hindsight, I was still seeking reparation for the ‘wrongdoing’ I had done that had ‘made’ you leave when I was 6. You rewarded my efforts by getting drunk every.single.night, vehemently denying everything you did that I witnessed as a child, and swinging for me with your fists. The irony of course is that to everyone else you were happy, generous and fun.

After trying and failing to build a relationship as a daughter with you, I moved countries. But you would get drunk and ring me to verbally abuse my life choices. I had sold out because I lived in America; you hated the country. I had sold out because I was the first person to go to university in the family; who did I think I was? I had sold out because I worked a lot and didn’t party like you; I was boring and ‘Americanised’. Eventually I moved and didn’t give you my phone number. After failing to build a daughter relationship with you, you wouldn’t allow me to even have an adult relationship with you.

The last time I saw you was when your beloved mother was ill, that was twenty years ago. You flew back to our home town to visit her prior to her death. I found out you were home because my mother received a phone call summoning me to a pub to see you. I went, as I always did; I never wanted a reason to feel guilty or accused of not being receptive to a relationship with you, even if it was on your dysfunctional terms.

After years of peace and quiet, you started sending me friend requests on Facebook that I kept rejecting. After a while your persistence paid off and I accepted you. But you never even say ‘happy birthday’ to me either publicly or privately.

I had to ring you 11 years ago to tell you that the grandchild you had never met was terminally ill. Your exact words are seared into my memory like branding on a farm animal, “shit, I’m having such a bad week, first an argument with my girlfriend, now this.” Your first thought was about yourself, the non-existent ‘grandfather’, you never asked about the three year old child that was dying of cancer, you never asked how your daughter was while she was watching her son die in her arms. Sadly, after 40 years of life, I didn’t expect anything else from you. That statement pretty much summed you up. I haven’t spoken to you since.

I hear that you have died. I had anticipated that at some point I would have to deal with your death and the ambiguous feelings that would arise. I was never sure how this would feel for me; would I feel nothing because we have a virtually non-existent relationship, or would I feel emotions because you gave me life? I have ambiguous feelings, which accurately reflect the ambiguous relationship we had.

They say your parents fuck you up, I would agree with that. But as an adult, you have the choice whether to maintain that status or change it. They may have given you a beaten up old car, but you sure as hell can choose to pimp that mother up. And that’s what I’ve done. So thank you for contributing to fucking me up, you provided me with an array of tools with which to understand complexities I may never have understood if I’d had two normal parents, a dog and a white picket fence.

One of those complexities is dealing with people who didn’t know you; those friends and your wife that you lied to about your past. They are sainting you online, sending condolences to the ‘family’ you never had any contact with, talking to you in ‘heaven’. Who am I to shatter their illusions?

That 6 year old girl will never understand why you didn’t love her enough to be her dad, and this 50 year old will always envy those that have a dad that loves and cares for them.

I did find a short letter you sent twenty years ago following your visit to our home town and the last time I saw you. It contained a photo of us together in that pub, and your words ‘all my love dad xxxxx’. It is the only tangible proof I have that you existed. It is the only tangible proof I have that you may have had some feelings towards me underneath that selfish persona. So, thank you for that, and for triggering some happier memories that I’ve managed to retrieve and receive comfort from.

I hope you Rest In Peace ‘Dad’, I love you now as I loved you then, because despite the pimping out, the bodywork always remains the same…”

As always, this content is copywrited and may not be used without my explicit permission.

Grief Demystified..

Please see my previous post about why I had to delete several of my informational blogs. In the meantime I’ve been busy putting all of the information from them, plus a whole lot more, into a book comissioned by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
The book will be called Grief Demystified and explains everything you’ve ever wanted to know: do men and women grieve differently? why do we grieve for famous people? how do I know if I’ve grieved properly? and what to say to the  bereaved, plus many more questions answered.  It also includes a list of recommended bereavement organisations that provide online resources, offline support and signposting.  It also includes an extensive list of references if, like me, you are interested in furthering your knowledge in grief and bereavement from the experts.

And best of all- there are diagrams and photos for visual learners and the easily bored 🙂

I shall write more blogs soon about the myths that still pervade on social media, because I keep seeing misleading articles and outdated information…

Do as I say and not as I do…?

Today I’m hugely conflicted.

I awake to a smart phone that flashes and beeps 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with social media notifications, and bereavement alerts of one description or another.

But today is not just another day; it’s the anniversary of my nephew’s death.  So I have notifications and reminders of this fact via Facebook, emails & texts- as if I wasn’t already acutely aware of the date.

The conflict is whether I share my memories or photos, or my feelings in such a public forum.  Do I change my profile picture? Post a photo of my nephew? Post a loving memorial telling ‘the world’ how much he’s loved and never forgotten?  Or do I keep quiet, and privately remember, and treasure our short time with him, and all the joy he brought in the three and a half years he was with us?

As a bereavement support worker, I’m an advocate for being open about death, dying and bereavement; a death denying society is not a healthy one in my opinion.  Death is a natural part of life, and grieving is necessary and healthy.  But I’m not sure I want to express my thoughts and feelings in such a public way, or to people that never knew my nephew.

Which brings me here.  To a fairly private, largely anonymous forum where I can express myself to those who ‘get it’, without the platitudes, and devoid of the ‘stalkers’ who are my friends that read but don’t comment..

This is my way & you will have your way.

So this is my tribute to a beautiful child that touched our lives in so many ways.

Always loved & never forgotten 💛