#Life.WhatTheF#ckIsThis.Death

I was delighted to be invited to join the ‘cast’ of #lifedeathwhatever this week at Sutton House in Hackney to talk about my passion: grief following a bereavement.  I was excited for predominantly two reasons; 1. because ordinarily no-one wants to hear me bang on about theories and debunking the myths that still abound about grief, and 2. I wanted to explore the beautifully curated creative exploration of life and death that beckoned.

Sutton House is a National Trust property that is beautifully preserved, and the curators @anna_eol_doula and @poetic_endings have done an outstanding job of adding beautiful installations to it.  One example was a coffin playroom which consisted of coffins full of multi coloured balls for tactile exploration.  There was also an ‘all that’s left unsaid’ exhibition of cards with sentiments written on them such as ‘you said you loved me, you lied’ and ‘you should have knocked and asked to come in’.  This was also an opportunity to examine a pink hearse, drink death themed cocktails and eat a herb supper.

But enough of the interesting exhibition -never one to miss an opportunity, I’d like to share a brief overview of the content of my workshop with you.

The first part of the presentation was exploring the differences between intuitive and instrumental grievers (Martin & Doka, 2010) with specific personality types.  Whilst these are generalities, exploring the combination of variables gives rise to explaining why different people exhibit grief in different ways.  I’ve written about this at length in my book Grief Demystified, due to be published by JKP in 2017.

Secondly we had a discussion around the myths of grief.  ‘Are you over it yet’, ‘time heals all wounds’, ‘you can always have more [children] and the big one: the 5 stages of grief.  For those who are unfamiliar or haven’t checked Wikipedia.com lately,  the five stages of grief were identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross as the grief emotions experienced by those who were dying in the 1960’s, not the bereaved.  The model was later expanded by Elisabeth to encompass grief but she was very clear that the stages are not linear and not intended to be interpreted that way.  There are several more modern models of grief that are preferable to demonstrate the reality of bereavement.

Lastly we explored the impact of social media and how our digital legacy affects grieving. The consensus was that the immediate family should have control, and power of veto over who should post, and what content should be allowed to be published publicly.

For further information on this workshop or if you would like to chat to me about running one or attending one of my training courses, please contact me at thegriefgeek@yahoo.com.  I am always delighted to share this with anyone interacting with the bereaved, to the bereaved, or anyone supporting the bereaved professionally.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend a visit to http://www.lifedeathwhatever.com when the next one is running.  The exhibitions and events are life affirming and invigorating and are perfectly situated within an atmospheric and beautifully historic venue.

 

 

 

Death and Culture in York- My Thoughts..

I just wanted to return here to document some interesting ideas and information I gleaned from the recent Death and Culture Conference at York University. The conference was an interdisciplinary event involving a wide array of perspectives across the full range of death, dying and bereavement topics, but not excluding other related areas.  Here is a summary of my highlights from a varied and fascinating three day programme:

Dr Karina Croucher presented a very interesting talk about her partnership with Christina Faull of LOROS Hospice in Leicester on their joint research, combining archaeology and continuing bonds.  An unusual combination on the surface until she explains ‘I study the mortuary practices (i.e. the ways in which people reacted to death and treated their dead) in the past’ and then you realise this joint research is completely logical and will be fascinating when completed.

Brenda Mathijssen spoke on the theme of continuing bonds.   She talked about the wearing and retention of ashes and how these items, created from the remains of our loved ones, are so significant when we are initially bereaved, but over time they lose their significance.  The continuation of bonds that are so necessary for us to grieve, ultimately become transformed bonds- which reminded me of J. William Worden’s final stage of relocating the deceased.  Interestingly she stated that there is a 30 day waiting period in The Netherlands after cremation before you can collect the ashes.  Those 30 days are designed for thinking and processing.

Dr Heather Conway raised the issue that there are currently 3.5 billion internet users worldwide, so  consideration should be given to the legal aspects concerning our digital legacy.  There are many issues to consider: what is a digital asset and what expires at death, the etiquette of virtual cemeteries, digital wills, Facebook memorials, other social media sites and legacy or deletion decisions.  She asked; are digital companies sustaining the view of an afterlife, how are the hierarchies of grief affected, what about contested narratives, what should the virtual memorial rules be etc.

Chao Fang delivered a fascinating presentation on the advent of ‘Shidu’ or the loss of an only child in China.  Due to the government policy of one child per family, the death of a child has political ramifications that perhaps don’t exist in other cultures.  Additionally, older people in China are reliant on their children as there is little social support, so the loss of their child has significant secondary loss implications, including financial implications.  There is also a ‘shame’ in not having children in China, that makes them feel that they are ‘unable to face their ancestors’ after the death of an only child, and that this is ‘the most distressing thing ever’.

There were also talks that discussed the issue of the ‘social dead’ i.e. slaves in Capetown and Barbados. I wondered about the bereaved and their ability to process meaning making after such heinous events, but the focus was on the deaths and lack of memorialisation not the living…

There were also presentations about the sensationalism of murderers and the lack of narrative surrounding the victims. I wondered if I would welcome public reminders of my loved one if they had been murdered?

Lastly a special mention & thanks to Dr Ruth Penfold-Mounce and colleagues for organising this event, it must have been a lot of work but well worth it – a fabulous time was had by all!

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 💛

 

What do you say to a bereaved person?

I’ve been asked many times what do you say to someone who has been bereaved, my advice is try not to give them platitudes.  It’s easy to say things that we think will help but can actually be quite hurtful. The following are examples of what not to say to someone who is grieving:

  1. ‘I know how you feel’ -No-one knows how anyone feels because you are not them and you are not in their body or mind. This is a simple statement to make and seems obvious but having empathy or sympathy does not mean you know how they feel.   I would suggest asking: ‘How are you feeling?’ instead. Allow them to express themselves if they choose to and respect the fact that they may not want to.
  2. ‘They are in a better place now’ – This is a contentious statement to make. Everyone has their own personal beliefs on what happens after death but even more than that, the griever wants more than anything to have that person back so this statement can be interpreted to mean that the deceased is better off out of the griever’s life. As an alternative, I would suggest you allow the griever to talk about the deceased and their life together.
  3. ‘You can always have more children’ – the last thing a parent who has lost a child will want to think about is having more children. The mere suggestion that they could have more (and potentially they may not be able to conceive again) is insulting and just about the worst thing you could say to them. To a grieving parent this statement can suggest the child that has died can be replaced. No words can express the depth of grief a parent experiences after the death of a child, the loss of their dreams for that child and their lives together so this statement can be incredibly painful and hurtful. Instead the child should be honoured and memorialised and the kindest thing you can do is to talk about the child.
  4. ‘It gets easier after X months/years’ – please see my earlier blog about the myths of the stages of grief.   The emotions experienced after a death should certainly subside with time but grief is not a linear process and time is relative; it’s a real human experience full of complex emotions, thoughts and changes in identity and roles. Life does change and evolve after a bereavement but stating there is a timeline or that it gets ‘easier’ can undermine the significance of the loss to the bereaved. Instead offer support for as long as they need it in whatever way is needed.
  5. ‘’At least….xxxx’ –This really should be taken out of our vocabulary when speaking to a bereaved person.

These are a few of the most common platitudes said to the bereaved and the reasons why they should’nt be used. There are no ‘right’ words to say and sometimes we all say things we wish we had’nt because we can’t always predict the impact of our words on someone who is feeling intense emotions. Conversely avoiding or ignoring a griever because you don’t know what to say can be equally as hurtful. Genuineness and authenticity should not be underestimated and a simple ‘how are you?’ or ‘is there anything I can do?’ can go a long way to helping a griever.

  • ‘*Update -–I wrote the above blog 8 months ago and today I heard about the death of a baby of someone I’m friendly with.  Sadly this person’s baby was born eight months ago when I wrote this and he brought joy & dreams into this family that are now totally devastated.  This is what I said ‘I have no words to say to you that are adequate…I’m so, so sorry for your loss and my heart goes out to you.  I am here for you if you ever want to chat at any time or if I can do anything.’  I will contact this person at regular intervals after the funeral to just ask ‘how are you’ or ‘is there anything I can do?’.  I hope that’s helpful.