I’ve been thinking today about different words we use to communicate to others that we are grieving. It seems to me that in the 21st century, we talk more about ‘personal loss’ and one’s ‘grief journey’ than we do about bereavement.
Bereavement, although old fashioned, is a beautiful word. To me, it evokes a sense of that sense of deprivation that remains after the immediate, more aggressive emotions of immediate have subsided, and acknowledges that phase of grieving in which deep sadness fills the space left by the person who has passed away.
‘Bereave’ is a very old word. In Middle English, the word was ‘bireven’, and before that, the Old English word was ‘bereafian’, both of which meant to deprive, to steal, or take away by violence. It shares a common Germanic root with similar words in many other old languages. Old Frisian had ‘biravia’; Old Dutch had ‘berooven’; Old Saxon had ‘biroban’; Od High German had ‘biroubon’ and Gothic had ‘biarubon’.
Today, Dutch still has ‘beroeven’ which means ‘bereavement’. German still has rauben meaning ‘to rob’ and ‘berauben’ to mean ‘deprived’.
In English, ‘bereave’ has come to refer primarily to loss of life or loved ones. It can also be used in relation to the loss of something that has immaterial value, like love or hope or joy. It has been used that way since the mid 17th century. The past tense form ‘bereaved’ applies to these senses of loss.
English also has the past tense word ‘bereft’ which is used to describe the kind of grief and sadness that comes from loss or diminution of one’s personal circumstances, such as the loss of wealth or home or possessions.
Today my best friend and I went to visit my parents’ grave to see the new plaque that has been added for my dad. It signifies another landmark, of you’ll pardon the pun: all of my responsibilities for Dad’s funeral and memorial have been met. All the jobs are done.
The past few weeks have seen the dispersal of the last few things that needed to find new homes. Dad’s bed and walker went to an elderly chap who will benefit from them as much as Dad did. The last things to go were some bookshelves, some framed art prints, an organ stool, a couple of shower chairs, and an odds-and-sods collection of Tupperware containers that are too good to throw out but surplus to our needs.
The plaque was the last thing that needed to be finished. It looks lovely, and matches Mum’s plaque perfectly. It’s completion leaves me with a profound sense of achievement and satisfaction, but also one of being at a loose end. Those tasks have kept me busy and feeling like I could do something useful to help process my grief. When I took the photo of the finished headstone this morning, and placed one of my own beloved wombats beside it, I knew it was all done.
And now I don’t know what to do with myself. Oh, I have work and books and all the demands of life to keep me busy, just as I have always done. But that sense of purposeful mourning has run its course, and I am not sure what comes next.
I guess I am about to find out.
This afternoon I was talking about these feelings with my best friend as we drove home. We were blessed with the most beautiful, bright rainbow — not in the distance, but touching the side of the road as we drove. At one point, we could see the whole rainbow just outside the front and side windows of the car, but I couldn’t successfully take a photo of it.
“After today, and everything I was just saying… it’s like God telling me everything is going to be okay. It sucks that Dad is gone, but I’ll be alright.”
“it absolutely is,” she said. “You’ll be alright. We all will.”
And when we got home, we were greeted with another rainbow.
While I’ve been on my own grief journey recently, many others are experiencing grief of their own. And in this time of social and travel restrictions in Australia and elsewhere, people’s sorrow and grief is being complicated by distance and isolation.
I have seen this happen multiple times within my own circle of family and friends in just the past few weeks.
My brother in Canada lost his own brother a couple of weeks ago. It was unexpected, and therefore an enormous shock.
Talking with my brother and trying to support him via instant messaging has been a blessing for both of us – to share the pain eases it somehow, if only slightly. But what I really wanted to do was get on a plane and go there to hug him and support him in person. Even if I couldn’t go immediately, the knowledge that I’d be there at some point soon would encourage him enormously.
Sadly, it’s just not possible. My state is in lockdown. We are under strict conditions for leaving home. International travel for personal reasons is not possible. Heck, going anywhere at all beyond my local supermarket or pharmacy in the time of COVID-19 is ridiculously problematic, and probably not really safe given my lousy immunity. As it is, I have to stay here and he has to be there.
He knows I’m with him in spirit, but it just doesn’t seem enough. I know how hard it was to lose a loved family member and a close friend within five days of each other, and his brother was both those things to him. I know how hard it was to deal with the trauma, and I had my family around me. I’ve been painfully aware of the fact that he lives on his own, some distance from the rest of the family, and hasn’t had the close support that I’ve had.
After losing our father in June, my sister has lost two good friends and another friend she has known for more than forty years in the space of a month. I’ve been able to talk with her and listen to her express her shock and sadness, but I haven’t been able to hug her or help her in any physical way because we’re hundreds of kilometers apart.
A friend lost his uncle this week, and be there to grieve with his family because his uncle lived interstate and our border is closed. It doesn’t matter to the authorities how close he was to his uncle, nor do they care that his uncle was a father figure for him and helped raise him. The rules apply to everyone, regardless of personal circumstance. It’s understandable, but it makes the pain and misery so much worse.
It’s not just immediate grief that is complicated by distance, either, My beloved late friend’s husband and son have both had birthdays in the past couple of weeks, and I would have so loved to be there to support them as they struggled with not wanting to celebrate, and not being able to see the rest of the family because their lockdown restrictions are so tight. They’re all dealing with curfews, stay home orders, and only being allowed to travel within five kilometres of home for essential purposes. It’s not so restricted here, but nobody is allowed to visit Melbourne for social reasons, so that’s that.
The result for all of them, and for everyone experiencing grief in the time of corona, is a vicious cycle of mental and emotional distress as sorrow and isolation feed on each other. The effect on one’s wellbeing is profound.
My heart aches for everyone in that situation. I can’t imagine how much worse it must be for those who have actually lost loved ones to the virus and haven’t been able to be with them, or with their family members as they grieve.
We are all struggling with the impact of the virus and the social restrictions it has brought to our lives, but let’s remember that there are some who are really, really doing it tough. It certainly puts the inconveniences of wearing a mask outside of home and sanitizing our hands fifty times a day into perspective.
It may not seem like much, but a phone call or message to someone can make a huge difference in their day and in their mental and emotional health. Being willing to care and to listen is an act of love and support of immense value.
Today’s professional development day at school focused on Positive Education and how we can help our students and our communities to flourish.
One of the aspects I found most thought-provoking was the discussion about positive or comfortable emotions and negative or uncomfortable emotions. It was particularly relevant to many of the things I have been experiencing and observing about life in recent weeks, and I want to share my observations and reflections on those things with you here.
Before I go any further, though, I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not a medical or psychological expert or professional. I am, however, a high school teacher of 30 years’ experience, so I have had time and opportunity to make some observations about the things that happen in life and how we deal with them.
More personally, as someone who experiences chronic physical issues and mental health challenges, and who has experienced many conflicting emotions recently due to profound personal loss, I’m confident I know at least a little bit about dealing with adversity, and I’ve learned a few things about the importance of balancing negative emotions with positive ones.
Both positive and negative emotions can be powerfully motivating. Fear of failure or embarrassment is as strong, or stronger, in some people as desire for success is in others.
Negative or uncomfortable emotions can motivate and fuel positive outcomes such as creativity, empathy, and relationship building.
Positive and negative emotions can actually be highly effective ‘companion emotions‘. I don’t expect that this is a scientific term at all, but it seems to me a useful term that describes how contrasting emotions experienced at the same time can provide some healthy balance and perspective.
I can testify from the past few weeks that gratitude can moderate grief, and enjoying a few quiet moments in the beauty of nature can transform abject misery into much gentler sadness.
In different contexts, fear can be a healthy addition to awe or wonder – think of a child at the zoo, for example, for whom interest and desire to engage with the animals should always be balanced with both respect and a little fear or mistrust, so that the child and the animals all remain safe. In yet another situation, a little anxiety or nervousness can actually heighten deliberate preparation and performance if it is paired with intentional and thoughtful preparation, because it can stop one from making rushed or careless errors, or from taking success for granted.
Life is not about always avoiding the feelings that make us uncomfortable or sad. Hoping to do so isn’t realistic at all, given that there are many situations that we can neither actually control or entirely avoid.
Instead, it’s crucial that each of us learns to manage those negative or uncomfortable feelings and use the situations in which we encounter them to develop and consolidate our personal strengths and resilience. Learning to look for the positives in life and choosing to find a balance for the negative experiences or emotions we encounter is how we grow and move forward in life.
“Whether dealing with a major lifeshattering event or a small bump in the road, we can use gratitude to help boost our happiness and change our outlook. While gratitude won’t change our circumstances, experts say gratitude can change how we feel about them.”
That’s certainly what I’m seeking to do while working through my grief. It’s okay to take the time to mourn my losses, but I can’t afford to unpack and live there. Finding a constructive way through my pain will enable me to heal, and come out stronger at the other end.
In being honest about how I feel and what I’m thinking in my posts on this blog, my hope is that my words will help and encourage someone else get through their personal challenges, whatever they are, and to deal with both their circumstances and their feelings.
I have no doubt that knowing we are not the only ones going through grief or pain or whatever trial it is that is burdening us actually helps us to start to heal. That’s why empathy and compassion are so powerful. That’s why the support and love of family and friends is what we yearn for and seek out when things are hard.
Tonight, as I reflected on these ideas and considered the fact that I had no evidence for my inexpert assertions, I did find a number of articles that show my conclusions are consistent with current science and research surrounding emotional and mental health.
Tonight, I am contemplating — somewhat anxiously — what tomorrow will bring. That’s fairly standard territory the night before returning to school for a new term, but right now it’s even more complicated than usual.
Phrases like “back into routine” and “good to keep busy” have been bandied about altogether too casually by people who don’t understand how I feel. In one sense, things may seem as though they are “returning to normal”, but I don’t feel that way at all. Instead, it feels very much like I’m stepping into the vast unknown.
The world out there is anything but normal.
The state in which I live ihas been cut off from the rest of the country by border restrictions because of the COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne. We’ve all been quarantined to an extent, and Melbourne itself is locked down much tighter than we are out here in the western region of the state.
The distance between us and Melbourne is no room for complacency, though. Just today we heard the news that Warrnambool, the regional city in which I work, has reported its first active case in months. It’s sobering news, and terrible timing for the beginning of a new school term. Honestly, it just adds a greater sense of impending doom to the craziness that is going on out there.
I’m keen to see my students, though. My hope is that they will take my mind off things through each school day and keep me motivated when I’m feeling low.
So, I’ve invested in masks and extra sanitiser. I even have sprays to disinfect any work the kids hand in. I will be even more conscientious and deliberate about social distancing, because I don’t trust other people to do the right things. At least my natural cynicism about human nature is intac which, I suppose, is something.
Life isn’t ‘normal’ on a personal level either.
I miss Dad. I miss Helen. Enormously.
I have lost two of the constant, consistent encouragers in my life. I keep thinking of things I want to tell them, and photos I want to show them, and I can’t. I want them to know about my new great-nephew. I want to tell them I love them. It’s really, really hard.
I’m trying to work through my grief, but that isn’t going to happen according to any timetable. That’s a process that will take as much time as it will take.
The past three weeks have changed me, although I can’t define exactly how.
I feel like I should be more resilient, or better at handling things, or at least better at faking an appearance of being able to manage, but I’m not.
I feel like I should look different somehow, but I probably don’t.
That is, of course, if you don’t look too closely at the dark circles under my eyes. Sleep has been evasive ever since Dad was admitted to hospital with coronary issues on June 16. During the week in which both he and Helen passed away, I barely slept at all. Last night I managed seven hours, but it was in two instalments with an hour off at half time. It’s no wonder I feel like rubbish.
My purpose in expressing my thoughts and feelings here is not to moan or whine. I know I am not the only person experiencing these things. I am not the only person experiencing grief, or lugging emotional baggage everywhere.
I want others in similar situations to understand that there is nothing wrong with feeling the way they do. All of this is part of the grieving process, and it’s crucial to be kind and patient with ourselves while we sort our various burdens out.
I want other people to understand that they can’t expect people who are grieving, or anxious, or caring any other kind of burden for that matter, to feel a certain way or simply “get over things” in any set period of time.
Grief is not a tidy and well-organised domain. Everyone experiences it differently. It brings with it a whole variety of secondary emotions that are unpredictable at best. Denying it, suppressing it, or trying to make our grief fit preconceived expectations are futile and unhealthy ways of dealing with it.
That means each of us has to deal with it in our own time, and each of us can expect to be as messy as our grief. Each of us will, at some point, have to step out into a world that has changed significantly and irreversibly.
Acceptance, kindness, patience and self-care will help to make that a healthier process for everyone.
Stepping Back Into A Changed World #grief #emotions #anxiety #personal #blogpost
My father and one of my closest friends recently passed away within five days of each other. In fact, Helen died on the afternoon of Dad’s funeral. It was too much loss. It was too painful. It was definitely too soon and too final. And “upside down” is exactly how I felt then and still feel now.
As always, my feelings have turned into poetry.
I wrote this poem on the morning of Helen’s funeral. It was impossible to contemplate one without revisiting the other in my mind.
These words have been in my mind again the past couple of weeks, following the death of my father and the passing of one of my closest friends on the day of his funeral. Losing them both within five days of each other was more painful than I can describe.
Tears fall, Can’t stop them, Can’t hide them. You’re gone, Can’t bring you Back again. Why am I always the one who is feeling The pain of the wrenching and tearing of leaving? Why must this pain be so raw deep inside of me? My heart Misses you Desperately. Please say That you won’t Forget me. I can’t imagine my life without you in it, Bereft of the light and the joy of your loveliness, Every room filled with the echoes of memories. Never To be the Same again. Tears fall, Into the Loneliness. You’re Gone.