This isn't a book review, although the reason that I am typing this now is because of a book, You Are Not Alone: from the creator and host of Griefcast, Cariad Lloyd, ISBN: 978-1526621870 and I include a handful of quotes from Cariad where there is really no better way of describing things.
Many people experience death for the first time as a child, often relating to a family pet. Death is universal but every experience of death is unique. One of the myths of grief is the idea of the Five Stages but this is a misinterpretation. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance represent the five stage model of death and have nothing to do with grief. The five stages were developed from studying those who are terminally ill, the dying, not those who then grieve for the dead person and have to go on living without them. Grief is for those who loved the person who has died and it varies between each of those people just as people vary in how they love someone. The Five Stages end at the moment of death, grief is what comes next and most people do not grieve in stages, it can be more like a tangled knot.
Death has a date and time, so that is why the last stage of the model is Acceptance. Grief has no timetable, those who grieve will carry that grief for the rest of their lives. Death starts the process of grief in those who go on living just as it ends the life of the person who is loved. "Grief eases and changes and returns but it never disappears.".
I suspect many will have already stopped reading by this point. People do not talk about death and grief enough and this only adds to the burden of those who carry their grief. It can be of enormous comfort to those who have carried grief for some time to talk directly about the dead, not in vague pleasantries but with specific and strong memories. Find a safe place without distractions and talk with the person grieving face to face. Name the dead person. Go to places with strong memories and be there alongside. Talk about the times with that person before their death. Early on, everything about grief is painful and sad. It does ease but it remains unpredictable. Closing it away in a box inside your head (as I did at one point) is like cutting off a damaged limb but keeping the pain in a box on the shelf. You still miss the limb and eventually, the box starts leaking.
For me, there were family pets which died but my first job out of university was to work in hospitals, helping the nurses manage the medication regimen and providing specialist advice as a pharmacist. It will not be long in that environment before everyone on the ward gets direct experience of the death of a person. In some ways, this helped me to separate the process of death from the process of grief. I cared for these people as patients but these were not my loved ones. Later, I worked in specialist terminal care units, including providing potential treatments as part of clinical trials. Here, it was not expected for any patient to be discharged alive. The more aggressive chemotherapies had already been tried and had failed, this was about pain relief, symptom management and helping the loved ones. Palliative care is not just about the patient, it involves helping the loved ones to accept what is happening as this provides comfort to the patient by closing the loop.
Grief is stressful. One of the most common causes of personal stress is bereavement. The death of your loved one is outside of your control, it has happened, no amount of regret can change that. Then come all the other stresses, maybe about money or having somewhere to live as a result of what else has changed after the death or having to care for other loved ones.
In the early stages, the first two years, I found it helpful to imagine my life as a box containing a ball and a button. The button triggers new waves of pain and loss each time it is hit. The ball bounces around the box and hits the button at random. Initially, the button is large and the ball is enormous, so the button is hit almost constantly. Over time, both the button and the ball change size. Starting off at maximum, initially there is only one direction of change. There are two problems with this analogy. First is that the grief ball has infinite energy which does not happen in reality. The ball may get smaller and the button harder to hit but the ball will continue bouncing. Secondly, the life box is not a predictable shape, so the pattern of movement of the ball is unpredictable.
A single stress is one thing, but what has happened since has just kept adding more stress for me. Shortly before my father died 5 years ago now, I had moved house. Then, I was made redundant on the day of the first anniversary of my father's death. A year or so later, my long term relationship failed and a few months after that COVID-19 appeared. As the country eased out of the pandemic in 2021, my mother died (unrelated to COVID itself). A year after that, I had to take early retirement. My brother and sister, of course, share a lot of those stressors. My brother, in particular, took the responsibility for organising both funerals and did most of the visits to my mother before her death. The grief is different for each of the surviving family.
Cariad's book helped me understand why I was getting frequent ideas about going back to visit places which my father and I both knew. My parents encouraged each of us to work hard to leave Port Talbot (or Pong Toilet locally) behind, in no small part due to the unrestrained pollution and deprivation that is common to small industrial towns across Wales, the midlands and the north of the UK. It wasn't that I wanted to move house back to our ancestral roots. It was my grief leaking out of the box. Yes, I long for mountains and the sea because I'm now living in a remorselessly flat and landlocked region after moving here for employment. However, it was my grief driving those longings - not for the physical surroundings but out of the shared memories with my father. I can visit those memories without moving house, I just need to arrange things so that I can be undisturbed and undistracted.
I am not alone with my grief and I am grateful to my friends who have helped whilst carrying their own grief. It is necessary for everyone to think and talk about death and grief. In respect of your own death, no matter how far ahead that may be, consider Advance Care Planning and Expressions of Wish as well as your Will.
Help your loved ones cope with your death by describing what you would like to happen.
Document how your life has been arranged so that the executor of your Will can find the right documents to inform:
- your bank,
- your mortgage company,
- your energy company,
- your mobile phone company,
- your house and car insurers and the like.
If you've got a complex home setup with servers and other machines which would be unfamiliar to the executor of your Will, then entrust someone else with the information required to revoke your keys, access your machines etc. and then provide the contact information for that person to your executor.
Arrange for your pets to be looked after.
Describe how you would like your belongings to be handled - do you want every effort made to have your clothes and furnishing recycled instead of going to landfill?
Where are the documents for the oven, the dishwasher and the central heating system so that these can be included in the sale of your property?
If there are loans outstanding, make sure your executor or a trusted person knows where to find the account numbers and company names.
What about organ donation? Make sure your executor knows your wishes and make sure your loved ones either agree or are willing to respect your wishes.
Then the personal stuff, what do you want to happen to your social media accounts, your cloud data, your games, DVD and CD collection, your photos and other media? Some social media companies have explicit settings available in your account to describe if you want the data deleted after a certain amount of time, after a notification from some government service or to set up some kind of memorialised version or hand over control of the account to a trusted person.
Talk to people, document what you want. Your loved ones will be grateful and they deserve that much whilst they try to cope with the first onslaught of grief. Talk to your loved ones and get them to do the same for themselves.
Normalise talking about death with your family, especially children. None of us are getting out of this alive and we will all leave behind people who will grieve.