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Life after death - a journey through grief and loss

Some will have started the new year mourning for a loved one. As the UK Covid death toll passed 150,000 this week, retired social worker Ian Collard reflects on losing his partner of 45 years

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 11 January, 2022

Some people compare life to a ride on a train or a series of train rides. We get on, we travel, we get off. There are accidents and delays. At certain stops there are surprises, some of which will translate into great moments of joy, others will result in profound sorrow. As we board the train, we meet people we think will be with us for the entire journey. For many of us, our parents are such people. But they too have journeys they must complete, and we live on with memories of their love, affection, friendship, and guidance.

There are others who board the train and become important to us. Some will leave an everlasting impression when they get off and others will get on and off the train so quickly they will scarcely leave a sign that they ever travelled with you. We never know when the last stop will come, neither do we know when our travel companions will make their last stop, even those sitting in the seat next to us.

Following the death of my partner Allan from dementia, I felt that although we had both decided to travel on this journey I had suddenly been left alone and deserted in a strange place, far from home. We had been together for so long and had appreciated so much together that I was confused and incapable of deciding on any future destination of travel.

Feelings of loss and grief can initially dictate the way you feel about your life and future. You are in no position emotionally to look at long-term plans and can only concentrate on day-to-day living. You want your life to return to normal but cannot even imagine what normal will be like without the person who has died.

Research often points to the negative impact of loneliness and isolation on people’s health especially after suffering the loss of a significant person in their life. Grief is a natural response to loss and may take months or even years to work through. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler Ross described the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance but admitted that “there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss”.

Kubler-Ross’s model was developed while conducting therapy groups with terminally ill people and their families. She found that some people tried to ignore the reality of their loss and attempted to carry on as if nothing happened. Some became very angry at the person who died, at others or at themselves. Some people believed there was no purpose in life without their loved one, and became very hopeless and depressed. However, they eventually came to terms with the loss and were able to see a future without the person who had died.

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Grief is not just one feeling, but many emotions that follow one to another. You may suffer from shock or be numb, sad, anxious, exhausted, relieved, guilty, angry or resentful. Everyone is different and there is no right or wrong way to feel. You may also experience physical symptoms such as a hollow feeling in your stomach, tightness in your chest or throat, difficulty breathing, feeing very tired or weak, lack of energy or an increase or decrease in appetite. You may find it hard to sleep or experience aches and pains. Some people cry and others cannot. Both are alright. The bereavement counsellor and writer Earl Grollman said: “The only cure for grief is to grieve.”

Many people are surprised by the strength and duration of emotional pain that they suffer. Some days are better than others. One minute you are coping well and the next a piece of music or a picture will remind you of your loss and your mood will suddenly change. While you cannot prepare yourself or plan for those occasions, you can devise strategies to enable you to manage the mood changes that occur.

Some people have difficulty moving on. They may develop a condition known as complicated grief or persistent complex bereavement disorder. This can disrupt your daily routine and undermine other relationships. It can include longing and yearning for the deceased loved one, denial of the death, imagining that the loved one is still alive, avoiding things that remind you of the loved one, extreme anger or bitterness over the loss, and feeling that life is empty and meaningless.

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The healing process takes time. It is natural to miss the person once they are gone but the painful, raw feelings will gradually subside. I found it easier to cope if I had a structured day and managed to keep busy. Many people have hobbies and can immerse themselves in those. The simple act of taking the dog for a walk can be healthy for both mind and body. It is better not to make any major decisions for twelve months after the death, and it is important to keep in touch with friends and family who are able to support you. 

The term “moving on” can be a very sensitive phrase. It implies that you may be attempting to forget the person, but you are really learning how to live without them. It can be very difficult when you are sad and longing to be with the person again. All you really want is to return to the life you lived before the person died. Some people feel that their life is now grey and pointless and may be annoyed and angry that the person they have loved has gone and they are left behind. Family and friends may be expecting you to move on. It is important to realise that these feelings are normal and understand that your friend or family member is embarking on a long and difficult journey.

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I took my dog on a long walk and while out I met a friend who I have not seen for over 12 months. He told me that he had recently lost his partner, who had been diagnosed with cancer two years ago. He was clearly still very upset but wanted to talk.

We sat outside at a local café, and he told me his partner died at home, with my friend as the main carer, following a period in hospital. As we talked, I soon realised that we were both on the same journey and how beneficial it was to share our feelings and emotions.

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Grief specialists Denis Klass, Phyllis Silverman and Steven Nickman argue that when a loved one dies you go through a process of adjustment. This changes your relationship with them. They continue to live in your memories and your heart, and you can continue to communicate with them as though they are still with you.

Counsellor and writer Dr Lois Tonkin feels that we don’t get over grief but learn to grow around it. You begin to have many new experiences, meet new people, reconnect with family and friends, and start to socialise again. Over time your grief remains, but it no longer dominates, and life becomes more bearable. 

Psychologist William Worden’s model involves accepting the reality of the loss, experiencing the pain, adjusting to a new life, and reinvesting in the new reality by finding ways to continue an emotional connection with your loved one.

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At some stage after the loss, it is beneficial to face the places and situations that you have been avoiding. In my case it was all the local supermarkets as Allan really enjoyed shopping.

Organise your list with the most difficult situations at the top and plan to start to face these, perhaps asking a friend or family member to accompany you. It will be difficult, but take your time. You will know when you are ready.

Adjusting to change is difficult for us all, especially when you may be feeling vulnerable and anxious, without the company and support of the loved one you have lost. Life goes on and your grief remains, but it does become more bearable as you make new memories which give you the confidence to face the future.