by Tany Desfontaines
The Fulcrum, Issue 83 May 2021
“THE REALITY IS THAT YOU WILL GRIEVE FOREVER. YOU WILL NOT ‘GET OVER’ THE LOSS OF A LOVED ONE; YOU WILL LEARN TO LIVE WITH IT. YOU WILL HEAL AND YOU WILL REBUILD YOURSELF AROUND THE LOSS YOU HAVE SUFFERED. YOU WILL BE WHOLE AGAIN, BUT YOU WILL NEVER BE THE SAME. NOR SHOULD YOU BE THE SAME NOR WOULD YOU WANT TO.”
ELISABETH KÜBLER-ROSS, ON DEATH & DYING
A year on since I wrote about the dramatic impact of the first lockdown in the UK, we find ourselves emerging into a world that has changed in ways that many of us may be finding difficult to assimilate. We are witnessing change on a global scale; uncertainty prevails regarding the restoration of balance in our ecosystems and social structures, and we must face the possibility that some things may never return to ‘normal’.
Dramatic and traumatic sudden changes to our world are major stressors for most people. The British psychiatrist and writer Colin Murray-Parkes², in his assumptive world theory, proposed that we largely take our life for granted so long as little change is involved. Whilst death and dying perhaps represent the ultimate trauma, people can experience similar emotional upset when dealing with many of life’s challenges, especially if confronted with something for the first time. These could include redundancy, relationship breakdown or divorce, diagnosis of serious illness or radical surgery. Bereavement highlights both our own mortality and that of those we love. It impacts us in every aspect of our being: not only in terms of our thoughts, feelings and emotions but also in the ways we behave and relate to ourselves and each other, to our physicality and to the spiritual realm. The experience of loss and grief can profoundly change a person, as Kübler-Ross describes in the quote above.
Bereavement in Covid
During this last year, we have become accustomed to news reports detailing daily death tolls; for many of us the grim statistics perhaps quite removed from the reality of loss. However, for those of us who have been bereaved during this past year, the experience and impact of losing a loved one in these unprecedented circumstances are all too real. Under government restrictions, not only have many people been unable to be with their loved one during their final hours, but many of these deaths have occurred suddenly, unexpectedly and with little time or opportunity for loved ones to say their goodbyes. Restrictions in the numbers of people who can attend a funeral and advice for certain more vulnerable people to self-isolate have resulted in the severe curtailment of many rituals and acts of mourning; these often involve the coming together of large groups as families and communities pay their respects to the dead and offer comfort and support to the bereaved.
In addition to personal trauma, we are faced with a collective loss on a scale not seen in this country since World War 2. Data from the UK Government website records over 143 000 deaths with COVID-19 on the death certificate in the UK at the time of writing (February 2021).
Theories of Grief Process
Loss happens because we are attached. John Bowlby, psychologist and psychiatrist, describes attachment as “a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another”³. Bowlby suggests that grief is an instinctive universal response to separation. In the 1970s, Bowlby, together with Murray-Parkes, identified four phases of mourning: Numbing, yearning and searching, disorganisation and reorganisation4. Several other prominent authors, including Kübler-Ross and William J Worden5, have emphasised that grief and its resolution involve a number of stages. Common to these models is a need to recognise and accept that the loss has happened, feel the emotions associated with it and adjust or adapt to the loss.
“IF WE DO NOT GRIEVE WHAT WE MISS, WE ARE NOT PRAISING WHAT WE LOVE. WE ARE NOT PRAISING THE LIFE WE HAVE BEEN GIVEN IN ORDER TO LOVE. IF WE DO NOT PRAISE WHOM WE MISS, WE ARE OURSELVES IN SOME WAY DEAD. SO GRIEF AND PRAISE MAKE US ALIVE.”
Because everyone grieves in his or her own way and own pace, there is no specific or usual amount of time in which people experience or complete these phases. Worden warns that grief does not fit into neat boxes and bereaved people will move back and forth from one stage to another. Dennis Klass and colleagues6, in their ‘continuing bonds’ model, do not see bereavement or grieving as ever fully resolved, culminating in “closure” or “recovery”. They propose that rather than “letting go” the bereaved person negotiates and renegotiates the meaning of their loss over time. Death is permanent, however grieving and mourning can maintain the presence of the deceased in the web of the family; they are remembered and not forgotten, they continue to have a role in the memories of the bereaved.
Previous losses, including miscarriages and separations, can have an impact on the way an individual experiences and processes current losses. Also, within a family system the loss of a parent can precipitate siblings back into childhood roles.
My mum was born on the island of Mauritius, growing up amongst tropical forests and pristine beaches. She came to England at just 16 years old, meeting my dad in London in the late 1960s and settling here to raise her family. In 1997, four months after the birth of my daughter, she left the UK to travel to India. Her letters from India described a sense of regaining some of her ‘exoticness’ in the melee of India’s richly vibrant colours, sounds and smells. After an encounter with the Dalai Lama in Rishikesh, she settled in Varanasi (Benares), where she took singing lessons at an apartment on the banks of the holy River Ganges. Varanasi is considered to be the oldest and most holy city in India, and millions are drawn there every year to visit the famous ghats and take a dip in the sacred waters of the Ganges. In Hindu belief, dying here and getting cremated along the banks of the holy river allows a person to break free from the cycle of rebirth and attain liberation.
All this I discovered in retrospect, as my mum died there beside the Ganges. A policeman came to my door to deliver the news of her sudden collapse and death. I remember the sense of disbelief and unreality, heightened by the fact that she had called me on my birthday, just a few days before. The incredible shock and extreme distress of this loss marked a turning point in my life; Suddenly my world was changed, and I embarked on what was to become a profoundly transformational journey. In my grieving process, I began to question everything, to search for meaning. I found that grief can be a pathway to awakening and personal healing.
One of the first challenges I faced after my mum’s sudden death was the decision regarding what should be done with her body. The British consul impressed upon me that time was of the essence as her remains would deteriorate rapidly in the heat of India, so would require some kind of preservation process should we wish to repatriate her body. Some of the family thought that this would be the best thing to do, and to have a traditional funeral here in England. However, when I discovered more about Varanasi, it was clear to me that she should be cremated there on the burning ghats.
Customs and rituals in bereavement vary widely, especially in relation to culture. In many cultures, women traditionally lead the mourning with physical and vocal lamentations, keening and ululation in passionate expressions of grief. There are many cultures where grief ceremonies are of central importance in maintaining the health and connection to life of their people. In such death-affirming cultures, grief is embraced as an expression of praise.
Although our culture has largely abstracted itself from death and grief, a number of initiatives have grown hugely in the 21st century, perhaps reflecting a cultural shift. An example is the Death Café model, developed by Jon Underwood in 20118 with the objective of “increasing awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives”. Perhaps this is what renowned psychiatrist and author Irvin Yalom was pointing to when he said, “though the physicality of death destroys us the idea of death might save us”9. Death cafés are not counselling or support groups, rather an open discussion without agenda.
An excellent resource for the newly bereaved is the Good Grief Trust10, a charitable organisation run by the bereaved for the bereaved. Their website is packed with resources to support the bereaved and those who care for them, including specific advice and information for those bereaved during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How Can We Help as CSTs?
As we have seen, this pandemic has brought particular challenges in navigating bereavement; isolation, social distancing and mask-wearing can erode our sense of social connection and may amplify feelings of detachment at a time when human contact is most needed. Much can be achieved through resonance and a natural process of co-regulation when we meet our clients from a clear, present and grounded place. Our skilled touch can communicate safety and non-judgemental receptivity, allowing our clients’ systems to settle and deepen. There is much we can offer to support bereaved people in processing their grief and recovering from or adjusting to its impacts.
Responding to bereavement means bringing ourselves and our encounters with loss to the treatment table. What prevents or supports our personal presence in being with loss? How can we hold a more clear and grounded presence for our bereaved clients? What is our relationship with death and dying? With change?
Self-reflection, care and support are needed perhaps now more than ever; this may take the form of supervision, peer support and connection, therapeutic support, creative and restorative activities, or simply taking time out for ourselves. We must make space to explore our own responses to loss. Like childbirth, I found bereavement difficult to appreciate until I experienced it myself. Grief permeates all aspects of our being, and I believe it also offers the possibility of great transformation and healing. Grief can help to open the heart, increasing our capacity for empathy and compassion, and helping us to feel connected in our humanness. It is through being with the depths of our grief that we may discover that alchemical process by which the pain of loss and longing are transformed into gratitude and appreciation for the joy of being alive.
“WHAT WE ONCE ENJOYED AND DEEPLY LOVED WE CAN NEVER LOSE, FOR ALL THAT WE LOVE DEEPLY BECOMES PART OF US.”
A former NHS physiotherapist, Tanya entered the field of cranial work in 2007. Having held the position of course co-ordinator and senior tutor for the Karuna Institute in recent years, Tanya is now an independent teacher, supervisor and practitioner of craniosacral biodynamics. She lives and works in South Devon. www.fifthworldcranial.co.uk
Kübler-Ross E (1969) On Death and Dying, Macmillan, New York NY
2. Parkes, C. M. (1971). Psychosocial transitions: a field for study. Social Science and Medicine, 5, 101-115
3. Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books
4. Bowlby, J., & Parkes, C. M. (1970). Separation and loss within the family. In E. J. Anthony & C. Koupernik (Eds.), The child and his family (pp. 197-216). New York: Wiley.)
5. Worden, W.J (1982) Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy, Routledge
6. Klass, D., Silverman, P. R., & Nickman, S. L. (1996). Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis
7. Prechtel, M (2015) The Smell of Rain on Dust. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, Ca
9. Irvin D. Yalom (2001) The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients,
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the CSTA.