Light Into Darkness – Liz Gleeson on understanding grief

As she brings her new podcast Shapes Of Grief to The Whale on Thursday 31st March, Greystones psychotherapist Liz Gleeson addresses our difficulties dealing with a loved one’s death.

Grief is a poorly understood process for those who have not had first-hand experience.

For those who are lucky enough not to have endured a significant loss in their lives, they can be forgiven for thinking that grief is something sad that happens when someone we love dies. We might feel low for a while until we eventually ‘get over it’ or ‘move on’: this couldn’t be farther than the truth. For many of us, grief changes us profoundly. It shakes up our normal, brings up a depth and breadth of emotions that can leave us shook or terrified: our mind can feel like there are three hundred TV channels playing all at once, loudest at three o’clock in the morning.

I use the image of taking a sledgehammer to our nervous system and hitting it hard: it can take months before the reverberations of that begin to settle, leaving us in a state of hyper-vigilance, fear or anger. These difficult emotions often overshadow the expected sorrow and sadness which can confuse those who are trying to support us and make them withdraw, leading to isolation for the griever.

Grief affects us physically too. Some studies show that we are more prone to heart attack, stroke, ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions following a significant loss. Remember Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia in Star Wars? She died in December 2016. Her heartbroken mother, actress Debbie Reynolds, died the next day from a stroke. We hear these stories time and again: broken-heart syndrome is a thing, not a myth.

In my grief therapy practice, when I meet a newly bereaved person, it is often like meeting a very young child in pain; there is a vulnerability, a rawness and there is a desperation to feel ‘normal’ again. We must speak with the tenderness and care that we would afford a child who has become distressed after momentarily losing their parent: a profound humanity is required when accompanying those who are grieving.

The fact that we live in a death-denying society doesn’t help. We often refuse to say ‘dying’, ‘death’ or ‘dead’, instead using euphemisms such as ‘passed away’ or ‘lost’. Such avoidance only serves to accentuate the loneliness of the bereaved, when nobody around them wants to face the reality of the death.

The only way to deal with grief is to grieve. And paradoxically, when we turn towards our pain and allow ourselves to fully surrender to it, only then, can we begin to feel relief from it. Platitudes such as ‘stay strong’, ‘they wouldn’t want you to be sad’, ‘you’ve an angel in heaven now’ often increase the alienating misattunement felt by the griever and can lead them to believe that they are ‘doing grief’ the wrong way.

Not everyone needs professional support in their grief, as the research shows. In fact, some studies show that in some cases, it can be detrimental if people seek support too early in a bereavement. For those who themselves feel they may benefit from grief counselling, it is essential that they find a mental health provider who is grief-informed.

One of the biggest problems for those who are looking for support for their grief following a significant loss, is the lack of grief education among our healthcare providers and mental health workers. Many institutions are still teaching the outdated ‘Stages Model’ of grief (Kübler-Ross, 1973) which was never meant to be for grief in the first place. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross worked in palliative care and noticed, when told they had a terminal diagnosis, many patients went through these five stages. Grief is far more complex and multi-faceted.

It does not have a beginning, a middle and an end, it is not linear and it simply cannot be reduced to a five-stage model. We need to think differently about grief and broaden our awareness of it if we are to adequately support those who are grieving and ensure that we provide them with the best possible chance for a good bereavement outcome.

The Shapes Of Grief podcast, launched three years ago, aims to normalise the grief response by sharing stories of loss and grief from a variety of perspectives. Initially intended for people experiencing grief, it became apparent that the podcast had become a learning platform for many mental health providers and other healthcare workers who didn’t know how to support their grieving clients and patients. From this, the Shapes Of Grief training programme was born.

It is a forty-hour grief training programme that brings together twenty-six of the worlds’ specialists in grief education who together, deliver a comprehensive insight into types of loss, types of grief and how to support grieving people in clinical practice.

 

Shapes Of Grief will be officially launched in The Whale Theatre Greystones on March 31st 2022. There will be a number of speakers and performers who will share their unique perspective of grief through prose, poetry, song and dance. We will hear about the importance of taking death and grief out of the shadows and into our everyday conversations, as well as the necessity for adequate grief education for our healthcare professionals.

There are limited tickets available for Shapes Of Grief at The Whale on Thursday, 31st March.

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