Grief resulting from the death of a loved one is something that almost everyone will experience at one point in their lifetime. Surprisingly, this is a subject less talked about. To many, grief belongs behind darkened curtains. It seems to me that we are afraid of grief, we think it is contagious, so the best we can do is avoid it at all cost. In Kenya, it is almost customary for relatives and friends to support the bereaved family with funeral arrangements until the loved one is in their final resting place. The period after the funeral is a lonely phase where the bereaved family has to face the disheartening reality of their loss in the physical absence of their relatives and friends. This usually marks the beginning of the individual grief journey, and one has to cope with the new normal.
The significance of having a support system when trying to adjust to the loss of a loved one cannot be overstated. Many people go through the grief journey with just the support of family and friends. For others grief counselling or grief therapy by professional counsellors or listeners can be a powerful tool to help them navigate the grieving process. Co-workers, colleagues and church members could also form part of an individual’s support system. Whomever you choose to belong to your grief support system, it is important to remember that the quality of your support system is more important than the quantity of people in your support system. Either way, if you are grieving, you are not alone. Look around. You will see there is someone, probably several people, who care. Sometimes you just have to reach out.
My search, following the death of our dear mother, for grief support groups within my neighborhood and other city suburbs bore no fruit. An online search however, yielded quite a number of grief support groups, but all these were hosted outside Kenya. The need for grief counselling in a group setting was therefore never met. This little experience led to my conviction that as a country, we somehow are yet to embrace fully individual mourning. While relatives and friends are vital, unless they have experienced a close personal loss, they most likely do not fully “get it.” That is where support groups can become a valuable resource. Grief support groups offer companionship and understanding from others who have experienced a similar loss, and are experiencing the similar challenges that living with grief brings.
Undoubtedly, death and bereavement is a topic of interest to psychologists and sociologists. In a bid to understand the psychological and sociological perspectives on death and bereavement, I delved into grief and bereavement literature; books, websites and films. Despite the scantiness of grief-related academic literature, I particularly came across The World of Bereavement (2015), a book that provided important insights into grief and bereavement across the global divide. One of this book’s chapters (by Njue, J. R. et al) explored bereavement and culture in Kenya. These researchers identified various cultural practices that support family and community mourning in Kenyan communities. However, they found none that supports individual mourning. This yet denotes the absence of sufficient support systems for grieving at the individual level in most Kenyan communities. There is need therefore, for our collective role in providing sufficient support and room for grieving at the individual level, which includes considering the significance of grief support groups. In this article, I share important lessons I continue to pick from my personal grief journey, and my thoughts on how we can embrace and cope with grief.
You cannot ‘overcome’ the loss of a loved one
As opposed to popular thinking, grieving is something that cannot be kept under the wraps. It is quite common for people to tell you to get over the death of your loved one. They will tell you to be strong, and to move on. They always mean well. However, the death of a loved one is not something that we ‘get over’. This loss can be likened to an amputation. It is impossible to grow a new limb. You just have to learn to live with this significant loss in a healthy way. You know, you do not get out of grief like a bullet train bursting out of a tunnel, instead, like a seagull stuck in mud; you will come out tired, mudded, and sometimes unfeathered for life. I therefore believe that no one should tell you how long you should grieve for your loved one.
You will lose friends
After the passing on of a loved one, you no longer will be the person you were before the loss. You might become numb or indifferent. At this point, some of your friends may not be able to relate to you. They will misunderstand you, and will distance themselves. There are also those that will plainly avoid you after your loss. It is important to remember that it is not personal, it is not intentional. Some people are uncomfortable with the very topic of grief. The fear of saying the ‘wrong’ thing might make them avoid anything associated with grief. Your presence might be the very reminder of loss and grief, so they will avoid you. If you are close to a person, it is difficult to watch them hurting and not be entirely sure what you can do to help. Nonetheless, this usually is unfortunate because it denotes another loss to you.
You might be misunderstood by people
Grief is personal and unique. Siblings can lose their mother and have completely different responses. So, how you react to your loss will vary from another person’s reaction regardless of whether the cause of death was identical. Grief will feel like tidal waves of different emotions. You might be happy this moment and very angry the next moment. You may be angry with yourself, with your family, with God, with the doctors, and with the world. Unfortunately, sometimes grief may make a monster out of you and these anger emotions may be vented out to the people closest to you. If these people lack an understanding of the grief process, it might lead to strained relationship with them.
The trajectories of grief
Most researchers have maintained that there are three primary patterns of grief; the common grief, the chronic grief, and delayed grief. Unlike the common and chronic grief, delayed grief is characterized by low distress after a death, with a rise in distress at some later point (Bonanno et al. 2002).
I watched the 2015 grief film Demolition and drew major conclusions from it. The main character, Davis, can be said to have experienced delayed grief following the sudden death of his wife. He is portrayed as emotionless and apathy-free when his wife dies, but later his emotions and distress are heightened. He then wages destruction on the things in his life as a way of dealing with his grief.
Basically, the conventional understandings of grief have defined the grief experience in rather limiting ways. Although psychologists say that there are five stages of grief, anyone who has experienced significant loss will tell you that grief is a process without a definite time frame or pattern. The five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) should only serve as a guide in one’s healing journey without feeling that they must pass through each of those stages in the precise order. The grieving process is like a roller coaster with ups and downs, highs and lows. It is not a well-ordered process with smooth transitions in between.
When grief does not go away
It is normal to feel sad, numb, or angry following a loss. But as time passes, these emotions should become less intense as you accept the loss and start to move forward. If you aren’t feeling better over time, or your grief is getting worse, this might denote the escalation of your grief into a more serious problem, such as complicated grief or major depression.
When to seek professional help
If you notice any of the symptoms of complicated grief or clinical depression, it is advisable to seek grief therapy. Talk to a licensed grief therapist or mental health professional right away. Symptoms may include numbness, detachment, an intense longing for the deceased, irritability, bitterness about your loss, intense sorrow, trouble carrying out normal activities and hopelessness, which together impede one from moving through the grief process. If left untreated, complicated grief and depression can lead to significant emotional damage, life-threatening health problems and even suicide.
If you are seeing a therapist, be as open and honest to him or her as possible. Do not assume that your therapist knows how you feel. If you are feeling suicidal but cannot access professional help, depending on your country of residence, you can call the national suicide hotline. Unfortunately, as of now, Kenya does not have a national suicide hotline. In 2017 however, mental health ambassador Sitawa Wafula launched Kenya’s only and free SMS helpline where people can access mental health information and psychological support. If in Kenya and feeling suicidal, please use the SMS helpline 22214 and you will get help.
Supporting those in grief
People in grief sorely need support to cope. Generally, it is hard to know the right thing to say to a grieving person. However, it makes a difference to sit with them, even if it is in silence. If they want to talk about their loved ones and how they died, you should let them and just listen. You can offer comfort and reassurance without trying to minimize loss. The most important thing you can do for a grieving person is to simply be there. Call them, visit them. When grieving, some people tend to withdraw from social activities and friends, but this does not mean that they do not need your support.
Finally . . .
Part of the grief process is realizing that incredible loss can transform us into stronger, better people. When our loved ones die, all we are left with are memories. However, we can experience, in different forms, a sense of continued bond with them. This is a source of great healing and comfort. Our loved ones may live on in memory, their legacy, or in our continued definition of ourselves in relation to them. In her childhood, while not yet ten, Eleanor Roosevelt had lost her mother, little brother and father in a span of nineteen months. About her father, to whom she was deeply attached, she once said, “. . . I knew in my mind that my father was dead, and yet I lived with him more closely, probably, than I had when he was alive.” Though our loved ones die, yet they never cease to be part of us.
Bonanno G. A., Wortman C. B., Lehman D. R., Tweed R. G., Haring M., Sonnega J., Carr D., Nesse R. M. (2002). Resilience to loss and chronic grief: a prospective study from preloss to 18-months postloss. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 83(5):1150-64.
Njue J. R. M., Rombo D., Lutomia A. N., Smart L. S., Mwaniki L. M., Sore I. L. (2015). Death, Grief and Culture in Kenya: Experiential Strengths-Based Research. In: Cacciatore J., DeFrain J. (eds) The World of Bereavement. International and Cultural Psychology. Springer, Cham.
Persico, J. (2008). Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd, and the Other Remarkable Women in His Life. New York: Random Publishing House.
Sing. (2015, November 14). Demolition 2015. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-So4mlfBwQ&t=192s