The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 149: Grief & Loss

The one thing everyone has in common is that we will all in some way be touched by death, whether it’s thoughts about our own demise, or having to deal with someone else’s.
And what’s really important to understand, whether you’re trying to be a supporting friend or you’re a grieving widow, it’s important to understand the rules of grieving, of which there is only one.
That there are no rules.
There are no specific stages that were supposed to go through one by one. People will often quote Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief and I think it is useful to have an understanding of them even though they certainly aren’t set in stone.
Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a Swiss psychiatrist, and was one of the first to really look into near-death experiences but is more famous because of her book On Death and Dying in 1969, where she wrote about her theory of five stages of grief that she observed people went through.
The book has stood the test of time, although we realise that not every stage has to be gone through, and there is no order to it and people will usually jump backwards and forwards through these stages.
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance
I would say that these experiences are not only reserved just for the grief of losing people or pets. These same stages exist when losing a job, moving house or watching your children grow up. Our brain doesn’t like change and it will put up a fight if it experiences loss in any way, but the most common experience is of course the death of a loved one.
Despite the fact that we can easily jump backwards and forwards through all of these stages the very first experience is probably still going to be Denial. We are likely to cling onto a preferred reality, whether for a moment or for a day. When someone says “But I only saw them yesterday and they were fine” that’s denial and it might only be for a moment before your intelligence kicks in and in some circumstances you could then jump straight to the last stage of Acceptance. But in extremely emotional cases denial can go on for a long time, and any evidence to the reality of the situation is ignored with a vigorous shaking of the head. If something means a lot to us, we aren’t going to let it go in a hurry.
The Bargaining part of these stages is a funny one, and also highlights that grieving is a process not just for dealing with someone dying, but when a someone is made redundant or a relationship comes to an end.
Bear in mind that with number 4 what we mean by Depression is not necessarily Clinical Depression, this would be usually be Reactive Depression and does need dealing with properly if someone is stuck there. Clinical and Reactive Depression are entwined with each other and can influence each other but it is important see the differences. Reactive Depression is when you’re feeling the way you’re feeling because your reacting to something that has happened.
Clinical Depression is when the brain has forgotten how to feel any other way, and they do need treating in different ways. In most cases Reactive Depression probably needs more talk therapy and Clinical Depression needs more medication.
Both may well need a combination of therapy and medication but everyones individual and you can’t treat every reason for Depression in the same way.
Also not every talk therapy is right for grief. New grief is the domain of a Bereavement Counsellor, but for old grief, when someone is stuck, that may well need CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) or person centred counselling to learn to unravel or move on whichever someone feels that they need.
But you don’t have to be a therapist to be supportive to someone. The worst thing you can probably do is run away from someone who needs help because you don’t know what to do or say. Be honest, if a friend is struggling and is in pain, then tell them “I don’t know what to do or say, but I want you to know that I’m here for you.”
Keep in touch and ask them how they feel, if you’ve been through similar experiences its tempting to say “I know how you feel” But you don’t, grief can jump all over the place. One day it’s Anger the next it’s Denial again. If you’ve been through it yourself say that, show them that you got through it, that there’ll be a point in their future where they’ll look back and they’ll say “You know that was a crappy time, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I’ve moved on from it.”
Don’t be afraid to ask someone how they’re feeling, and that goes for any mental health issue. There’s nothing wrong in saying “Hey, how have you been lately?” Often people on the outside of someone else depression don’t like talking about it because they feel as if in bringing it up it means they’re then supposed to impart some magical piece of wisdom, and it’s OK if you don’t.
If you bump into someone in a supermarket who’s wife has just died and there’s an awkward silence, don’t let it hang there, say “I heard your wife died, I’m so sorry.” After all, that’s the truth and it shows them that you’re open to talking about it, more than likely everyone else they bump into will be too scared to. And if they don’t want to talk, respect that, theres a time for it and if they aren’t ready then don’t press them. If they do open up don’t be surprised if they want to talk about the same thing over and over again, maybe how they died, or what the wished they could have done differently. That’s OK, it doesn’t mean that they’re stuck. Hopefully every time they do go over it, it gets easier for them to process it until it has less of an emotional effect.
To me, grief is a part of love. You can’t have one without the other. If you are grieving it’s because you had someone in your life that you cared about so much that it makes you feel awful when they’re gone. The alternative is to never love, to protect you from the pain of losing them. I’ve met plenty of people like that and believe me they’re not happy that they feel that way.
The pain of losing someone may be hard, but the joy of having them in your life in the first place shouldn’t be overshadowed.