In the raw grief, terrible devastation and utter despair of the total loss of someone so central to your life, what can you possibly do? What is the next step?
Do we ever really ‘cope’ with the loss of someone we love? I mean, sure, ‘life goes on’; we still have to get on with life and survive; others also seem to cope in their own fashion. But each of us is different. Each of us wonders: when the time comes, how will I ever manage?
Well, in this series, I have attempted to share, usually in a deeply personal way, the ways in which I have coped with the loss of my dear wife, Fiona, to cancer in October 2016. The insights I have published in this series will doubtless have been helpful to others who are going through a similar thing.
I realise, though, that much of what I have written is based on my Christian faith, because much of the way in which I have coped has also been based on that faith. And I realise that not everyone shares that faith. Maybe you don’t believe in God at all; maybe you would like to believe in God but you don’t like what Religion does to society; maybe you think that a belief in God is kidding ourselves and there is really no good news in Religion at all.
And that’s all fair enough. We all believe in different things. And so, I have written this piece for the benefit of people who maybe don’t believe those faith things like I do. But we all feel pain, whether we have faith or not. And there are still practical, down-to-earth things you can do in order to help you in your grieving process; things I have learned or had to do for my own grief journey. So, in this piece, I will go through a number of such ideas which you may, or may not, find helpful. There’s a lot in this article, and it might look overwhelming, so feel free to read it over as many sittings as you need. And please feel free to take on board those things you like; and to leave behind those you don’t.
Recognise that grief is normal, and yet it is also unique
Everyone feels grief. But everyone feels it in a different way. Do not be either worried or surprised if you find yourself behaving differently from other bereaved people you have met; there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to your grieving process or the ways in which you express your grief. There is no ‘you should feel this way’ or ‘you should not feel like that’. Anything you feel is ‘normal’ to you, even though you may not have felt it before. Accept that this is your own personal grief journey. That’s not to say it cannot be shared, as we shall see later, but it is unique to yourself.
Recognise that grief is a journey
Time is indeed, as common folklore suggests, a great healer. In two months’ time, in a year’s time, you will not feel the same feelings and emotions about your loss that you do now. Believe it or not, these raw, uncharted and uncontrollable feelings that you feel now – they will pass. Give yourself the time and space to explore, and, if you like, express those feelings, and also, importantly, give yourself permission to have them.
Recognise that grief is healthy
It may not feel like it right now, but the process of grief is a healthy, natural process. Despite how modern society likes to view tears and emotion, grief is just as healthy as a bowl of muesli or salad. It is part of your body’s (and your mind’s) way of coping with a big life change, and for this reason grief can actually be welcomed. Even though you do not welcome the event that has caused the grief (the death of your loved one), the grief itself is the path to healing and recovery.
Death is an unavoidable part of the life journey. Because of this, there are, unsurprisingly, many ways of receiving external help which are already in place. Do not hesitate to avail yourself of the help that is available; it definitely makes the process smoother and easier. I’m listing these early on, because these are usually the most pressing things to get sorted out.
Practicalities – after your loss, the first couple of weeks or so will understandably be taken up with various ‘official’ duties such as registering the death, arranging the funeral and things like that. Registration of the death is free; certified copies of the death certificate are £4.00 each in the UK at the time of registration; £7.00 each at any later time. I recommend that you get several copies of the death certificate. It seems that everyone wants to see it at once; and not only that, but everyone wants to see a proper certified copy. A photocopy is never good enough, it seems. The other thing is that you will also receive a document which you take to the Funeral Directors; this document enables you to arrange the burial or cremation with them.
The UK has a very good ‘Tell us Once’ system where, when you register the death, you take along things like your loved one’s Driving Licence, National Insurance Number Card, Passport and similar documents, and the registrar’s staff will notify the relevant Government authorities and departments of your change of circumstances on your behalf, so that it saves you a lot of painful rehashing of the same information to various people. This is definitely extremely helpful at such a time of intense emotional stress, and in my opinion this is one of the best ideas that Government has ever come up with. For more information on the ‘official’ side of things, in the UK at any rate, visit this link; other countries will no doubt have similar systems in place.
Funeral – One of the first things you will need to do will be to contact a Funeral Director – better if they are local – in order to begin to arrange the funeral. There will be various official things that you have to arrange with regard to this, and the Funeral Directors will have experience of this and will help you through the process. For instance, they will be able to advise on the arrangements which are needed if there is going to be a cremation; this is slightly different from a burial. They will also be able to help you find someone to advise on things like probate (if required) and the execution of the Will; many Funeral Directors offer a legal service to help with that sort of thing, and there will be a charge for this service. Although I am absolutely sure that every Funeral Director will give an excellent service – many of them see it as their life’s ‘calling’ – I would not hesitate to recommend the Co-Operative Funeral Service, which has branches all across the UK. They were recommended to me by a member of Fiona’s extended family, and they were absolutely superb.
There is also the possibility that your loved one may have had a Funeral Plan set up in order to pay for their funeral. If this is the case, they will probably have told you or another member of your family about it, so it’s worth checking that.
Funerals can be quite expensive; however, in the UK, many people are entitled to receive help with this cost, even if they are not on benefits. See the section on ‘Financial’ below.
Visiting – If you can at all face it, if it is at all possible, I would advise considering visiting your loved one’s body before the burial or cremation. I never regretted spending a last couple of hours with Fiona, even though I knew she wasn’t really ‘there’ any more. The opportunity to be able to say some final things to her was priceless beyond compare. Offer the opportunity to your family too; they might need it. And once her ashes arrived at my house, on their way to being finally buried, I gave other members of my family the chance to just sit with the box for a while and say goodbye.
This too was helpful for them. For me, both these events were instrumental in helping me to let go of her and I am so glad I did it. But naturally you might not want to do this; you might want to remember them as they were when they were living. This too is fine. You can always visit the graveside later to say anything you need to say.
Financial – You will need to contact your financial institutions, like your Bank, mortgage lender, savings institutions and so on in order to get names changed; also contact your Life Insurance company if your loved one was insured.
The UK Government provides financial help after the death of a loved one, to many people in the UK, whether or not they are on benefits. If you live in the UK, it is well worth you applying for this help – which I appreciate you may not have known about – because if you are entitled to it, then it is your right and your privilege to claim it. Don’t feel bad about it; this is what you pay your taxes for! At the time of writing, there is a one-off ‘Bereavement Support Payment’ available, to the tune of £2,000, which would go a long way towards helping with the funeral costs. When you apply for this benefit, you should also be automatically considered for all other bereavement benefits, all with the same application. More details here. [Edit: At the time of this edit, 18th October 2019, I note that the ‘Bereavement Support Payment’ benefit has increased to a lump sum of either £3,500 or £2,500 (which should cover the cost of the funeral) and up to 18 monthly payments of at least £100 per month. This is really good news.]
Medical – In the UK, there is plenty of medical, voluntary and professional help available for those going through bereavement. One of the main ways of accessing this help is through your doctor. Your doctor will be able to offer suggestions for first steps such as bereavement counselling; medication if necessary; and maybe they might also be able to discuss with you the illness that your loved one died of, if that was what happened. Sometimes, it’s good to discuss with your doctor things such as the events leading up to your loss, the way in which (what we call) end-of-life care works, how the body prepares itself for death by shutting down various systems (it’s actually really amazing) and reassurance that your loved one did not suffer. Your doctor will also be able to provide contact details for various counselling organisations, if that’s a route you decide you want to take. Certainly, talking with people experienced in helping bereaved people is really helpful – I myself received an excellent bereavement counselling service from the people at the local hospice where Fiona died. This approach may not be suitable for everyone, of course, but your doctor is still the person best-placed to advise you on this.
You could also consider asking your doctor to sign you off from work for a time; the practicality of this will of course depend on your workplace’s sickness absence policy and philosophy. And you might not feel like doing that now, but after a few months or so you might change your mind. Like I said, grief is different for everyone and there is no set pattern. For me, I was reasonably fine for about eight months, and then I found I had to take some time off work. You should find that your doctor is only too willing to help in this way.
Practical Help – Feel free to ask others – maybe family or friends – if they can help with things like shopping, cleaning and ironing, walking the dog, looking after the kids for a couple of hours, whatever you need. Most people will be only too pleased to help, because they will know they are doing something really practical to help you in your time of need, and this will also help them in their grieving process too. But equally if you do not feel up to receiving offered help, you should also feel free to refuse graciously. Maybe something like ‘I don’t need anything at the moment, but can I call you if I do?’ would be good.
Protect against Identity Theft – I know this is a horrible thing to hear about, but it’s also worth realising that, for various reasons, identity thieves love to steal the identities of deceased people, causing additional stress and grief at an already difficult time. In the UK, the ‘Tell Us Once’ service I mentioned above goes a long way towards preventing identity theft for the deceased. However, not all countries have that service, so it might be worth doing a similar ‘shutdown’ of your loved one’s official matters as soon as you can. I am indebted to Matt, a reader of this article, for giving me the link to an excellent website that should get you started with this. It’s an American website, but the principles are the same and the credit reference agencies the writer mentions also have offices in other countries including the UK. Here is the link. The site is well worth a look.
You might feel as if you have let your loved one down; maybe you might feel as if it’s your fault they died. Maybe you had an argument with your loved one just before they set off on the journey from which they did not return. Maybe you feel as if you contributed somehow to their loss in some way. Or perhaps there were unresolved issues in your relationship that still niggle at you. Well, everyone is different, of course, but personally I feel that there is no point in letting these things bother you anymore. You might feel there’s nothing you can do because all these things are in the past and it can’t be changed, and in itself that is true of course. But there is something you can do: although you can’t change the facts, you can change the power they have over you right now. The practical offshoot of all this is that you need to forgive yourself. Self-forgiveness means looking at the thing you think you did wrong, acknowledge it (whether it’s true or not) and then let it go. Decide that it’s in the past, and there’s no point at all in beating yourself up about it any longer. What’s done is done; you can’t change the fact, and to put it bluntly, the only person that any unforgiveness will hurt is you. So, determine right now to put that fault, be it perceived or real, behind you, leave it behind you and move on. Do this for every accusation that you feel yourself making towards yourself. This stuff, this self-forgiveness, is healthy and it works wonders for promoting healthy grieving. This is because the key to healthy grieving is to have it as guilt-free as possible. So, give yourself a break and just let it go. Forgive yourself, let the guilt go, and feel the weight just lift off you.
Again, you may be aware of things that others have said to you, or to your loved one, that cannot be unsaid; that cannot be mended. Ok, these things happen. But if you hold unforgiveness in your mind, the only person it harms is you. If you are mad at someone, and they are mad at you too, they are not going to care one jot that you are mad at them. In fact they may even cherish the idea because they know you are feeling bad about them. Well, it has no constructive benefit to you at all and it certainly won’t change their behaviour or attitude towards you; all it’s going to do is to eat you up from the inside. And, at this terrible time in your life, you can do without that sort of hassle on top of the grief. The decision to forgive lies in your hands. And that decision is something you have complete control over, and it’s also something they have no control over. I’m not saying that you all need to be friends again; indeed, you don’t need to tell them that you have forgiven them because it may well be greeted with scorn anyway. You can’t control their thoughts or behaviour, neither should you try. But you do have control over your own, and that is your trump card. So, forgive, and in that way you take away their power to hold anything over you. I’m not saying you shouldn’t learn from others’ behaviour – if you ‘forgive and forget’, as the old saying goes, then you’ll never learn anything – but you owe it to yourself to release yourself from the burden of having to feel bad about those people.
Forgive your Loved One
More importantly, though, please forgive the person you have lost for any way in which you feel aggrieved by something they did, said or were. Again, you do not have the power to change the past; it really is set in stone. But, again, the power you do have is that of forgiveness. So yes, you can’t change the past, but you can change the effect it has on you. So, once again, forgive. You have absolutely nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by so doing.
Remember that in all three cases above, forgiveness is not a feeling, it is a decision. You decide that you are not going to let those things have any control over you any more. And when the thoughts and feelings keep popping up, push them aside as completed, dealt with, and sorted, and just get on with what you are doing. Tell those thoughts to get knotted!
It’s OK to feel relieved
While on the subject of guilt and forgiveness, you might need to hear this too.
If you lost your loved one through, for example, a long illness, once they have died, you might be surprised to feel considerable relief now they have gone. And that in itself can make you feel guilty. How is it possible for me to be relieved that my loved one has died? Well, it’s perfectly valid. You are relieved that your loved one is no longer suffering and no longer in pain. You are relieved that the waiting and uncertainty – for you, your loved one and for your family and friends – is now over. You are also relieved that your own huge struggle, at least with the impending loss of someone you hold most dear – is over. Granted, there will be things that you still need to sort out, as we have already seen, but these things will soon be done and you will know that that part of your ordeal is over. And it’s perfectly ok to feel a sense of relief about that.
Talking with Others
You will get a lot of people who will express their sorrow and sympathy for you and for your loss. Remember that they have no idea what you are going through – even if they too have suffered a bereavement; remember everyone’s grief journey is different – and they may say some insensitive things. The vast majority of the time, these people are only trying to help, and part of the problem is that they don’t really know what to say. What can anyone say at a time like this? Death is an awkward subject and it’s not something many people think about in terms of how they would cope with it. And so their sympathetic words might seem a little hollow – but they really are doing their best to express their concern for you. They are probably feeling awkward and like I said, they – actually quite literally! – don’t know what to say. I used to reply to such things with ‘It’s ok’, but not for long! I had to take my dog to the vets a couple of days after I lost Fiona, and the vet said ‘Sorry to hear about your wife’. I replied with a simple, ‘Oh, it’s ok’, and his reply was, ‘Well, no it’s not ok’ and he was right. It’s not ok. And so I decided that from then on I would simply say ‘thank you’, because that was far more accurate! Or maybe you could have a set phrase – ‘I’m coping’, or similar. It’s not lying. That you are still alive and just getting on with stuff shows that you actually are coping after a fashion!
Don’t hold it against others who might say insensitive things. They are grieving too, possibly for the first time on this sort of scale. Maintain an attitude of forgiveness – let the ‘offence’ go. Coping with others is not my strong suit, though, because I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and so I can’t really advise beyond this. Maybe your counsellor or doctor can help with that.
Being There for Others
Although your grief is huge, there may well come a time – and, indeed because you might have friends and family relying on you, that time might be here already – when you feel you can help others cope with their grief by talking with them about your respective grief journeys. Not only is it true that a burden shared is a burden halved, but getting these feelings out into the open, and realising that you are all going through a common process, can be a huge step towards your healing.
Look after yourself
As soon as you feel able, try to restore your normal eating patterns. And, certainly, remember to keep yourself hydrated. Continue to exercise and get fresh air, continue your hobbies and continue your social life as far as possible – I realise it will be more difficult now if it’s your spouse or significant other you have lost.
There may – or may not! – be a strong temptation to give up doing the things you used to do together. If possible, don’t give those things up. Ok, if it was something like ballroom dancing, you’re going to find it hard without your dancing partner. But many of your activities can likely still be engaged in as often as you feel like it. So, if you can, don’t forego continuing the things you used to do together. If you can do it, this is a healthy way to remember and indeed celebrate the good times you had together – see this article for more on this idea.
And give yourself a break, in the sense of ‘go easy on yourself’. You do not have to do everything at once. You do not have to feel pressure from anyone to do anything. Your grief journey is your own, and you do not have to explain yourself to anyone.
Something profound I learned a few months ago is that memories are just as lasting whether the person you made those memories with is alive or not. Here’s how I put it in a previous article:
“And so, the happy memories I hold precious as examples of how good life was, and indeed still is. In essence, whether Fiona is here or not, those memories would only ever be all I have left of those times, because what is past is indeed only ever memories”.
And so, remember the good times and rejoice in the fact that they happened. Nothing can ever take that away from you. And forgive the bad times; holding a grudge will only interfere with your healthy grieving process.
Remember that everything that your loved one contributed to your life, your character, is still yours. All the attitudes that you learned, all the memories you have, the way in which your character has changed for the better because of the time you spent together – all of that is yours and can never be lost.
Finally, I should let you know that it is perfectly normal eventually for you to let go of your loved one, for this life at least. This doesn’t mean that you didn’t want them, nor that you don’t wish with all your heart that they had not died. It simply means that life goes on. You are going to have to learn to live a very different life from now on because your loved one isn’t here any more, and, although you will think about that person every day for the rest of your life, it’s perfectly ok for you to let go of your loved one. You keep the memories and attitudes and things, but there’s no avoiding it that the person is gone. Letting go is a gradual process, and it is a natural one, and above all it is nothing to feel guilty about. Indeed, it is part of the healing process.
I apologise that this article is so long, but there was so much that I wanted to say, and different people will have different things that they receive from reading this piece. Remember: take in what you want and find helpful; discard what you do not.
I hope this has been helpful for you.
Finally, here are some links to services I have either mentioned or hinted at in the text of my article. These are primarily for my UK readers, but other countries will have similar services. Remember: Google is your friend!
The UK Government’s page on how to claim Bereavement Support Payment and other bereavement-related benefits. Applying for Bereavement Support Payment means that you will automatically be considered for any other bereavement benefits you may be entitled to.
The Samaritans – the renowned, free-of-charge counselling service