The first UK National Grief Awareness Week (NGAW) was held 4 years ago to give a national platform to the impact of grief and to provide an opportunity for people to share their experience of grief and to learn from one another. It grew out of a campaign by Linda Magistris, founder of The Good Grief Trust, and followed a report, A better Grief, commissioned by Sue Ryder, to find out about the nation’s experience of death and bereavement.
The Good Grief Trust
In 2016, following the death of her partner, Linda Magistris, the ex-Grange Hill actress, discovered that there were no services that matched her needs around the experience of her grief. As she says, “We will all be affected by a bereavement sometime in our lives, yet we still find it hard to talk about our grief.”
She set up The Good Grief Trust (GGT) to bring bereavement services together under one umbrella to ensure that everyone will be able to find the support they need. A key aim of the GGT is to normalise grief. The Trust recognises that while grief is universal, everyone’s experience is personal. Of greatest comfort for a person grieving is to have someone listen to their personal story.
Grief is a personal journey
Though grief is universal, we will each experience it in a personal way. It will probably be different each time and will be much influenced by a number of different factors: the relationship and importance of the person to you; the circumstances of the person’s the death; the circumstances prior to the person’s death; the nature of the support around you; your personality and lifestyle and how your loss impacts on you; your culture and rituals relating to dying and grief.
And you can experience grief from other things: the loss of a pet, your home, your country, your job, or your lifestyle.
Grief is painful and unpredictable. It affects different people in different ways, at different times and for different lengths of time.
Some personal stories
During the first National Grief Awareness Week, one day was designated Donut Day. This was initiated by Freddie’s mum, Charlotte, whose blog tells how, on the morning of the accident that tragically took her young son’s life, the last thing he ate was a donut. So, she thought “an amazing way to sugarcoat a tragic day” would be for people to take a selfie of themselves eating a donut, and share it on social media.” Charlotte’s advice is to get talking. Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know what to say. Grieving is a lonely business and nothing anyone can say can ‘fix’ the situation. It’s important just to feel someone is there for you, acknowledging your loss.
The loss of my mother
Jan’s mum took to her bed soon after her dad died, and showed no interest in leaving it. Jan was shocked at the way her mother abandoned her independence. She lost respect for her mum and at the same time, began to grieve her loss for the things they could no longer do together. She didn’t really grieve her death until two years later. She was at an exhibition at the National Gallery, when she started to feel very shaky and tearful. Images and feelings about her mother were suddenly all around her amongst the images by Anish Kapoor. Then, in a room with a train on its tracks, waves of regret, anger and sadness overcame her and she cried and cried. She thought of the years after they had reached a positive relationship of acceptance through sharing exhibitions and art – all that came to an end when her mum took to her bed. For that moment, all those years of loss came tumbling out.
Losing my husband
Sue’s husband was her life, her best friend, the father of her children, the person who gave meaning to her life, the person who substantiated her being, and who brought laughter, fun and music to all who knew him. When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, they were both sure that he’d survive it. They didn’t think beyond that. So, when he was dying, Sue had no idea. And suddenly, he wasn’t there. No one had warned her, not even the nurse who had just attended to him. How was it possible? Where did all that energy and life go? The suddenness, the totality, the pain of that loss was overwhelming. Not only did she not have the language to describe how she was feeling, she didn’t understand what had happened, or how! It was impossible to compute. And she still gets an overwhelming sense of his loss at unexpected moments – even 4 years later.
Most cultures have designated rituals to allow support around mourning and bereavement.
I was brought up in a Jewish home with many rituals to mark important events in life. One of the most valuable is that of the ‘shiva’. This is when for a week following a death, family members, friends, relatives, and acquaintances, gather at the person’s home, bringing food and their memories to share with the bereaved. In the evenings, the rabbi leads prayers for those gathered. I found this week very cathartic and healing when I was grieving for my parents.
I had a similar gathering when my partner died. It was a chance to share stories and memories, to laugh, cry and celebrate her life together, in a safe and supportive environment, in a way that helped the healing process to begin.
Bereavement and grief
There are processes which deal with the practicalities of death and funerals. Decisions are taken and there are people around to help things happen in the appropriate order. In the UK, people generally express condolences, and attend funerals in quiet, contemplative ways to reflect respect for grieving families. Most people need time to grieve in silence, in privacy, because in a way, it is ok in those moments to feel the pain, the hurt, and to let the tears flow freely; to allow yourself to feel sad, angry, alone, guilty, or anxious; and those are the moments to process feelings and thoughts as time moves on and you become accustomed to the new reality. When those quiet, sole times become overwhelming, it’s important to reach out to friends or a professional to talk to.
We need to talk about death and dying
Death is an inevitability for us all and yet, for many in our society, it is almost taboo to talk about it.
There is often embarrassment around death. We are afraid to say the wrong thing, to upset a grieving person, and therefore, often remain silent or avoid talking about it. And yet, talking is exactly what a grieving person needs. It’s important not to be afraid or ashamed to express how you feel. Remember, if a person is grieving, it is because they have lost someone precious to them, someone they will be thinking of a lot, so it’s important to them that they have someone to talk to, even if it is upsetting.
When death has occurred in uncertain circumstances, it’s important to provide a forum for the grieving family to ask questions and have them answered honestly and responsibly. Without explanations, it is difficult to find peace.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Whether you are grieving and unable to find the kind of support you need, or someone who’s finding it difficult to support a friend in need, help is available. Don’t be afraid to seek it out. Sit will be worth it!
Some helpful websites:
Hope Again – Young people living after loss
The Good Grief Trust – Raising awareness of the breadth of bereavement support in the UK
Cancer.Net Coping with grief
Cancer.Net – Coping with grief in a cultural context
Cancer.Net – Understanding grief and loss
Grief Encounter – Supporting bereaved children and young people
Compass – National Grief Awareness information pack
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