National Grief Awareness Week exists to raise awareness of all aspects of grief and loss on a national scale, and also to signpost channels of support for those who have suffered a bereavement and are in need.
Bereavement and coping with grief forms a key part of the conversation around death and dying. With an increasing recognition of the need to acknowledge these issues, in 2019 the UK is focusing on the subject with the first National Grief Awareness Week.
As part of this the Art of Dying Well considers the role of grief and why it’s so important that we gain a greater understanding of its purpose.
“Grief is the price we pay for love.” Who can forget that simple truth so movingly delivered by Her Majesty the Queen at a memorial service in New York for those killed in the Twin Towers horror nearly twenty years ago? Though it will be forever attributed to the British Sovereign the phrase has, in all likelihood and in its blinding simplicity, been uttered in some variation by countless people before her.
One was Dr Colin Murray Parkes, a British psychiatrist at St Christopher’s Hospice, who wrote in his book, Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life:
“The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love: it is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment. To ignore this fact, or to pretend that it is not so, is to put on emotional blinkers which leave us
unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our lives and unprepared to help others cope with losses in theirs.”
Or, to frame this in another way, this time less abstractly and in the words of the former Beatle, Paul McCartney, “When Linda died, I cried for a year.”
In National Grief Awareness Week our attention is focused on a reality of human existence that is all too often ignored or sidestepped, as we might sidestep a puddle in the rain. But to deny that reality or simply to wish it were not there is to turn away from an aspect of our shared experience that, if confronted or “observed” as the writer C.S. Lewis might have said, can throw light on what it is to be fully human and, in the process, offer some sort of solace when our anguish seems too much to bear.
Indeed part of the aim of the week is not only to begin a national conversation about this all too often whispered phenomenon, but to point the way towards professional bereavement support services across the country and to offer practical help to people in distress.
A podcast by the Art of Dying Well prepared some of the ground for this national endeavour when it devoted most of its airtime to an interview with the former Sky Sports football commentator, Simon Thomas. He has been very vocal and public about his grief after his wife, Gemma, died shortly after receiving a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukaemia.
Listen to the Art of Dying Well podcast Life Interrupting Grief.
Typically, in his grief, Simon explained, he became angry; angry with himself for taking at face value reassurances that all was apparently well with his desperately ill wife, and angry that he had not done more to challenge prevailing medical opinion. It would, he readily concedes now, have made no difference to the final outcome, but the anger and resentment were real enough to stoke up entirely negative emotions that he learnt only with time were pointless and unhelpful.
Although he may have been unaware of it in those few chaotic days immediately preceeding and following his wife’s untimely death his reaction had many of the elements of the 5 stage model of the arc of grief first outlined by the psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in the 1960s.
While contested by some academics on the grounds that it lacks objective evidence to support its conclusions, the model does seem persuasively to describe a pattern experienced by many diagnosed with a terminal illness and by their loved ones coming to terms with the attendant grief. It first begins with denial, moves to a phase of anger and then of bargaining before passing through a period of depression ending ultimately in acceptance.
This journey, or something not unlike it, was the subject of Simon’s book, Love Interrupted; Navigating Grief One Day at a Time. And though not always conforming to the classic model, his story identified the same end point to his own journey as Kubler-Ross had noted in the journeys of others; acceptance.
A devout Christian believer himself, Simon had prayed passionately to God during the last days of his wife’s tribulations – something sceptics, no doubt, will have identified as the “bargaining stage” of the experience and something on which Simon himself might well have agreed.
Where the sceptics and Simon would have parted company, however, was at the moment Simon demonstrated the emotional insight – and indeed arguably the strength of his faith – to accept that, on the face of things, his prayers had not been answered.
It was in that ultimately healing moment of acceptance that Simon says he understood for the first time what exactly was meant by “the peace that passes all understanding“. For those not able to share his religious faith Simon helpfully had another way of describing the experience; “letting go of the ‘why’ and getting on with living again“.
Not, of course, that that was the end of the matter. Days and weeks of sadness followed. There were low points at which he doubted his strength to carry on but he was wise enough to know that even acceptance will not deliver an end to sorrow.
All he and the rest of us “poor strugglers” (to use Dr Johnson’s phrase) can do is endure, strengthened, however, by the knowledge that, in our sorrow, we are mysteriously united with our fellow human beings across time and space. It is surely much more honest and ultimately therapeutic to face that sad realisation head-on than to hear a well-intentioned but ultimately hollow “you’ll get over it“.
Simon was not alone in not wanting to get over it. And he was certainly not alone in not wanting to hear a phrase that effectively glossed over the reality of his loss and, albeit unintentionally, consigned to oblivion the precious memory of his departed wife.
In addition to providing moral, even philosophical, support for those walking painfully along the avenue of grief Simon also underlined ways in which the bereaved can be helped in practical ways. No doubt National Grief Awareness Week will touch on these and more, helping us all to deal with the unspoken embarrassment of mentioning things that seem too personal or too emotional for comfort.
Expressing tangible concern through words or actions became far more soothing than avoiding issues for fear of making them worse. Simon and his son, Ethan, for example, were greatly helped by friends preparing meals for the pair of them when Simon himself was barely able to summon the energy to boil a kettle. He also valued the input of friends who made it clear that they would stay overnight – if necessary on a rota basis – to prevent the two of them rattling around in a suddenly emptied house.
Oh, and another thing. In a tone hovering somewhere between humorous incredulity and genuine outrage Simon counselled this; do not, under any circumstances be tempted to send an emoji. A tear, a sad face, or two praying hands will not, as Simon put it, “cut the mustard“.
Although the podcast unapologetically explores a Christian experience of grief it succeeds in suggesting mechanisms to deal with it that can be appreciated by all. And it was perhaps the heartfelt advice Simon gave to Ethan, both brought low by sadness and loss – that provided the thread to this podcast on grief.
And, in its unfussy simplicity, it brings us back to where we began when we heard Her Majesty the Queen making the solemn and magisterial connection between love and grief. Simon’s words were uniquely his own but echoed a universal truth. “Don’t let the pain,” said a loving father to a devoted son, “rob you of the joy.”
Find out more about National Grief Awareness Week at the project website.