"...I was there when this beautiful creature drifted into my world, and I was there when she drifted out again" (M'Lynn in Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling)
This week I am about to open my charity production of Steel Magnolias - and one of the themes of what is an extremely joyful story of friendship is grief. During an interview one of the cast mentioned that she had also found that doing the show had triggered feelings in her of her own experiences, and in the emotionally vulnerable place that is "acting" - personal elements may certainly arise. As such, I thought grief was a healthy topic to look at because it is not about "moving on" - your life will never be the same, but you can find ways to recognise and appreciate the life that was.
Why is grief so painful?
Known as “Takotsubo” or “broken heart syndrome”, researchers at The University of Aberdeen found that the heart can be “stunned” when tragedy occurs, and we can struggle to regain full physical health (with participants in the research tiring faster, and feeling unable to exercise)…with effects lasting longer than originally thought following a longitudinal approach. As such we need to be aware that grief can bring with it physical changes, which in turn can affect our behaviours – a person who tires easily may be less inclined to join in with events – it may not be depression, it may be discomfort, and a safe space to experience and communicate what is happening can be very important.
It is also possible, with loved ones, that they are not just dealing with grief, but they may hold a sense of blame – did I do something wrong? Did I do all I could? Should I have noticed something was wrong?...and to some extent there may be a sense of “survivor guilt” – why not me? With something like a health issue, it can also cause additional distress with the family needing to check for genetic risk. And this second guessing, this going over of event, as well as the trauma you have already been through at the point of loss, makes healing so much more difficult. AND while it can be very comforting to have others around for support, we need to be mindful that they are not reinforcing or projecting “blame” as well.
Going back to work?
Another thing to be very aware of is that people process grief in different ways, and as well as not pouring on the burden of blame, we must try to avoid judgment. Some people may prefer to grieve alone, others may need to channel their focus, others may wish to talk about it – and as long as the person is able to process what they are going through and are not harming themselves or others, then their choices need to be respected, even if they do not match our perceptions. (Sometimes, an outside body such as a charity volunteer co-ordinator may intervene if they do not believe a person is ready to work within a potentially triggering environment until they have had more time to deal with their thoughts and feelings, and so organisations/managers, and friends and family, may need to just keep tabs on that balance between managing and repressing.)
It is also notable that the support network and availability of support also can differ from person to person… and it may be about seeking professional help to be able to work things through rather than simply talking to family and friends…and also not feeling rejected if a person chooses to talk to a professional rather than a loved one.
Further, if your personality is such that you are a problem solver, your natural desire (and past experience) will seem to make you think – I should be able to fix it…but of course that fix isn’t easy and may never come – you need to learn to readjust that mindset as well.
The most important thing to realise is that experiences like this change you, they are not about “moving forward from” nor “getting over” – they add another layer into your universe, and you grow again around that.
Specific WORKPLACE negotiations which can help
Have a “return to work” meeting – and explain to your managers that you would like to return, however agree with them a basis where you feel this would be most conducive to both you and them. Grief comes and goes, there will be some days where you can think you’re absolutely fine, and then suddenly it can hit you and your emotions become overwhelming. It may help to know:
- Who you can call to cover should this need to happen
- Whether you can set cover for such occasions – some workplaces will have a procedure for emergencies
- Monitor your own feelings over the time as you return, and work with your team to be flexible with gradually returning to a fuller timetable
- It can also help to have a conversation with your team or your managers and say that people can ask you about your loss – OR conversely, if you’d prefer they didn’t then perhaps say that as well.
It is important to give ourselves permission to negotiate an environment that will help us best, because if we feel emotionally and psychologically safe, we will also perform better ourselves.
The difficulty is that there seems to be a “taboo” around loss, and we don’t like to talk about it…perhaps because we don’t want to upset people, but the more open we can be – within what we feel able to cope with, the easier it becomes to work supportively.
Other ways to process/rebuild emotionally – in addition to any support from work
What has helped many is to work on a cause. You might speak at events relating to your loved one's passing – which is a positive and healthy way to express emotions, process them, and let others know (and remind yourself) you are not alone; you might work with the hospital or the services who supported you. A shared purpose is a positive way to channel meaning into the pain…it won’t remove it, but purpose can lessen its negative impact.
The things to remember here, however, are that sometimes you are not ready to get involved with this sort of thing just yet – and seeking professional help to process can be a healthier option; and secondly – as I said earlier, it is also important to note that you are not obligated to stay with that cause, it may just be a meeting of ways, at the time where you can both help each other, and that’s ok.
Sometimes people may wish to plant a tree or sponsor a bench at a favourite spot to sit where you can feel connected to your child. Others may have their own ritual or way of observing either their birth or their passing – or both. This doesn’t need to be public, this doesn’t need to be done with your family -although be mindful of their feelings around it, it is simply your way of connecting with a moment in your life that is significant…however, having that one place, can be a comfort to parents – and other loved ones…and it can be very positive to see when others have left flowers or an acknowledgement of being touched.
You may choose to create a foundation or charity for which you can fundraise; or, as in the case of Robert Harling, the author of Steel Magnolias, his play was written so that his nephew would know about his mother - Harling's sister...upon whom the character of Shelby (played by Julia Roberts in the film) is based. Interestingly, Harling adds that in the film production many of the nurses who treat "Shelby" are the very same, real people, who treated his sister, Susan. Further to which he said that he had worried that his mother, who had wanted to watch the filming of Shelby's final scenes at the hospital, would find it all too much - but instead, she found a huge amount of comfort in Julia Roberts (whom they had also grown to love), get up from the bed and walk off set at the end of the scene.
Other things to consider – for those in the support role
“Complicated Grief” has also been recognised as a health concern – differing from depressive disorders. It can involve symptoms such as a feeling of numbness, loss of trust in loved ones, and even a sense of resentment or bitterness – this is something which is better managed with professional intervention.
It is also important for those who may be supporting a parent – especially a mother who has lost a child – to remember, is that siblings, and the father have also lost someone just as dear to them, and sometimes support for them is overlooked; OR you may have a situation where the mother feels she needs to stay strong for her family – and so offering her some respite through practical help (eg taking the siblings out, making dinner), can give her some space to feel what she needs to feel.
And finally – please do not let others tell you how you need to feel or how you need to behave and process your emotions…I struggle myself with offering comments because I would never presume to tell anyone what to do, and especially someone who isn’t a client – so I hope that a broader overview of what can help or things to simply be aware of, is of use.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the practical "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; or her Radio Show "The Wellbeing Lounge", and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt
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