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Section 3: Bereavement

Bereavement and traumatic bereavement

Dr Nataly Woollett

Art psychotherapist and researcher

Bereavement means, literally, to be deprived by death. After someone close to you dies, you go through a process of mourning. Numbness, anger and sadness can all be part of that process. Bereavement can also cause physical reactions including sleeplessness, loss of energy and loss of appetite.

When someone is bereaved, they usually experience an intense feeling of sorrow – which is grief. People grieve in order to accept a deep loss and carry on with their life. Experts believe that if you do not grieve at the time of death, or shortly after, the grief may stay bottled up inside you. This can cause emotional problems or physical illness later. Working through your grief can be a painful process, but it is often necessary to ensure your future emotional and physical well-being

To understand bereavement, it may be useful to make the distinction between grief and mourning:

3.1 Difference between grief and mourning

Grief is a person’s internal experience, thoughts and feelings related to the experience of a great loss.

The following has been reported by Glenn Brynes, PhD and MD and Carol E. Watkins, MD:

They discuss how families may mourn together, and that a major loss often brings up echoes of past losses. If the family members still have intense, unresolved grief, it may complicate the way that they mourn.

Loss often happens in a family context. The family members grieve and mourn individually and as a group. The method of death, sudden or the culmination of a long illness, is an important factor. A sudden or violent death may be particularly difficult for the family to process because of the intense anger often involved. “It didn’t have to happen”. However even if the death is the long-expected release from a painful illness, it can still be a powerful experience.

If a parent dies, the children might experience a double loss. One parent has died and the other might be too overwhelmed to provide much nurturance. At this time, extended family and the community can step in to support the grieving family.

Marriages may be strained and even fall apart under the strain of the death and mourning. Spouses may grieve differently and may resent the way that the partner behaves. Each may be too overwhelmed to reach out to the other.

Those in non-traditional family structures may face additional complexities in their process of mourning. They may be denied legal protection afforded to other families. Church and extended family may not recognise their grief.

Mourning, though a painful process, can also be a way for families to grow together. Petty conflicts seem less important in the face of loss. Relationships seem more precious because there is a realisation that they are fragile and impermanent. Family members may learn to support each other and truly listen.

Loss, disappointment, failure and grief are normal and natural accomplishments of the human experience. Bereavement, the response we have to grief and loss, is also familiar to most of us. Little has changed in terms of the emotional responses to the pain of loss across the centuries. There are many kinds of loss – death is but an extreme example. There is still the agonising experience of separation and the subsequent wrestling with the aftermath of the unfinished business, and unanswered questions.

(Published by BUPA’s Health Information Team. February 2004)

3.2 “Companioning Grief”

Dr. Wolfelt – Centre for Loss & Life Transitions (www.centreforloss.com)

  • Companioning is about honouring the spirit; it is not about focusing on the intellect.
  • Companioning is about curiosity; it is not about expertise.
  • Companioning is about learning from others; it is not about teaching them.
  • Companioning is about walking alongside; it is not about leading or being led.
  • Companioning is about being still; it is not about frantic movement forward.
  • Companioning is about discovering the gifts of sacred silence; it is not about filling every painful moment with talk.
  • Companioning is about listening with the heart; it is not about analysing with the head.
  • Companioning is about bearing witness to the struggles of others; it is not about judging or directing those struggles.
  • Companioning is about being present to another person’s pain; it is not about taking away or relieving the pain.
  • Companioning is about respecting disorder and confusion; it is not about imposing order and logic.

Companioning is about going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being; it is not about thinking you are responsible for finding the way out.


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