Thursday, 25 October 2012

Bereavement - what to do

I have commented before on how I see bereavement as similar to mental illness due to how it manifests itself. Emotions, when they come, often descend on us unexpectedly; are intense, sometimes to the point of being unmanageable and all that seemed solid, permanent and totally reliable can be brought into question. It can be, and often is an extremely frightening experience. On the one hand, one doesn't want to feel sad as our loved ones who have died wouldn't wish it; on the other it can seem disrespectful and a lie not to be when we missed that loved one so much. It is therefore often confusing and can lead to internal emotional turmoil.

Yet bereavement, like mental illness, has often been a taboo subject. It's as if those who have experienced it don't want to be reminded of their own experiences of loss and those who have yet to encounter it don't want to have to acknowledge the likelihood that they will suffer such a loss too. It can therefore be a very isolating experience to undergo. Even family members can find it difficult to share their individual feelings within the family as experiences can be so very different.

On both occasions when I lost my parents it took years to adjust and to find meaning, value and purpose to my life again. Nothing seemed to matter and nothing could fill the hole left from the loss. To begin with I continued as normal with work and my social life as if nothing had happened; later I buried myself in other people's troubles and in particular how the surviving members of my family were coping. Eventually though the shock of the loss wore off and my own need for an outlet for my feelings escalated. I became irritated with everyone and everything but most of all angry.

I cannot stress enough how important it is for people to be supportive of the bereaved even by simple means. Check they are eating, sleeping and looking after themselves. Help with day to day chores can literally end up being a lifesaver. Taking people out, sharing books, videos, music etc can likewise help even if you are not up to sitting a listening to a person reminisces about their loved one. One of the saddest things I have ever heard was from a lady who said she had stopped visiting her neighbour after that neighbour's daughter had died because the house had become unclean and it was depressing to visit. Such neglect of the bereaved can and has led people to suicide.

Signs to watch out for
Excesses of behaviour and or neglect e.g. if a bereaved person starts to become obsessive over things that never used to bother them or if they care less about their personal appearance. They might start to put on or lose weight rapidly, show less interest in things, or become irritable. In all cases try to encourage that person to talk to someone and make the point that it need not be you thereby given them the widest range of options possible.

From my own experiences I know that it is all too easy to shutdown and not communicate at all, pretend I am fine when I'm not and how easy it can be to have my emotions take over. In all instances I caused myself great harm by not sharing what I was experiencing. Not something that either of my parents would have wished for me.

It is a myth to say that bereavement is similar for everyone, for while there are common factors not everyone will experience all the emotions that are possible. A bereaved person might find themselves getting angry with themselves, the world or even the person who has died for dying and leaving them - or they might not. Such feelings are healthy and normal, but we often need someone there to help guide us through them. Guilt is another emotion that is not uncommon but not necessarily one that everyone experiences.

The reason for this is quite simple - it depends on who we are as individuals and what our relationship was like with the person that died. If you lose a parent you might have got on well with them, or not and your reactions will be accordingly different. If you lose a child, a partner, sibling or friend your response to that loss will be different again. The circumstances of the death are also a major factor in how we are able to manage our emotions and how we react to that loss.

I am not saying here that everyone who experiences a bereavement will become mentally ill, but some do simply because they have no guidance on how to deal with death or support when bereaved. Most people have friends and family (and/or doctors) that are happy to help them work through their loss, but for those who don't I would recommend bereavement counselling of some kind. In common with all forms of counselling, what you share with a counsellor never gets shared with anyone else unless they feel you are a danger to yourself or others. Sometimes those dark secrets and demons that we all have need to be confronted to ensure that they do not trouble us or escalate out of all proportion. Often they become extreme because we don't talk about them, but counselling can help us to avoid suffering unnecessary extremes of distress.

Death is a part of life, but it never needs to permanently cripple the quality of our lives. I, along with billions of people before me, am living proof that we can endure even great loss and go on to embrace life once more. Please don't be afraid to ask your doctor for help if you are bereaved and if you know someone who has suffered a loss, please watch out for them to ensure that they get whatever support they may need to help them to adjust to a new chapter in their lives.

I found I needed a lot of time to pick through all my memories of my parents - it was as if I wanted to firmly fix in my head the very best of all that they were so that I could learn how to be a credit to them by sharing all their best bits with others. The result is happy/sad tears whenever I think of them. I now feel lucky to have known them at all let alone known them so well.

If you are bereaved, please talk to someone and keep talking. If you are on your own and have no family, work colleagues, neighbours or friends you feel you can talk to be brave and talk to your doctor so that they can keep an eye on you and support you through your loss. Remember you are not a burden to anyone, you are justified in feeling sad, confused or lost. It is natural and normal to feel that way. Equally, if you are concerned that you are not feeling anything at all, talk to your doctor as emotions are often confusing and unexpected when we are bereaved.

Finally, please remember that bereavement takes it's own time so never rush or become impatient with it. It is a process of adjustment so you should never feel guilty over what you are feeling. If you live in the UK and need someone to talk to here's a couple of links:

For more links type in ''bereavement counselling'' into your internet search engine (browser) but I would recommend avoiding on line services and forums. Instead, seek help from professionals in person as it can make all the difference.

This article has been written with a particular friend in mind who is suffering from the initial shock of losing a very dear loved one. My thoughts are with them and all who are bereaved.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Know how full your glass is and finding words of meaning

You know the one... is your glass half full or half empty? Assuming life can be seen in this way, and assuming that's the measure of volume it contains, the chances are it's exactly 50% capacity. Depending on which of my myriad of thinking hats is on I may feel it's half empty, half full; could do with emptying or filling; or just be seen as something aesthetically pleasing; I may be fearing it getting knocked over. It highlights our perspective on things.

A Paradox
Why is it that those who hold the belief that life is not serious are so serious themselves in their conviction? To me it highlights a desire to avoid the unpleasant which we cannot always do and in my opinion are foolish to try to avoid - it will catch up with you in the end.

Many months ago now I had just come away from sending messages to concerned friends and relatives in Australia in their anxiety over the floods and fires happening over there when I saw someone quote this on a social networking site.

"Not a shred of evidence exists in favour of the idea that life is serious." Brendan Gill

Some people had to abandon their homes to save their lives. Upon their return, when the floods and fire abated they were going to encounter their former lives being in a state of devastation. (Since this happened more reports of others elsewhere affected by floods came in). In response to the posting I said "Say that to the homeless, the bereaved, the tortured etc and you'll find you'll be regarded as heartless and callous at best. For them the act of just surviving is serious. This sort of thing encourages selfishness and a lack of compassion and consideration for others I think."

The truth is 'not being serious' and not taking everything to heart is where we all ought to try to aim for; not to let life's blows knock us back, but that if the world was really like that 24/7 there would be no understanding or compassion for others in times of unforeseen and unasked for difficulty. What is lacking from this idea is the understanding that we have to be in the right place for it to be possible to overcome adversity.

The same person had previously posted this but then, they like provoking debate. "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The trouble with sentiments and sound bites like this is that out of context they mean little. When we read them we apply our own context which is why I ended up disagreeing with the statement. It would be great if we were all at one with the world so that material goods, and the necessary and tedious mundane chores were like a distant bad dream but it requires three key elements to get there.

1. Receptivity to the idea
If a person has just lost their sight, their limbs, their home or a relative they are not likely to be receptive that losing more is a great idea or that life isn't serious. Timing is key. People do recover and find joy and meaning to their lives again even after such events. Such experiences shift ideals, alters ambition and goals in a person's life. Like a child learning that touching something hot teaches them to be cautious, so these sorts of events teach us to reconfigure things too. The result is usually a re-evaluation of what it is that really is of value, and it's rarely money and frivolity that comes out on top. Health and quality relationships most commonly become the priorities.

2. Giving up old ideals
Change is seldom welcome when it's enforced on us and we are deprived of choice. As humans we are reluctant to give up the familiar which includes ideals. One of the things I find alarming is that these pearls of wisdom advising us not to be serious and to give up everything trivial and material in our lives often come from people who are very comfortably off and awash with belongings and a lifestyle that is seemingly trouble free. Personally I have more respect when they come from the most impoverished when they are in that situation, for then they become inspiring.

The moral here is do some research and check the source of these 'pearls of wisdom' before adopting them as a mantra for how to live your life. A quote in isolation is just that, unconnected to anything.

3. Phenomenal levels of hard work
To adopt a philosophy of letting go of everything in the material world, to not take anything seriously will isolate you because it's not a lifestyle that many can achieve and it doesn't happen overnight. It requires totally abandoning all that has come before. I deeply admire Buddists, Toaist, Christian, Jewish and Hindu faiths among others that can enable people to do this but I know I cannot follow any of them to that degree.

As the joke goes "How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has got to want to change." That want to change comes even after traumatic experiences but it doesn't follow that you have to abandon and negate everything you love and like to adopt a new, more fulfilling way of living your life.

In the argument that ensued following my response to Brendan Gill's quote a little gem emerged from a person who seemed to be regarding me as the devil personified for pointing out that life isn't always a barrel of laughs or can lack it's serious elements. "Laughter isn't something you look for, it's something you allow to happen." and she seemed offended by my complimenting her on it.

Regardless, I found it truly inspiring as a comment that helps people to not feel bad about enjoying life even when others are suffering. We are allowed to still indulge in finding pleasures and it's healthy to want to for it acts as a balance. Who of us wants to spend our lives only dwelling in the negative, in suffering and pain? No one, I hope.

It doesn't mean we should ever forget that life has those dark elements too though. What exactly is (or are) the alternative(s) to serious? I'll let you choose.

In a non-serious world can there be commitment, passions, love? Can there be a lasting bond between partners, parents and children, siblings? Can deep joys exist in nature, art or music? I would not exchange my serious world for anything despite the intense pain of the losses of loved ones. It would most likely never have hurt so much had I not been serious in those relationships. How could there be any morals or ethics or laws to protect us? And what in truth would the world be like without them?

Feeling guilty about demonstrating just how vacuous a sentiment Brendan's words were I related the whole saga to a counsellor who fell about laughing at the arguments I'd put to the followers of it. "What was the matter with them? Did they lose their much prized sense of humour?" was their response.

I however, found I couldn't laugh quite as freely about the whole thing because I was conscious I was stepping on other people's beliefs which I am firmly against, but weighed that up with the fact that such a glib and dismissive way of living can and does cause harm to others. Yes it can been seen as a throw away remark and not an instruction on how to live your life, but we can not guarantee that everyone who comes across it will see it that way.

The Trouble with Beliefs
My opinion is that we should avoid dictating to others what or how they should live their lives, but I do advocate pointing out positive alternatives when things are grim or people are inconsiderate. At the end of the day, people will always believe exactly what they want to to suit their own arguments, morals and way of living. We are all capable of finding things that make sense to us but should always be aware and respect others have a right to see things their own way too. Even democracy when imposed on others turns into tyranny because of that denial of respect of choice and because it too requires a receptive audience who want such changes and who are open to believing in it's merits.

What I find astonishing about all the religions that have evolved to survive thusfar is the common thread of humanity that runs through them. To me it's as if God (or ethically evolution if you don't believe in God) have agreed on a core set of rules for how to live a life in harmony. Admittedly throughout the centuries these core values in moral conduct and ethics have been embellished, altered, corrupted and added to, but the basics have remained the same despite all this.

The differences between them lie in how those core values are related to us and in what to do about people who break the rules. Bickering over which version of God, faith or moral code to believe in I find tedious and a bore. It's the overall message not who the messenger is or how it's imparted that's important to me.

Here's a quote from Swami Vivekamanda which I adore and happen to believe is an unalterable truth because I've come across no human being who wants to be a clone or the same as everyone else; nor of any religion which does not evolve because of endless debate even within the same faith.

"If all were of the same religious opinion, there would be no religion.
No sooner does a religion start than it breaks into pieces.
The process is for religion to go on dividing until each man has his own religion,
until each man has thought out his own thoughts
and carved out for himself his own religion."

Ultimately it is down to choice as to what each of us finds of value. I believe we should never feel duty bound to follow any one's way of thinking.

Finally, finding inspirational words is a way to enrich our own understanding of the world around us as well as ourselves and can help us feel less alone. It is a way of filling up our glass when we feel it is half empty. I hope you all enjoy looking out for them and collecting what means something to you.

Here's a few links that you might like to explore. Beware the ones that come from the greedy and cruel but enjoy the journey toward finding what is of meaning to you. Never forget to be considerate of others.