When someone we love dies, it’s like an earthquake shakes our whole world. Something happens that’s not to our choosing and is not in our control – but it changes everything, the landscape of our life is forever different. When the earthquake happens sometimes we go into shock – we don’t know what’s hit us. Our friends gather around us, bring food and assistance, we get busy with the funeral, with officialdom and often people say: “Wow, you’re doing so well!”.  What our supporters don’t realise is that many people, straight after the death, function well – we have shock to insulate us. Also, immediately after the death, most people have a lot of support around them – people visiting, bringing food and helping. But after a few weeks, people go back to their lives and move on, and this is the time that many grieving people need them most.

For many people, the aftershocks of grief start happening after the shock and support wears off – when we start missing our loved one, half expecting them to come home and laughingly say: “It was all a joke, gotya!” That’s when the tears start streaming (liquefaction), when we feel we’re going crazy because really, as our friends, who have moved back into their own lives, have started saying: “You should be over this by now!” 

An important part of grief is facing and coming to terms with the reality that your loved one is not going to be coming home to you, is not going to be on the other end of a phone, that he/she will never hug you again. It’s about coming to terms with the fact that he/she is gone. This is where ritual is important – not only the funeral, also packing up his/her clothes, disposing of things that the person will never use again. This is part of coming to terms with the reality.

At some point, we need to consider the hard task of rebuilding our world. As you look outside after that earthquake, what does the landscape look like now, how do we accommodate a world without our loved one in it? The meaning can be around spiritual beliefs, or it can be around doing things in honour of your loved one, for example, supporting Child Cancer or campaigning against drink driving or helping organisations that work to combat suicide.

It’s good to also remember, that although you are moving forward, you don’t have to forget or unattached from your loved one, something that was traditionally believed. You can visit a gravesite, have photos of your loved one displayed at home, you can even talk to them (no, it’s not crazy …) – most times you’ll have a deep knowing about what the answers are. You will always be in relationship with your loved one, and that relationship is likely to adapt and change as you do – nothing stops your mother from being your mother, your child from being your child … it’s ok to do what research calls “continuing the bond” with the deceased.

So, when is the right time to come to counselling for grief? The simple answer, I think, is if you feel you need to talk to someone do so. “Normal” grief can be made difficult by the myths of grief in our community and sometimes you may just need to “check in” with someone. Grief can also become what’s called “prolonged grief” and “complicated grief” – I’ll be writing about this in future posts.

– Val Leveson