When my husband died through illness, I had the distraction of work and study, but my grief was particularly challenging when I was on my own – at nights and weekends. Facebook support groups and real-life support groups, and the internet, did not exist as they do today. I was left to do my own research about grief.
I started with rebuilding my life. I returned to work on the Monday after the funeral. I returned to study part-time in the first semester of the following year. In between I struggled with my grief. I was left feeling that the only grief theory was the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. It seemed all very neat and packaged. In reality, this model felt unrealistic – too linear and not messy enough to match my experiences. It did match the questions that I faced periodically “Have you accepted it yet?” “You should be over it by now?” Tears felt like visible shame. I just wanted people to hear me and see my teary emotion – but not to focus on the tears “Oh but you were doing so well?” I felt the pressure to be good – a good mourner.
To break up the work and study I would go into nature. It was a healer for me. I could reminisce about my childhood. Nature brought all my senses to life. As a child, living next to a forest and reading books like ‘The Enchanted Wood’ and ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,’ nature was key. I soon began to travel to places that we had both talked and dreamed about in our short marriage. I went to these places and had profound spiritual experiences of a closeness to him and to my grief – unjudged even by me. It felt like I was truly honouring my loss without self-pity. I felt at times that he was walking beside me, guiding me in my journey which had abruptly become me alone. I still found it incredibly difficult to return to an empty home, but I treasured the trips away to be with my grief – places we had been together, and places we had dreamed of travelling to one day. I had learnt to honour my loss.
Grief changed when I decided to take a trip just for me. Not at all in my comfort zone. My mind told me that I wasn’t prepared for this – not then and not ever. I knew that if I waited until I was ready – the perfect timing – it would never be. It was almost 5 years after his death. I rafted down the Franklin River in Tasmania for 10 days. It had some real ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ moments. I laughed when one of my new rafting friends said joyously “the thing that I will remember about this trip is that each day I woke up wondering whether I would die today.” Parts of the trip were terrifying and exhilarating all at once in the majestic heritage listed Franklin River.
I enjoyed the company of my fellow river rafters. While we were all meeting for the first time, I had found my people. It had greatly awakened a deeper connection with nature, that I had not thought possible. When I returned home, I joined a bushwalking club. While I enjoyed solo walks, I had learnt the enjoyment of sharing the experience with others. I felt connection to place: my compass had returned.
Still trying to make sense of my grief. It slowly unfolded over the years, long after I remarried and had two children. Some parts of my grief still didn’t sit well. I had been studying tertiary courses for most years after the death of my husband. From about 16 years after his death, I began to lean into the helping professions and changed the trajectory of my career. I sought out all the grief education that I could while continuing post graduate studies in counselling. I read, attended workshops and conferences, and met grief therapists and many of the grief theorists whose books sat on my shelves. I expanded my knowledge into dying, death and bereavement to become a certified thanatologist, applying creative arts to become a creative grief practitioner, and learning and studying the field of the end-of-life doula and end of life companion animal doula. I completed an internship to become a specialist bereavement counsellor and I continue to work and study in this field.
If I can reflect on what did help me with my grief it was that…
- Returning to work and helping others provided the distraction from my grief and helped to have a normal day.
- Returning to study provided me with direction for future career, sense of self, and challenging my intellect when my compass was spinning off the map.
- Travelling solo to places we had dreamed of travelling to and returning to reminisce on the places we had been.
- Acknowledging that to learn new tasks such as home and car maintenance and repairs were going to be challenging on my own.
- Developing over time a list of trusted tradies for home maintenance and repairs was a must (trust = reliable, sincere, competent, caring about their trade).
- Finding something for me where I could be as I was – for me being in nature.
- Don’t let “but I can’t draw” limit exploration of personal growth and grief awareness.
- Family, friends can be wonderful support for a person experienced loss and grief. A counsellor trained and experienced in grief and bereavement can walk along beside a bereaved person offer gentle support, guidance and grief education to help make sense of the reactions to grief.
- Grief reactions are normal and natural, we all grieve differently, and grief has a role to integrate loss into our lives.
- Grief is not about stages and this model was unhelpful for me. Plenty of others have been very helpful including but not limited to – Stroebe and Schut’s Dual Process Model of Change, Lois Tonkin’s Growing around Grief, William Worden’s Tasks of Mourning.
I help clients to work out their own ways to honour their grief, rebuild their life, find their place. I am a grief counsellor with lived experience of grief. I continue to expand my learning to meet clients where they are in their grief and work with compassion and openness.
If you would like to have a 15-minute consultation to see if we are a good fit for bereavement or general counselling, please book here.