Michael Dunn specialised in training professional social workers involved with disabled and older people and their families. He successfully developed many associated training courses including one on bereavement counselling.
It all starts with love.
Love between partners, friends, neighbours, colleagues; men and women, same-sex love; creative, spiritual love as well as the manipulative, abusive sort; love in its broad, comfortable everyday sense but, also, at its fiercest and most obsessive.
Every time we allow someone into our lives we invest part of ourselves in the relationship. The personal gains we make – companionship, sharing resources, emotional support, creating a family – are offset by the compromises we make – dependence, emotional commitment, responsibilities ‘in sickness and in health’.
Our engagement in relationships can be slight and casual or lifelong and total. By the time a 50-year-long partnership has passed we may well have forgotten where and when we invested what parts of ourselves in it: our separate identities have become fused into one.
When someone dies in a close relationship, the survivor can be left stranded and alone with an identity requiring two people to be viable.
In order to recover our stability we need to dismantle the reliance and expectations we have had on this joint identity: we need to unpick the commitments we gave to it – recover our emotional deposits and investments. We need to rebuild something that resembles our old individuality using what psychological, emotional and practical materials we can find on the site of the disaster. We need to re-trace our steps – at a time when we may never have had less strength or interest.
As someone famously said ‘It’s like falling in love backwards.’
We tend to regard bereavement as an inevitable catastrophe that hits us after the death of a loved one: the greater the love the harder we’re hit. Those around us expect – sometimes to the point of insistence – that we submit ourselves to a black despair: tears are expected and comfort should be welcomed.
We tend to have a clear notion of the concepts of ‘taking it well’ and ‘taking it badly’ and we will make quiet judgements about the reactions of grieving people.
It may be that most of us are so unfamiliar with death that we have this simple idea of grief. In reality, the way that we react to a death will be intensely personal. Our response will depend upon:
- the impact the dead person had on our lives,
- what personal psychological resources we have developed
- how we have learned to deal with loss earlier in our lives.
Because these three factors will vary widely between us, so will the quality and extent of our grief. All bereavements are different and where we come on the scale of ‘no grief to ‘devastation’ should be respected and supported.
Grief has come to have apparently different meanings according to where we stand. Different people will consider it:
It seems to me unhelpful to see grief from any one of these perspectives. I have tried to focus on the subject as a basic human experience: the emotional, psychological, physical and social response to the loss of someone close.
I have also tried to be positive about the subject. Much writing about bereavement is gloomy, dramatically emotional and solemn, emphasising pain and ‘unusual’, destructive –almost shameful – behaviour.
Grief is inevitably painful, but it is normal and natural. It can cause problems and we may need specialised help. However, mostly, bereavement is something we can anticipate and pass through. It can also be a positive time when families and communities can re-affirm relationships, when the future can be re-assessed and when new directions can be explored.
Far from being a shameful, unfortunate, furtive and morbid affair, dying and bereavement are natural parts of life and relationships. We need to acknowledge the painfulness and potential damage of the process. However we also need to find the courage to acknowledge the opportunities for regeneration, change and personal growth.
Grief, of course, is not only a part of profound human relationships: it can follow the loss of anyone or anything where we have made an attachment. We can even feel genuine grief and tears on the death of a TV soap character with whom we have ‘lived’ for many years.
Later on we’ll look at some particular types of grief but mostly I have found myself returning to examples of grief involving people in long-term partner-relationships.