I’m not sure why I went to the bereavement support group
Laura Kennedy: Around the two-year mark is, apparently, a good time to get counselling for grief
"Around the two-year mark, I was advised by those with experience, is a good time to seek some counselling for grief" Photograph: Getty
I went to a bereavement support group this week. In retrospect I’m not entirely sure why, given that the sharing of emotions in groups isn’t really for me. That isn’t the case due to any stuntedness, high-mindedness or disdain for the raw feeling of others. There is a fundamental solace for some in the sharing of our most atavistic human feeling. It works for so many people, and is an essential outlet for them, but it just doesn’t work for me. It leaves me with questions rather than feeling like the balmy solace of an answer.
That can be challenging to admit – that something so effective for so many people you have encountered, something that lightened the burden of their struggle with something as challenging as bereavement, just doesn’t have the same effect on you. My mother died two years ago today. She was 58, I was 27. Pancreatic cancer seized her delicate life and shredded it to pieces as though it were no more robust than a dried leaf. I could only bear witness. That is all any of us can do. After a very undeservedly difficult life, and raising my brother and me alone, she died at Milford Care Centre in Limerick, deeply loved, but ultimately amid great suffering. The one did not mitigate the other in any material sense.
An experience like that leaves a legacy in you, and you are changed. Seamus Heaney said it best, as he generally did. In Clearances he wrote about the experience of his mother’s death: ‘Then she was dead/ The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned/ And we all knew one thing by being there./ The space we stood around had been emptied/ Into us to keep, it penetrated/ Clearances that suddenly stood open./ High cries were felled and a pure change happened.’
Around the two-year mark, I was advised by those with experience, is a good time to seek some counselling for grief. At that point, although grief has no stages or assigned trajectory as some theories indefensibly suggest, you might just be at the point where you can distance yourself a little from that space you were given to keep. You might be able to stare right into it, and begin to figure out its contours, and the way it echoes when you shout inside, seeking the person you have lost.
The purpose of a group like the one I attended, which is certainly beneficial, is to provide a place for bereaved and grieving people to be honest about how they feel. It gives them a public space to remember the person who has died without having to pander to anyone else, or deal with anyone else’s preconstructed opinion of the dead person, the circumstances of their death or anything else. It is a place to take the great damage inside yourself, temporarily take it off like a prosthetic limb, lay it on the floor in the middle of the room and have it recognised by others like you. They know what they are looking at and you feel less alone.
This is precisely how I knew myself to be in the wrong place. In a room full of people branded by loss, some of it fresh, some of it scarred over with time but very much still there, I had a realisation about my own grief. I already know that it is not special, that it is not rare, that the world around me howls with it. Having had the honour and opportunity to write about grief as an aspect of my job, I have already had the privilege of pointing to the loss, to the anger and the fear and the futility around my mother’s death and hearing back from readers who have their own unique experiences to share.
To live with grief, which does not ever fully leave us, we need to understand it. There comes a time in bereavement (it is different for everyone) when we should no longer passively point to it, going where it shoves us and fearing its punitive inclinations. By accepting our grief, but taking responsibility for what we do with it, we diminish its power, and learn to understand it. That is the next step.