Breda O’Brien: Irish culture needs to learn how to deal with grief
We often fail to recognise that grief can result from major losses other than death
Although grief and loss are universal, grief is still a deeply lonely place. Photograph: iStock
A recent article by Sheila Wayman reminded me of the wonderful work done by Sr Helen Culhane and her team at the Children’s Grief Centre in Limerick. Two-thirds of the children who attend this service are there because of separation and divorce. They are given a safe space to express the pain of grief through creative methods like drawing, clay, storybooks or just chatting.
Sr Helen has remarked that there is more understanding of bereavement and grief after a death but very little support for children after a family breakdown.
In my three decades as a teacher, I have seen that parents who are not dealing well with separation or death themselves can either over-compensate, becoming hyper-vigilant and hovering over children, or can be in denial that their child is suffering at all.
Children absorb the message that their parents cannot cope with what they are feeling and either become adept at pretending everything is fine or act out their grief in unhealthy ways.
I wish there was a Children’s Grief Centre available for every child who needs it. But I also think that as a culture, we are not as good as we could be at dealing with grief in others, no matter whether it is grief in a child or an adult.
Nor do we acknowledge that a profound type of bereavement can result not just from death or separation but from the loss of a lifelong home, a cherished identity or even an electoral defeat.
No two people grieve alike. Even spouses grieving the death of a child have different experiences
Although grief and loss are universal, grief is still a deeply lonely place. No two people grieve alike. Even spouses grieving the death of a child have different experiences. That is one reason why the death of a child is a well-known risk factor for separation and divorce.
There is another loneliness: being deeply afflicted by grief but seeing that daily life goes on as usual for almost everyone else.
The discomfort that people feel when they are unsure how to deal with others’ grief can make them run away, sometimes literally.
After her child died, a friend of mine witnessed people she knew well literally running into traffic in order to cross the road to avoid her. She wanted to talk about her child and to feel that he was remembered but people writhed in discomfort and changed the subject.
There is a cultural bias in favour of positivity, which makes it harder to express sadness. We congratulate people on being strong, which sends the message that being weak and vulnerable is somehow unacceptable.
Yet acceptance of suffering has the possibility of deepening our empathy, whereas a relentless focus on positivity can lead to a flat, shallow existence without depth or shade.
Sometimes this inability to be quietly with others as they grieve can result in almost comical insensitivity. At a removal, another friend was greeted by someone who had queued to give his condolences with “It could be worse.” Given that his father had just died, my friend was not sure exactly how it could have been worse.
And then there is the classic, “At least . . .” phrase. At least she did not suffer too much. At least you have other children. At least you are still young and can meet someone else. All these phrases are undoubtedly meant in a spirit of kindness but they can feel trivialising. I am sure I have used them or others like them.
There is a cultural expectation that people are over the worst of grieving in a year but waves of pain can strike years later
But even when we want to be helpful, many of our lives are so frenetically busy that we feel we do not have the time to listen to others. Grief takes time. There is a cultural expectation that people are over the worst of grieving in a year but waves of pain can strike years later.
We also over-medicalise grief, suggesting medication and counselling for perfectly normal stages of grief. Sometimes, too, we can over-spiritualise grief, creating an expectation that a person of faith will not experience the same level of bereavement. While belief in an afterlife is a great comfort, it does not insulate people from the raw pain of separation.
Intense feelings of grief are normal but as time goes on, most people learn to live with a new reality in a way that honours and remembers the person who died, or find a new identity that allows them to live with other types of loss other than death. Grief finds a place in life rather than being the whole of life.
But sometimes that gradual progression doesn’t happen and a person gets stuck. Since 2014, the Irish Hospice Foundation has been a leader in a structured intervention originally pioneered by Dr Kathy Shear of Columbia University for people experiencing complex or prolonged grief.
It is a challenging and intense intervention lasting about four months and is different from normal counselling in that it is semi-structured and directive.
However, perhaps fewer people would need this kind of intervention if, as a culture, we prioritised learning to tolerate our own fear of sadness and awkwardness in order to make space for others to carry out the labour of grief.