Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Good Grief

Something the Great British public seems to be increasingly bad at. Twice this week I have seen bereaved patients who are having problems.

One a mother of an adult child who was a blamelss victim of a road accident three months ago. Now it's bad enough to lose a parent or a sibling, but to loose a child always hits especially hard, being so against the natural order. What was making matters worse for this woman was the reaction of friends and neighbours. Since the accident they have taken to avoiding her on the street. No-one calls at the house any more. It's almost as though the apalling luck she has had visited upon her might be contageous.

The other, a man, lost his wife just over a year ago, within a few weeks of diagnosis of cancer, and within a year of their marriage. His first wife had died a few years before, again with a rapidly progressive malignancy. He has been grappling with his second loss all year and has found the past month particularly difficult since it contains both the aniversary of their wedding and her passing.

There seems to be a view in the community at large that bereavement is a time limited finite process that should last no more than a week or two -- perhaps a month at most. After that any "sane" person should have moved on, putting all feelings of loss behind them. This is plainly totally unreasonable. Many people are undoubtedly "back on their feet" emotionally in a short span, but beneath the surface their sense of loss can be easily provoked. We lack a vocabulary to talk to the recently bereaved about their loss, and often in these days, have no commonality of experience we can share with them. It becomes easier to avoid awkwardness by not seeking them out, even avoiding them altogether.

Prior generations have had the misfortune of living through turbulent times, with mass exterminations in warfare or natural tragedy that have bound communities together in common grief. We see outpourings of such sentiment at times of terrorist outrage, and with recent catastrophes, even when celebrities are snatched away by horrific accidents. Flowers materialize by the roadside when accidents have ended in fatality. But no-one wants to talk to or comfort the bereaved.

If anyone reading this knows somebody in such a position, please just pick up the phone, or call round and just offer to talk to them. Doesn't have to be about thier loss. Talk about the weather, cricket, the gardening, anything. Restoring contact will ease their isolation and really help to move along their "recovery".

Time does not "heal" that which cannot be mended, but it allows distance and perspective. It gives some space for the good memories to come back, blunting the edge of the loss. Talking about the mundane, the everyday, helps this process along more than people can imagine, so don't hold back. Go ahead, make that call.

Dr J

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