The Many Milestones of Grief ...... seeing the person and not just their grief
May 27th would've been Elliot's 13th birthday. His mum has written the following piece about her experiences of grief.
You can feel the weight of expectation sometimes when you are grieving. The expectation that you will know what you should do, can show others that you are doing it ok and that ‘you will get through this’. Awareness is there for key milestones you need to find a way through – birthdays, Christmas etc but there are so many other milestones, hundreds of them – you don’t know about them until they are there in the moment. In the early days those milestones are more obvious. The first car journey without them in the back, the first holiday or big family event that they are missing from. The other milestones that are more personal to each person and often hidden so much so that you don’t always realise they are going to hit you as hard til it happens. Hearing some exciting news…then wondering how they would have responded and wishing with all your heart you could ask them. Seeing something when you are out and about and, in your mind, turning to talk to them about it because you know they would have shared your excitement. Finishing a race and not seeing them at the end, knowing if they had of been there, they may have been very bored, scoffed any sweets you had left but also have given you a hug.
There are many different theories around grief. The well known 5 Stages of Grieving by Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Then there is Dr J William Warden’s Four Tasks of Grieving. This offers four things we can strive to do, to live with our loss. Accept the reality, process the pain, adjust to life without our loved ones physical presence and create new connections with them through our memories. Makes it sound simple!. It is very true that grief models can help us ‘normalise’ our feelings and thoughts – but I don’t find either of these models relate to the grief, processing or accepting the loss of Elliot. Stages of grief implies that there is an end to the grief…..’Acceptance’ – a difficult word, accepting that your child has died, not the natural order of the world and when your child dies without you really understanding why – acceptance isn’t something that is on the radar.
Your brain also slowly drip feeds the loss to your body – you wouldn’t survive if the reality all hit at once. If I had read this sentence before losing Elliot, I wouldn’t have understood – on the other side I do. Although the reality of what has happened is evident, you can’t absorb, process or even fully comprehend it. This takes years and years before the full reality reaches your core. Doesn’t mean that is negative or that the grief gets worse because of it – just means that going through ‘stages’ or adhering to ‘tasks’ to help your grieving – for me don’t work. However, that’s me and for others, these models will work. This in itself shows that the grief process isn’t a one size fits all approach.
For me the one that resonates the most is Clinical psychologists Professor Margaret Stroebe and Dr Henk Schut’s dual process model of grief. This talks about journeying through bereavement. Allowing us time to think about how much we miss our loved ones and the importance of doing things that can help give respite from the intensity of the pain. The idea is to go back and forth, or ‘oscillate’ between these stages, as life continues and we learn to accommodate the loss.
I like this model as it sees the importance of the person and what they need, not only to be allowed the pain of grief when it needs to be there – also recognises that life can and does continue and we are ‘learning to accommodation’ rather than being expected to ‘accept’ the loss. It also explains how one moment you can be sat in the car, unable to get out and start your day because the wave of grief hits you, the reminder that you will never hug your little boy again. It might be 10 years ago that Elliot died, but those waves don’t disappear and neither does the heartbreaking pain that comes with the tears. You do get out of the car and start your day…because you have it and you know that Elliot wouldn’t want you to be in that place longer than you needed to be. Then the day can end with a lot of fun and laughter – spending time with special people and realising how lucky you are with those around you and how precious the time with Elliot was. So oscillating – is a good way to describe how living with grief can be.
I feel the grief for Elliot as part of a life journey. Always there by your side, in your heart and your soul. It is a part of me that some days I accept and other days I don’t or I can’t. Elliot died just over 10 years ago, time doesn’t heal, time gives you more time to practice living with his loss. Sometimes you feel you are learning from scratch and others, deep breath and keep going.
The challenge of theories is that the person centred approach can get lost. The hidden impact, daily challenges, dealing with the loss and the impact – that doesn’t fit into neat patterns or organised thinking. Losing a child - a piece of your heart is forever broken. In a part of your soul there is a light that will never shine, There are some lyrics in a Bruce Springsteen song. Springsteen always reminds me of Elliot as I used to dance and sing with him in the kitchen to Springsteen songs. Well dancing and singing are probably not what others would call it – but babies and toddlers don’t see the dodgy parts of mum – they still like you at that stage!! It’s called Terry’s song and the lyrics go..
“They say you can't take it with you, but I think that they're wrong Because all I know is I woke up this morning, and something big was gone”
27th May would have been Elliot's 13th Birthday. The stages of grief don’t factor in the devasting Elliot sized hole that has been there since he died nor does it factor in the hundreds of milestones you have to navigate as life continues. Someone said to me on what would have been Elliot's 8th birthday – ‘oh another birthday to get through then’. No it’s not. Each birthday is a different milestone. The one when he would have been at School and you think, what would his party be like with new School friends. His birthday when he would have been 10 – a double figures birthday. And now 13, would the teenage angst have already started? What would he have been interested in…Each birthday brings different thoughts, sadness, loss and memories. Doesn’t mean that I will wallow in the emotions – just that they are different and another piece of the grief journey.
Seeing the person who has the grief for who they are and where they are in that moment is important. We don’t have to put expectations or frame their emotions in a theoretical model. Just accept that they are where they are and will oscillate – which is healthy. Being that someone who understands without expectations or judgement is so important. Sometimes talking is good – many times you might not want to talk but just knowing someone is there if you do is just as valuable. Remembering there is no rule book for any of this. We are all learning.
So, happy birthday Elliot. In my heart and soul you will always be the 2 year old gorgeous little boy – in some parallel universe you will be 13. What I wouldn’t do for just one more hug. I will always love you more than words can ever say.