'Nearly Every Book I Read on Bereavement Enraged Me'

Article excerpt

Before my father died four years ago I thought I knew a bit about bereavement. In my job as an agony aunt I would blithely send out leaflets to bereaved people full of kindly, sympathetic advice, telling them about stages of grief.

But when my father died nothing made sense.Perhaps he was resting in peace, but I was in utter turmoil. Not because of grief, which, it turned out, was only a minuscule part of the process, but with other shameful feelings of rage, greed, loathing, hatred for life; physical feelings of lethargy, shooting pains in my legs, a permanent ache in my neck, and a new, embarrassing, interest in religion and the afterlife. And there was relief. He had been a loving but emotionally and intellectually dominating figure. Now he was gone I could breathe. And yet how can anyone breathe when consumed by the fury of loss?

I read endless books, trying to understand what I was feeling. But with a few exceptions, in which the authors share their personal experience, nearly every book enraged me. There were those that offered gluey sentimentality, leaking with words such as "healing" and "weeping". Or those peddling the idea that feelings of bereavement can be captured in "stages". This attempt to turn bereavement into an emotional process, results from the fear that we feel after a death. We need to get everything into neat categories and then to get our emotions into the "right" order. Dr Colin Murray Parkes was one of the first psychiatrists to identify these "stages" of grieving. His model has been as constructive as it has been destructive - constructive in that it has identified a variety of feelings that bereaved people now realise are normal; destructive in that however much Parkes has been at pains to reassure his public otherwise, his research is constantly misinterpreted as stages set in stone. His "stages" are as follows: "Numbness, the first stage, gives way to pining and pining to disorganisation and despair, and it is only after the stage of disorganisation that recovery occurs." Other psychiatrists have defined the stages as denial, bargaining, anger, depression and acceptance, and others as shock, disbelief, anger, guilt, depression - and finally resolution. With this in mind, bereavement counsellors feel able to discuss "grief work", "constructive grief" and "denial", claiming, like Carol Staudacher in Beyond Grief, that "if you hide it {grief}, deny it, or dull it, it will only be prolonged. Working though grief and towards an acceptance of what's happened is not easy, but it's essential if the bereaved person is to recover and go on leading a meaningful life. …