A young widowed father opening up about living with loss
This is a guest post by Virginia Ironside
Virginia Ironside is a British writer, an agony aunt, columnist and author. She currently writes a weekly column for The Independent entitled ‘Virginia Ironside’s Dilemmas’. When her father, the painter and coin designer Christopher Ironside, died in 1992, Virginia found herself enraged by the sentimentality of much of the literature she read about grief. In this guest post, Virginia shares her story about how she came to write her own book, ‘You’ll Get Over It’: The Rage of Bereavement.
Before my father died in 1992 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.” One fact, she says, remains true for everyone. “You must not walk around the perimeter of loss … you must go through the centre, grief’s very core, in order to continue your own life in a meaningful way.”
It was those blinkered ideas that drove me to write a book on the subject. What was all this nonsense about working through the centre? Is there a ‘perimeter’ of grief? What ‘core?’ The truth is that the feelings of bereavement are varied. Some people feel nothing at all, some delight when a loathsome relative dies. Some feel betrayed, some get over bereavement in a week, some never. Few of us have power over our feelings. Bereavement works through us, rather than the other way around. Our responses are as different as our experiences: some need privacy, others need to shout their grief from the rooftops. Some find tears crucial, others find repression the answer; others still that there is nothing to repress. But counsellor’s blueprint lurks: grief, pain and anger followed by resolution.
In my experience what is so frightening about loss is that the feelings are chaotic. One day you’ll be thinking about supper in the supermarket queue and feeling perfectly fine, and the next your knees buckle and you’re in floods of tears, overwhelmed by waves of anger, or paralysed by a feeling of nothingness or a cracking headache. Bereavement isn’t even there all the time. Or, to get even more slippery, for some people it is, for some people it isn’t. There are simply no ‘musts’ or ‘must nots’ in bereavement.
I was often accused of tackling this subject “too soon” after my father’s death. But if there were a moment when everything settled down again, it would mean that we had forgotten the only thing that bereavement teaches us – that everything is transitory. I feel now that the correct response to someone who announces they have recently been bereaved should not simply be “How sad!” but perhaps “How frightening!”, or “How fascinating!”, “How tiring!” or even “How weird for you!” To realise that we all suffer (or not) in quite different ways is much more difficult to cope with than useful stages, but it is more honest. And honesty is ultimately more comforting than any number of poems, boxes of Kleenex or, indeed, psychological models.