Life as a Widower

A young widowed father opening up about living with loss

enraged writer

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.

6 comments on “enraged writer

  1. lisagorman3105
    March 8, 2013

    Bloody brilliant post! When someone is articulate and can pinpoint feelings so clearly it really helps the rest of us identify and understand.

    Excellent.

  2. lisagorman3105
    March 8, 2013

    Bloody brilliant post!

    When someone is so articulate and can pinpoint feelings so clearly it helps me identify and understand this complex and insane process a bit more.

    Excellent!

  3. AB-16
    March 8, 2013

    so very true I totally agree that the feelings of loss are chaotic and hearing someone else say it means that i’m not going crazy. somedays are better than others and you feel like you’re making progress and then BAM back you are again to the raw feeling of pain and tears. I only wonder if it will always be this way?

  4. Paul R
    March 8, 2013

    No system of explaining grief is perfect, but I think they are out there because many people want to latch onto something that can explain why they are feeling the way they are. Most of us need an explanation. It is difficult to except that explanation that you hear so often as a child… ‘it’s that way because it is.’

    I think the amount of our reaction is not due to years, but rather to the depth of our emotional attachment to the person. A widow/widower from a five year marriage can be hurt more than that 50 year marriage widow/widower. Or a child may be hurt more by the death of a grandparent, aunt, uncle, than the death of a parent. It depends on the emotional ties.

  5. Sarah Pointer
    March 8, 2013

    I agree that grief is chaotic, one day you seem to be coping and the next you are in pieces and don’t seem to have moved on at all. Having said that and having read many blogs and from my own experience, I am starting to think there are defined stages we all go through. We may go back and forward numerous times from one to another. We may even go back to the beginning. But we all seem to be programmed in the same way. I think the models are useful to put some order to the chaos but maybe they just need a modern “tell it like it really is” update.

  6. lesley
    March 8, 2013

    Thank you so much for this post which is so so helpful. I saw my bereavement counsellor today and spent the time telling her how angry I am with the world.i have lost my brother and mum in law in the last 6 months.i feel tired all the time, everything is an effort, I am forgetful, I feel no one understands me , I have little interest in things ( what I really want to do is stay in my bed all day ) and I really dont want to feel like this.i am usually a positive person who deals with whatever life throws at me but I have no control over these feelings of grief. I feel like I should be ” getting better ” by now (everyone tells me what a great healer time is!!!! ) and some days it feels like I am and then the grief sweeps over me.i know there is no normal and that everyones experience of grief is different but that hasnt stopped me looking for a timeline for my grief. Reading posts such as these is such a big help and infact I found myself telling my counsellor about them when we were discussing what is going to help me.thanks to everyone who takes the time to share their experiences and feelings

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