On the whole, as a society we don’t talk about one of life’s inevitabilities, that life itself will someday end. If the global pandemic taught us anything it is that there is still a lot of work to be done in opening up spaces to talk about grief and loss. As wider dialogue about mental health continues to gather pace, National Grief Awareness Week provides a real moment of reflection.
What is Grief Awareness Week?
Founded by the Good Grief Trust, the first week of December each year is dedicated to raising awareness about grief and loss. To help normalise conversations, help those who are grieving, empower the public with grief literacy, alleviate the taboos around the topic and support those who are bereaved, Grief Awareness Week provides a real opportunity for reflection.
We can celebrate and commemorate awareness days, anniversaries and milestones. We can, to some extent, pre-empt and prepare for them by buying gifts and putting together a heartfelt social media post. However, on most days, grief rather innocuously sits right beside us, existing silently in the background. Then, suddenly it can rear its head and the solid foundations we were standing on can become a quagmire. This is merely a reminder that the passing of a loved one is not an isolated event, but an endless and exhausting process of adapting to an eternal absence.
My grief journey
I lost my grandpa in November 2015 and my younger brother to leukaemia in May of this year. I addressed the challenges faced as a bereaved adult sibling in an article for East Anglia Bylines on Kasim’s birthday in August.
My grief journey is exactly that – a journey. We are all in a constant process of discovering new things about ourselves and we learn from our losses. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross tried to dispel her famous stages of grief model as a universal veneer for all loss, but it remains ubiquitous.
As we grieve, we can skip some stages and fall back into others because healing is not linear. Two weeks of compassionate leave might give us a bit of time to process what happened, but this is an arbitrary number of days for the emotions that accompany loss. We all have our own unique way of making sense of the world without those who meant the world to us.
So, since Eid Day (2 May) when my family spent their Eid burying Kasim, what lessons has grief taught me? Here are my five observations.
Acknowledgement means everything
When someone we love dies, we want it to be acknowledged by others; not only an acknowledgement of our loss but a recognition of their life and what they meant to us. There really is no worse feeling than having your grief invalidated and a failure to acknowledge does just that.
Through acknowledgement comes an understanding that grief is life-changing and will have an impact on our identity, wellbeing, emotional and mental health, and our ability to do our job. These seven words can have an enormous impact on a griever: ‘I’m sorry to hear about your loss.’
You should also consider the following ideas to support others:
- Be sure to offer your condolences (it’s never too late to do this!)
- Remain in touch with them, even if it’s to check in on them
- Send them a gift to raise their spirits during a difficult time
- Where appropriate, visit them or attend the funeral/wake as this is a sign of your commitment to supporting them
Grief illiteracy is real
If you have never personally experienced loss, there is a tendency to avoid the topic altogether. Grief can be threatening. It challenges the banality and trivialness of our everyday lives, so we compartmentalise it and place it on the highest shelf furthest away from us. When Kasim died, many people were unsure of what to say, so they said nothing, which invalidated my sense of grief.
During this next week, think carefully about how we address grief. Do we have the skills necessary to support one another during a bereavement? How many times have we remained silent because we didn’t know what to say? Our investment in improving grief literacy must extend beyond a social media post following the death of a monarch or celebrity.
And we don’t necessarily just mean words. It is about having the ability to gauge the tacit and unwritten codes that bereaved people bring with them to gatherings, or to the workplace. For example, you notice a colleague hasn’t been themselves recently or a friend is quieter than usual. Picking up on these cues can seriously go a long way.
But our words are our gateway to understanding and often the best way to express sincerity and compassion. After reading You Will Be Okay by Julie Stokes, I realised the importance of tone and subtle changes in language that can improve our grief literacy. Stokes also talks about the need to give autonomy to those who are grieving to talk freely about their feelings. Here are a few statements for you to consider:
- If there is anything I can do to help, please let me know
- I am so glad you’re back but please take things at your own pace. There’s no pressure
- I won’t pretend I know what you are going through but I’m here to listen
- If you ever need five minutes to yourself, just take them. You don’t need to explain
- How are you feeling today?
Grief is expressed and manifests in different ways
Grief looks different for each of us; there is no one-size-fits-all approach. If you are supporting a bereaved person, remember that they are an individual and you need to be conscious of this.
A colleague lost both her parents in the space of two weeks. She returned to work as if nothing had happened and made it clear that this was her way of coping with her loss. Although this never stopped us from checking in because we had a duty of care, she was adamant that a return to being busy was going to help.
In contrast, other colleagues have had extended periods of time away following a bereavement. This doesn’t mean their loss is greater or holds more significance than the person who returned to work sooner, it simply means we all express grief in different ways. Personally, I find it comforting to visit the cemetery every day, but I know family members who can’t as it is still too raw. Some people are more open about their loss, while others prefer to keep things to themselves. Quite simply, grief is expressed in many different ways and this deserves to be respected.
In terms of how grief manifests, there seems to be a binary between grieving and not grieving, as if ‘living our life’ cannot coincide with grief. In fact both joy and pain can exist simultaneously, they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The idea that either we are bawling our eyes out or we’ve ‘moved on’ is binary thinking, far too simplistic in understanding the nuances of grief and how it manifests. There are a plethora of emotions that accompany loss such as anger, resentment, nostalgia, fear, anxiety, and more. Grief has many different faces.
Grief helps us connect
During a time when our lives have fallen apart and we have emotionally checked out on the world, how do new connections emerge? After Kasim passed away, there was an initial outcry from the community. Suddenly, I was surrounded by school friends and people I hadn’t seen in over a decade. Once they began to return to their normal everyday lives, a handful of people stayed in touch because they could empathise on a much deeper level.
Since 2015 I have believed in the power of remembering those who are gone out loud because although their time here on earth has ended, we can still learn from their lives. Grief is unique and makes us realise how close we are to losing everything. Amidst this uncertainty, a group of people will stand beside us. They too are bereaved and have a natural propensity to put an often metaphorical arm around us when we are at our lowest. It is as if we are bonded by this universal language that is grief; a bond that is unbreakable.
The connections I have made since we lost Kasim have been powerful, moving and meaningful. They have made me feel less isolated and given me hope. These connections bring with them what I refer to as ‘pockets of kindness’, which includes the odd message to say ‘thinking of you’ or just someone who is willing to listen. It means more to us than they will ever realise.
Grief Awareness Week provides us with a genuine opportunity to challenge and change the narrative around loss. Life is fragile and nothing should be taken for granted. We really are just one unexpected phone call, a diagnosis or ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’ away from losing everything. As the pandemic continues to take our loved ones, being able to find support and comfort one another is key.
We can do this by becoming better at holding conversations about loss and creating and facilitating safe spaces for grievers. And it is okay not to have the answers because grief isn’t something to be solved; it’s here to be felt and it’s here to stay. We would like you to accommodate this updated version of ourselves and you can start by commemorating Grief Awareness Week.
Finally, to honour our loved ones in heaven and mark Grief Awareness Week, this poem is called I Think of You.
I Think of You
In the first week of December, we’re asked to remember,
Those who departed but remain by our side forever,
No one could ever fill their shoes,
And all this unsolicited advice has left us battered and bruised,
The anniversaries and milestones come and go,
It’s when your loss creeps up on me and when I’m alone,
During my biggest moments, and the little ones too,
I think of you.
You left without a trace or a goodbye,
On that day in May, there was not a single dry eye,
As time passes, it follows me everywhere,
From the awkward silence, the deep sighs and empty stares,
Society has so much to learn,
Or perhaps they’re waiting for their turn?
To call their loved one and be met by an answer phone,
And realise their house is no longer a home,
During my biggest moments, and the little ones too.
I think of you.
Sometimes I wonder how we got through,
Also, how we appear to be so ‘okay’ in plain view,
When deep down everything is far from fine,
Because this grief becomes distilled and purer with time,
Searching for you in every crowd,
Still unable to see the silver lining in the clouds,
The sun doesn’t look as radiant without your presence,
We’re told to move on but this is an adjustment to your absence,
It’s the laughter that is drowned out when I mention you,
To the shrugged shoulders that I got used to,
During my biggest moments, and the little ones too.
I think of you.
By Shuaib Khan