A stereotype of the New Year is to have things that we are looking forward to, aspirations and maybe even goals we want to strive towards, however it can also be a time when we reflect and look back on all that has happened in the previous year(s) and what, or who, we have lost. This year is certainly no exception, with a pandemic that has taken so many lives and impacted on every single one of us in one way or another, negatively or positively.
2020 was full of uncertainty for most, if you lost someone this year you had to find a new way to be able to get the closure that would normally be on offer to you, many weren't able to see their loved ones in the last moments of their lives, or even get chance to say goodbye with funerals being limited to the most immediate of family members.
To then come into a new year with all of this still hanging over us is quite a feat, and never an easy one. So how do we move forward? How can we look to this new year as a chance for positivity and a fresh start when everything is still so uncertain?
I wish I had the answer but there are definitely some things that help people move forward, that could still be of some support now.
Some bits about grief/bereavements to keep in mind first of all:
Losing someone doesn't always provoke the same reactions in everyone that is 'expected'. Someone may be devastated to lose someone close to them, some people may be relieved that someone has died, some people may find peace in the fact that they are no longer suffering in times of illness, some people may even be happy when it comes to no longer having someone who was such a negative figure in their lives - these reactions could all be about the same person and all of them are valid to each individual experiencing them.
Pet bereavements are also 100% valid in having an impact on peoples lives. This is an area that needs far more visibility and understanding as losing a pet is just the same as losing a family member to most pet owners. Pets give us unconditional love, affection, they are there for us in our lowest moments and in times when we experience change, to then lose that constant companion can really shake us to the core. In fact, it feels an disservice to call them 'pets' rather than a member of our family.
Pet bereavements can also have other layers to the death too, especially when it comes to having them put down as this is such a difficult decision to make, even if it is suggested as the right one for them by the vets we trust. From first hand experience I struggled putting my first dog down - even though he had kidney failure, arthritis, toxins from the failure causing abnormal nerve responses and brain damage - I was still wracked with guilt over what could have been if that wasn't the outcome... what if he could have had an extra few months? Did he know that this was going to happen? Was he really that bad that he wouldn't have a good quality of life? All of these thoughts, and more, flooded my brain for weeks and months after losing him - these questions would never have answers, but we can only do what we feel is best for a being fully dependent on us in those moments, without communication, and in their most vulnerable state. Not only was I grieving his loss, I was also questioning my choice, feeling overwhelmingly guilty, and feeling like the worst human alive.
We can still grieve people/members of our chosen family or those we knew for many years. Typically grief has stages that we are taught in theory, however these stages aren't linear or time limited. We may still have moments years down the line where something reminds us of the one we have lost and it can bring back a wave of grief just as fresh as we first felt it. It is totally normal for us to have these moments no matter how long after we have lost someone important to us.
Children will experience grief differently in general, this may be due to age and lack of understanding around what death means, it may also just be that they need longer to process what it does mean for them and thus you. Someday a child may be withdrawn, lonely, sad and others they may act as if nothing has happened. This can be painful for us to be around but it is natural for children to find a way to process and then cope with the loss.
Seeing New Years as a fresh start can sometimes be damaging to ourselves and those around us - we can't package up the past and leave it there as much as we may want to. The past will always be with us in some form, we can not change what has happened but we can look at how we are feeling in relation to it and how we want to be going forward. Emotions and unprocessed grief can show themselves in physical illness and come out later in life unexpectedly.
Experiencing a loss of someone that was unexpected through an accident or via suicide can have a big impact. It can leave us with existential questions of why did this happen? What was going on for them? finding someone to blame for the grief and loss you are feeling. This adds another layer to the grief you experience as it holds questions that can't always be answered and similar to pet bereavement emotions based around blame such as anger and guilt.
Saying goodbye & coping
Religion or beliefs-
Different religions will have different ways of saying goodbye and bringing closure to the loss of somebody and to allow the person who has passed passage into their next life. COVID and 2020 has been difficult for many in this respect as ceremonies allowing people to do this have been delayed/cancelled/restricted thus bringing change to how it would 'normally' be - this has been particularly impactful for those of region where there is a time limited process after the persons passing.
There has been some level of adaptation with hearses driving past family members homes to keep them included in the ceremony or even video links for people to be able to virtually attend a service for those they have lost.
Rituals in saying goodbye -
Whatever your belief there is deemed some importance in being able to have your own ritual in saying goodbye to the person lost for your own emotional and mental well being.
Letter writing - This is a commonly used way of being able to address, process, and accept our emotions, thoughts, and feelings towards a person or situation. To be able to sit down in a quiet and comfortable space and write out what it is would would want to say to the person you've lost.
You can then either keep the letter in a safe space, maybe in a place that meant something to you and the person lost.
You could burn the letter in a way to symbolise letting go of what was said in the letter and anything that may be 'holding you back'.
If you don't feel comfortable burning the letter you could tear the letter up/shred it.
Alternatively, you could write a poem, song, story, draw it out..... in a way that feels like it is representative of you.
Stone use - Using stones in therapy is often a great way of identifying emotions and thoughts that are on the surface of our subconscious, but they can also be great in using objects to bring a physical element into processing grief.
This practice is to find a soft stone, a jagged stone and an in-between stone.
Whilst holding the soft stone in your hand you can squeeze it and think about all the good memories you had of the person you have lost, you will notice the way the stone feels, how it is smooth and not too painful.
Whilst holding the jagged stone you can squeeze this in your hand and remember times that were more difficult or painful of the person you lost, again noticing how the stone feels and may be uncomfortable to experience.
Whilst holding the third stone you can again squeeze this noticing it doesn't really hurt but it's also not really smooth and think about all of the day to day memories of the who you lost.
You can then take all three of the stones and hold them together, bringing all of those memories together remembering that whilst there were bad memories, there were also the general day to day and some happier memories too. It is useful to remember that no one is perfect.
This exercise brings back the normality and humanity of who we have lost, allowing us to experience all of the memories we have and that each of them are still with us.
Jewelry making - this is similar to the above and is about having a representation of who we have lost.
To get 3 colours of beads to represent the good/positive, normal, and difficult/negative memories/qualities of who we lost.
Each time you pick up a bead associate it with a memory of that person.
You can then wear the jewelry, having a whole representation of that person with you.
There are many other ways of having your own way of processing the grief and saying goodbye. Maybe you have a tradition with that person that you can uphold in a different way to honour their memory. Maybe you have a day dedicated to self-love on their anniversary - this can be particularly useful for those who suffered abuse as it can be a way to have power over your life and your body.
Whatever you do and however you experience your grief, know that it is valid and normal for you. It will take time to be able to adjust to the grief you feel, and whilst it may not get easier, you will begin to be able to cope with the days as you go.
If you feel worried about someone going through grief, talk to them, don't assume, and really listen to what they are saying. Ask them questions about what it is they feel they need rather than jumping to solutions that may not be wanted or effective.
Be kind to yourself! What you are going through is difficult, whether the loss happened in the last week or the last decade, it can still be hard to manage and cope with.
I believe that people never leave us as they leave an imprint on us - whether negative or positive - but it's what we do with that imprint that makes the difference. If it's a negative one, how can we stop it from controlling us, what do we want from our life. If it's a positive, what can we capture from that and make our own to then influence others.
Most of all, talk to someone you trust - whether it's a friend, family member, your GP, a counsellor, a helpline etc. Put the words that express how you're feeling out there, it is scary as it makes it real, but voicing it takes the weight of those words swimming round in your head, out of your head and body; it can give you a little bit of relief if only for a few seconds.