Witnessing grief

Bereavement and loss are topics that are come up frequently with clients in therapy sessions. There are lots of well-known models around grief, but probably the most famous is Kubler Ross's Five Stages of Grief. The different stages of loss - denial, anger, depression, bargaining and finally, hopefully, acceptance - might already be familiar to many of you reading this.

This is probably my favourite image, as it shows that the process isn't necessarily linear. It's possible to cycle through each of these stages rapidly - or to spend months stuck in each one - and to move backwards and forward through them, rather than in a linear fashion. The cycle might be familiar to you as you're reading this - and the interesting thing is that it can apply not only to a bereavement, but to all types of loss - loss of identity - maybe in a divorce, that's your identity as 'husband' or 'wife' - if your child moves out of home, if you lose your job, or a close friendship.

I can confidently say that so much has been written on this, it would be almost arrogant of me to think that I could add anything further. What I do want to talk about, instead, is something that I've noticed, specifically around the witnessing of grief, which I think is lacking in western society. When someone dies, those closest to them often appear to return to 'normal life' quickly, going back to work and 'getting on with it', hiding their pain in order to somehow 'protect' those around them from their grief and pretend that all is well. What happens, then, is that everyone assumes that everyone else is coping well, and that in turn, their own feelings of loss are somehow not normal. The reality is that many of these people who seem ok on the outside are struggling too, but also failing to let anyone else know how deeply they're affected. Because of this, there's no formal structure for how to grieve, or to see what grief looks like or how long it might last.

In this context, I think that the Jewish way of mourning can provide everyone, regardless of belief, with a helpful framework or template for grief and loss.

1. The funeral. In Judaism, the funeral happens immediately. As many people attend as possible given the short notice (it's usually the next day), and burial is common - which somehow seems more raw and immediate than the slightly censored cremation, where the coffin slips away quietly behind a curtain, whilst music plays.

2. Shiva (meaning: seven). Immediately after the funeral, mourners (that is, the immediate family - parents, children, siblings) and family and friends return to one person's home together, and friends and family come and pay their respects for seven days. People pile in, spilling out of doors (and in one case in my experience, windows). This goes on for seven days, and whilst it's a sad time, it's also often a chance for smiles and laughter - to share memories, see family, and renew friendships. It strikes me that shiva has two important functions. The mourners have a period of seven days where they don't have to do anything at all - they stay home with their immediate family and accept visitors - often in their hundreds - they are looked after and supported through the first week. At the same time, everyone who visits has an opportunity to 'witness' their grief - to see what mourning looks like, and to normalise it in a small way.

3. The shloshim (meaning: thirty). for the next 30 days there are a series of things that you shouldn't do, including listen to music, take luxurious showers and baths or have a hair cut.

4. The first year and Stone Setting: During the first year, some things remain forbidden, including attending celebrations and listening to music. Mourners also say a prayer called 'kaddish' every day, sometimes in the synagogue. After the year has passed, the gravestone is set and everyone attends a second ceremony, similar to the funeral, or a memorial service.

This process gives some sort of structure to the process of loss, it normalises it, it allows for some closure, and it also offers a template for 'how' to grieve. It allows a clear timeframe of at least a year to process different feelings, and allows others to share in that grief and to witness it. Of course, within this, everyone will feel very differently based on their own personal feelings and experiences, their relationship to the person who died etc, but overall, I hope that having this 'framework' might prove helpful, as a template to keep in mind as you navigate your own grief.

Further reading:

Anything by Julia Samuel - check her out on YouTube, there are literally hundreds of videos and talks to choose from, or buy one of her books, including Grief Works and This Too Shall Pass.

Cruse is a great source of information on managing grief, including traumatic bereavement and advice for parents.

The NHS has a full list of helplines who can help you to navigate this difficult time:

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