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VOICES

Therapist It's been a summer of tragedy and loss for many young people

Monica Jackman says it’s been a tough summer for young people in this country with tragic losses – she has some gentle advice for anyone grieving.

SADLY, THIS SUMMER we have seen several tragedies resulting in the loss of the lives of young people at the beginning of adulthood and their promising futures ahead.

Grief is a normal and natural response to death. Many people across Ireland are experiencing this painful emotion and sadly most recently for people in the town of Clonmel, Co. Tipperary. It is very difficult to process these deaths and understand why or how they could have happened, especially for the families and friends of the people who have died so suddenly.

Finding your way through grief and painful feelings can be challenging after the traumatic and sudden death of a young person. There is no right or wrong way to grieve or mourn. Bereavement can leave people feeling confused, angry and anxious. There is a loss of the expectation that you had for the person and with the person. The mind and body may go back and forth through some or all of the five stages of grief as outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in “On death and dying”.

The five stages of grief

Denial

This is a state of shock, in which the body and mind will protect themselves until they can begin to process the loss. It can be easier to say to yourself that it didn’t actually happen. The healing process begins as this shock starts to fade.

Anger

It is normal to feel anger after someone has died, especially when the death was traumatic and unexpected. Anger allows us to express some of our emotions. We may feel angry about the circumstances of the death.

We may think about the unfairness of death when someone’s young life is cut short. We may feel angry at ourselves if we think that there was something that we could have done to prevent the death. This anger is a natural part of the healing process and it will fade with time.

Bargaining

Bargaining is a feeling that our loved one can come back if an arrangement can be made, such as “I will never complain about anything again if you bring my loved one back.” It is like a false hope that delays accepting the reality of the loss.

It is from a natural desire to wish that life could go back to the way it was before the event. Guilt is also a common feeling where a person thinks that they could have done something to stop the event if they had taken different actions.

Depression

Depression often occurs after a loss. It can be a reaction to the empty feeling that can happen when we realise that the person is really gone.

There may be feelings of sadness, yearning and loss. You may feel overwhelmed by these feelings, and you may feel as if you are disconnected from the world around you. This depression eases for most people over time.

Acceptance

This is a time when a person is readjusting and reinvesting in their own life. They may be coming to terms with their new situation and the good days start to outnumber the bad days.

Ways to help yourself through grief and loss

It may help to draw, write or journal about your feelings. Listen to music, watch comforting films, go out in nature and speak about your feelings to a trusted person when you are able to.

The body has its own way of protecting itself and shock helps to do that. Allow yourself the time and space to feel your emotions. Be kind and compassionate to yourself.

Bereavement can feel very isolating. It may feel like no one else understands what you are going through. Spend time with other people who know the loved ones who have died – it can be comforting to know they are feeling the same way as you. People can support each other and feel comfort in each other’s presence, knowing that they are not alone in their feelings.

As we have seen in all communities where there have been tragedies and most recently at the vigil in Clonmel, many people came together to show their support for each other and for the families even though they may not have known the people who have died. This provides a sense of solidarity and support that stays with people for a long time.

It is natural for some people to want to hide away and not be with other people and this is okay, everyone grieves differently but it can be a sign of complicated grief if this continues for a long time. Many people may avoid talking about death as it can feel awkward, uncomfortable and even frightening. This can make the process feel lonelier and challenging so try to talk to someone even though it is difficult.

It may be helpful to talk to an IACP-accredited counsellor or psychotherapist if you feel you need extra support and a listening ear. It can be difficult to talk to other family members if they are grieving too. A therapist will sit with you in your sorrow and confusion and listen to you as you try to make sense of unfamiliar emotions, sensations and experiences. A counsellor/psychotherapist can help you to process your feelings as you adapt to life without your loved one.

One day at a time

Grief takes time, be patient with yourself and with those around you as grief lowers our window of tolerance for the stresses of life that we can usually cope with. Don’t be surprised if tasks that are normally easy to do are very challenging after a loss.

Our body is dealing with shock and many mixed emotions and this takes its toll on our capacity to cope. It is best to put off making any big decisions until a later time.

You may feel tired and you may experience a loss of appetite, but it is important to try to eat and get enough sleep. Resting will help even if sleep doesn’t come easily. There may be many unfamiliar emotional and physical reactions. This is normal and it does not mean that you are going crazy.

It can be natural to try to visualise or picture the scene after a tragic accident, to try to make sense of what happened. Bring yourself back into the present moment, say to yourself, ‘it is not happening now, at this moment I am in this room at this time’ and try to focus on a particular task like reading a book or listening to music. Use grounding exercises such as putting your two feet on the floor, letting cool water flow over your hands, or holding a stone or pebble from the beach in your hand.

Marilyn Gootman, the author of “When a friend dies” – a book for teens about grieving and healing – says “You will heal with time”. It is important to hold onto hope for the future, to reinvest in your own life and to continue to enjoy life when you are able to. It is not disloyal to go on with life.

The love that you have for your friend or loved one does not go away because you move forward in your own life.

In “Healing your grieving heart for teens” by Alan D. Wolfelt, he speaks about the concept of “reconciliation” with your grief. Rather than expecting that we can completely recover from our grief, we find a way to be with it. Wolfelt also says that this “reconciliation” takes time and that feelings of grief can return. Grief can be triggered by sounds, smells, or a song on the radio and processing your grief can help to cope with these triggers and to be more prepared when they occur.

How to help others who are grieving

  • Make contact with the person who is grieving. Don’t let uncertainty or fear get in the way of showing your support.
  • Be a good listener and just be there. Your presence is the most important gift you can give. Many people who are grieving need to talk about their loss.
  • Be patient. There are no shortcuts to grief and everyone is different. Try not to convey any sense of urgency when you are with them.
  • Provide practical help. Make some suggestions and follow through with them if they are accepted as someone who is grieving may not be able to think clearly to make plans, or to think of what they need.
  • Encourage self-care. Help a bereaved friend or family member to look after themselves and their own health, and support them if they need it when they are returning to their activities or making decisions.
  • Hold onto a sense of hope and purpose for the future, and remember that things will get better in time and you hold your loved ones in your treasured memories and in your heart.

Monica Jackman is an Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy Accredited Counsellor (IACP).

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