Grief and Loss

Wilting orange roses in a white jug to represent grief and lossI seem to have been working with grief and loss quite a lot recently.  At any given point I am likely to have clients who are dealing with bereavement, the end of a relationship, redundancy or some other kind of profound loss.  Grief and loss are often evident even if that was not the initial purpose of the consultation.  Of course, everybody’s experiences are different but I am also drawn to the similarities I see when women are grieving.

In 1969, after years of working with the terminally ill, and campaigning on their behalf for better understanding, the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published the book “On Death and Dying”.  In it, she noted that people who are dying tend to all go through a similar pattern of adjustment.  She identified five key stages to this process; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Later, in “On Grief and Grieving”, Kübler-Ross and co-author David Kessler, noted that those grieving the loss experienced a similar pattern of adjustment and they adapted the model accordingly.  It is this pattern of similarity that I often see in my clients.

It is important to note that the model was originally developed to help doctors understand what might be going on with their patients.  It is in no way meant to suggest that everybody has the same experience of grief and loss.  Your loss is yours and is unique to you.  Some people will experience all the stages, some will experience only three or four and some will experience extra stages all of their own.  One person may sail progressively through the stages and another may get stuck at one particular point.

Over the years, additional research has shown that the same five stages seem to apply to any kind of profound loss so, if you too are experiencing grief and loss at the moment, a brief review of the Kübler-Ross model may prove helpful – not as a manual to tell you how you should grieve, but as a way of helping you to understand your grief.

Denial

During this stage you may be in shock.  You genuinely cannot believe that this terrible event has happened to you.  You cannot imagine being able to continue with your life without the person/situation you have lost.  In a sense your unconscious mind is protecting you from the full force of your loss, allowing you to deal with it bit by bit and never giving you more than you can cope with.

Anger

People often feel incredibly guilty that they are filled with anger but it is an entirely natural and very helpful part of the process.  The anger may be aimed at the person you lost or the person who you think caused your loss (perhaps the HR manager who fired you or your ex’s new partner).  It may be directed at someone who just doesn’t understand your pain, someone who says “I know what it’s like”, when they couldn’t possibly.

But that anger is a connection.  After the isolation of denial, anger re-connects you with people – even if it does so in a negative way.  Anger, and all the other negative emotions it holds hands with, bring you back into the world.

Bargaining

The bargaining stage is easier to understand before the loss, when you might make deals such as “If you let X live I promise to raise lots of money for cancer research” or “If I keep my job I’ll work really hard and never ask for a pay rise again”.

After the loss, this phase is experienced more through the phrase “what if?”  “What if he had never smoked?”  “What if the doctor had caught it earlier?”  “What if I had worked harder?”  These “What ifs?” give us another focus for anger and it is common to vacillate between the two stages.

Depression

Eventually, the anger and the bargaining may give way to a sense of despair.  There is nothing that can be done to change the situation and so depression sets in.

Please understand that depression is a perfectly sane and appropriate reaction to grief and loss.  It does not necessarily mean that you are suffering from a mental health problem nor that you need medication to pull you out of it.  In general, people (including many doctors) don’t know what to say to a depressed person, they feel awkward and instead of showing empathy they want you to be fixed and so point you towards a clinical solution.

Depression is actually the first stage of acceptance.  The denial is gone, the anger is diminishing and you are no longer trying to make bargains.  Depression is actually a sign that you are progressing through the stages of grief and loss.  You may find that talking to a counsellor helps at this stage – not because you need to be fixed but because you need to be understood.

Of course, if the depression lasts too long, becomes increasingly debilitating or if you experience persistent thoughts about self-harm, you should seek medical advice.

Acceptance

The final stage in the process is acceptance.  Acceptance is not the same as happiness.  Acceptance does not mean that you are “over it”.  You may never entirely get over the grief and loss.

However, acceptance does mean recognising that this is your new reality.  From this point you can begin to countenance the idea of a future albeit a future without your loved one/a job/a partner.  You may still experience anger.  You may still feel sad.  But somehow you can creep back towards life and find a way of being that is not clouded by denial.

These five stages take as long as they take.  You cannot rush them.  You can pretend that you are ok but they will find a way to expose the truth of that.  Grief and loss will out.

As a society we are not very good at dealing with death and bereavement.  We don’t know what to say or how to be.  We expect people to “get over it” far too quickly.  The Victorians used to impose a twelve month period of mourning where black was worn and social lives were curtailed.  This is probably too prescriptive but it is somehow more understanding than today’s norms where workplaces often have a sliding scale of compassionate leave (a week for a spouse, 3 days for a parent etc.).  Being back at work does not mean that someone should be back to normal.

I hope this blog has helped you to understand your own response to grief and loss or to understand that someone else’s response may be entirely normal given their circumstances.

If you would like to talk through your experiences with someone impartial but caring please get in touch by clicking on the button below.

Get in Touch

Frida Kahlo – A Role Model

Frida Kahlo self portraitWe all need role models in life, someone to look up to, someone to make us want to be better versions of ourselves.  Frida Kahlo’s success as an artist is more than enough to make her a worthy role model for women everywhere, however, last weekend I visited the Frida Kahlo Exhibition at the V & A and discovered how much more there is to admire about this remarkable woman.

I have written and re-written this blog about 8 times so far because it just keeps growing.  I didn’t want to write a comprehensive biography but there is so much to say about Frida Kahlo that I have found it impossible to be succinct without leaving out great swathes of important information.  I have tried and failed to keep it brief but still hope that you will be inspired to read more for yourselves.

For me, the most inspiring things about Frida Kahlo are her passion, the contradictory nature of her existence and her resilience.

Passion

It seems to me that everything Frida Kahlo did was done with passion.  She said of her work that “I never paint dreams or nightmares, I paint only my own reality” but that reality is full of colour and vibrancy, of political metaphor and deep levels of symbolism.

Her marriage to the artist Diego Rivera was unconventional and deeply passionate.  Her friends and family struggled to understand the connection, Frida’s mother described it as the “union between an elephant and a dove.”  When they married Frida was twenty two and tiny whilst Diego was 42 and weighed over 20 stone.  Over the years they each had multiple affairs including with Leon Trotsky (Frida) and Frida’s sister (Diego) but they were continually drawn back together to the extent that they even divorced in 1939 but remarried in 1940.

Frida’s passion also extended to politics where she was an active member of the Mexican Communist Party stating that

I’m convinced of my disagreement with the counterrevolution – imperialism – fascism – religions – stupidity – capitalism – and the whole gamut of bourgeois tricks – I wish to cooperate with the Revolution in transforming the world into a class-less one so that we can attain a better rhythm for the oppressed classes.”

Contradiction

Frida Kahlo was a mass of apparent contradiction, by which I mean that she more interested in her personal truth than in consistency.

Born on 6th July 1907, she often lied and said that she was born on 7th July 1910 (the start of the Mexican revolution) so that her birth would mirror the birth of Modern Mexico.   Yet her work and her personal style both drew deeply on the old folk traditions of Mexico, she embraced Mexicanidad, the idea of reclaiming pre-colonial Mexican culture and this is evident in her dress as well as her work.

She was an atheist and a communist and yet her work often featured religious iconography and was heavily influenced (particularly in the 1930s) by retablos or votive paintings – small, amateur paintings intended to thank the saints for their intervention in preventing a calamity.

Frida painted a number of portraits and self-portraits in the classic, colonial style but subverted the form by depicting the subject (often herself) as less beautiful than in reality, emphasising features such as her apparent mono-brow and moustache.

Resilience

I hear repeatedly that resilience is in short supply these days.  Frida Kahlo is a one woman lesson in strength of character, largely because everything she achieved was done against a backdrop of extreme pain.

Frida contracted polio at the age of six, leaving her right leg shorter and thinner than the left.  At eighteen she was involved in a traffic accident (a collision between a streetcar and the bus she was travelling on) and sustained serious spinal and pelvic injuries.  Her injuries prevented her from becoming a doctor but, during her initial recuperation, she took up painting and art became central to her existence.

“The only thing I know is I paint because I need to.”

Over the years she underwent multiple surgeries and was forced to wear medical corsets made of leather and steel, or plaster which was cast directly onto her body.  In her hospital bed, unable to sit or stand she would use a hand held mirror to enable her to paint intricate images on her corsets.  In this way she made them her own, rather than just an intrusive encumbrance.

She continued to paint even when her leg was amputated (she had gangrene in her foot) and when surgery went wrong leaving her with a deep infection.  Her work often depicted her as broken and yet, the work itself was a denial of her frailty.

Her trademark style of dress, which drew on folk culture, was also chosen because it was comfortable to wear and hid the worst of her injuries because she refused to allow her physical condition to define her.

I should, at this point, also point out that Frida Kahlo swore, told ribald jokes and had multiple affairs. She took an excess of opiates to manage her pain and drank excessively,

“I drank to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learnt how to swim.”  

Her final days were spent, bedridden, with bronchopneumonia and she died aged 47, officially of a pulmonary embolism although there was no autopsy and it is strongly believed that she took a deliberate overdose of her pain medication.

But role models are not supposed to be saints.  None of us can or should aspire to that level of perfection  For me, Frida Kahlo will always be a role model for being real, for her passion, her apparently contradictory nature and first and foremost for her resilience.

The Frida Kahlo Exhibition: Making Herself Up, is on at the V & A until 4th November.  Tickets are sold out but a small number are released each morning when the museum opens at 10.00 a.m.  I recommend getting there early to be in with a chance.