How to cope with grief when everyone expects you to move on

I’m no royalist. And I have complicated feelings about the British monarchy. Much as I have long admired the Queen’s stoicism – I come from scream-y people – I feel critical about the impacts of colonialism on Indigenous peoples.

So it’s been something of a shock over the last couple of nights to realise how viscerally I’ve been affected by news reports about the movement of the Queen’s coffin from Scotland, where she died last week, to her final resting place in London, where she’ll be buried next weekend.

“It makes them feel misunderstood, isolated, alone in their grief,” says clinical psychologist Jessica Mackelprang, about people whose loved ones judge them for how they express their sadness.Credit:Getty

Last night, it prompted me to picture my own parents’ bones in their coffins. It telegraphed me back to that moment in April when I threw dirt on my mother’s grave. I winced in bed, as I recalled the hollow thud it made. It was the loneliest sound I’ve ever heard.

And, says Dr David Hallford, a Melbourne clinical psychologist, I’m far from alone.

“Absolutely, oh yeah,” he says. “It makes sense that when someone we know passes away, that later on when other people pass away or there’s an event on the news, it triggers the memory of the loss, and feelings of sadness and other feelings associated with the loss.

“If everywhere you turn, there are conversations about death and loss, I would imagine that’s bound to bring up those similar thoughts for people.”

And yet, this moment meets something of a perfect storm. Because our culture is generally ill-prepared to deal with death and loss, partly because most people have a lot of anxiety about the idea that we and all our loved ones are going to die, he says.

“If everywhere you turn, there are conversations about death and loss, I would imagine that’s bound to bring up those similar thoughts for people,” says clinical psychologist Dr David Wallford on the impact of the Queen’s death. Credit:Getty Images

“Even though death is one of the few truly universal experiences that we share as humans, there is taboo that surrounds it, so that can make being present for others who are grieving quite difficult,” adds Dr Jessica Mackelprang, a clinical psychologist and specialist in trauma, loss and grief counselling at Swinburne University.

So, how can we best move through grief? And help those we love who are grieving?

Letting go of expectations that your grieving process will look – or should look – a certain way is helpful, she says.

“I think as humans we sort of like the idea of things marching along in a linear type of fashion, that’s very predictable, but that’s not really the way that grief tends to work,” she says, adding that she’s had clients who have felt stunned when they’re making “some progress” one minute or week, only to feel suddenly “felled” by sadness the next.

How to manage your grief

  • Let go of expectations that your grief “should” look a certain way.
  • Connecting with people who have suffered a similar loss can provide solace.
  • Seek professional help if you are unable to engage meaningfully with other parts of your life.
  • Healthy grieving involves moving between thinking about your loss and thinking about how you can adapt to this significant change and make sense of your new roles.

“That’s really a normal part of a grief process,” she says.

And, similarly, the rest of us need to drop any judgment or perception of how another person should grieve, says Mackelprang, adding that she’s seen clients be judged by friends, family and acquaintances for grieving “too long” or for feeling “too sad” for a relationship that might not have lasted long.

“It can be hard, because what we do when we want to try to support someone, we want to see change,” says Hallford, a director of The Australian Clinical Psychology Association who has previously helped counsel people in the palliative care ward of a hospital. But we don’t need to solve another person’s grief, and probably couldn’t even if we wanted to.

“Some people would have grown old with her, I think there’s that element of familiarity,” says Psychology Professor Kate Reynolds, of the Australian National University, on why some people are feeling deep loss over the death of the Queen – pictured here in Australia in 1980 – though they didn’t know her personally.Credit:Fairfax Media

“But you can listen and be curious and inquire” – how they’re going, what they need, if they’d like to talk about it, or be distracted – “and that more often than not allows someone to then have a conversation that they might need to express a sadness or loss,” he says. “And that’s good for people, to be supported, it’s very therapeutic.”

The absence of this approach can be devastating.

“It makes them feel misunderstood, isolated, alone in their grief,” says Mackelprang of people whose loved ones meet their sadness with silence or judgment. She’s seen friendships fall apart as a result. “They think, ‘Here’s someone who I thought understood me and is here for me’, and they’re not experiencing that in a time they feel vulnerable and fragile,” she says.

So, what to do? Especially if you’re worried you’ll say the wrong thing or make someone even more upset?

“Say ‘I don’t really know what to say right now, but I care about you and I’m here to listen’,” says Mackelprang. “It acknowledges that space.”

And if you’re grieving and feeling upset that a loved one hasn’t responded the way you would like, connecting with people who’ve experienced a similar loss and to what you’re grateful for, can provide “a great solace in the solidarity”, says Hallford.

“When someone passes away, we have to sort of consciously or subconsciously work out, ‘What is the narrative of this person in this life?’” says Hallford. “‘How do I want to remember them?’ Ultimately, gratitude” – for the good they offered – “is a wonderful thing.”

Which brings us back to the Queen.

“Some people are reflecting” – after the Queen’s death – “on the Queen’s love of animals, and that may resonate with people who are close to their own animals, horses in particular, ” says Dr Cindy McReery, a cultural historian and expert on the British royal family at The University of Sydney. “We live in an age where today there’s much more acknowledge of animals’ importance as companions. I did hear one person speaking, he felt that the Queen had done everyone a service [because] she publicised the idea that you could have dogs in the house. She made it perhaps OK to love and be seen with your pets.”

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