Wednesday 26 October 2016

We cannot avoid grief, but we can share it and ease the pain

Marie Murray

Published 19/06/2015 | 02:30

A woman holds a candle during a candlelight vigil at the Martin Luther King Jr Civic Centre Park in Berkeley
A woman holds a candle during a candlelight vigil at the Martin Luther King Jr Civic Centre Park in Berkeley

The death of someone we love is an acute, profound and painful loss experienced at the deepest level of our being. It is like no other emotion although it includes many.

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Grief is felt by infants, by children, by adolescents and by adults of all ages and stages in life. It is a rupture of attachment that brings people into emotional crevices they did not know existed in themselves. The experience of grief and mourning is an inescapable experience at some stage in all of our lives.

But if grief is the sudden, unexpected, tragic death of someone we love this intensifies everything. It is by definition a trauma which shatters normality in a moment. It tears at the heart. It alters the world. All that seemed to be important seconds before the news of death fades into insignificance. Normality ends and people are plunged into unreality, into shock, distress, incredulity and disbelief. There is the blind panic of hope that what is being communicated is a mistake, a delusion, a nightmare, an error of identity; anything other than what is being told.

The experience of learning of the sudden death of someone one loves is something that only those who have encountered it can understand because it is a particular kind of trauma.

Traumatic grief is an exceptionally confusing, complex and intensified 'wound' without any of the psychological safeguards of forewarning and preparation. On receiving the news and in the aftermath of tragedy, people often describe feelings of 'depersonalisation' - that is experiencing themselves as being detached from their bodies, detached from what is happening and as witnessing everything as through a veil or from a height above themselves, as outside observers of themselves and everything around them.

Time often changes pace during this trauma, it can move slowly in an unreal, distorted way. Voices may seem to come from afar and take longer to understand as if another language is being spoken. Doing tasks may be impossible or they may be undertaken frantically. There is a sense of 'derealisation' as if the world is unreal and distorted - and so it is when tragedy strikes and life is changed.

Life is altered upon the death of a child which is one of the most painful losses to encounter.

There is no childhood stage and no parent age that makes it acceptable. But if the death of a child occurs suddenly, unexpectedly and tragically then one cannot imagine - one is even afraid to imagine - what that experience is for those who suffer this loss. It makes the blood of every parent run cold to even think of losing a child.

At this time, we as a nation and as a loving community have witnessed families descend into the hell of loss at all these most traumatic levels of sudden death, loss of a child and the tragedy of the injury and death of young, beautiful people on the cusp of their futures, celebrating, with the vibrancy and exuberance of youth, their entry into the established adulthood that a 21st birthday party represents.

When what began as a happy celebration turned to tragedy then it is hard to deal with, even for those who do not personally know those who died or the families who have suffered. What we do know is that as a nation we feel the most profound unity, solidarity, support, sympathy and compassion for the suffering of everyone who has been hurt or bereaved by this event.

As we hear the accounts and details and see the pictures of those young people, we want to reach out to the parents, brothers and sisters and extended families, to everyone hurt by what has happened. We think about the classmates and close friends, about the injured, about the traumatised survivors, about those who were there and those who were not.

We think about any parent who ever lost a child who is remembering their own story and with it the revival and resonances of grief. We think of young people who realise that 'this could have been me', those who suffer survivor guilt, those young people everywhere whose usual sense of invincibility, invulnerability and immortality is dented by this.

We think about students from their colleges who are away scattered all over the world hearing about what happened.

We think of every parent who has a child away from home who wants to rush to retrieve them.

We think of brothers and sisters at home whose parents are gone to the scene of the tragedy. We feel guilt if we have been spared tragedy in our lives and fear that we may not escape in the future.

Private and public come together when tragedy strikes and everyone is connected to Berkeley and to the suffering of young people at this time.

In Ireland we can do what we do best; that is express our condolences, attend church and community ceremonies for the bereaved, provide practical help if appropriate, acknowledge and respect the grieving process, support anyone we know for whom young death may have resonance and support any students who are distressed.

It is the nature of grief that we cannot circumvent it. But we can share it and in the sharing comes some healing as we remind ourselves in the words of the poem 'Tir na nÓg' of the importance of each life, however short, as 'the life that lives forever and the fugitives of time'.


Dr Marie Murray is a clinical psychologist and author and former Director of the Student Psychological and Counselling Services in UCD. @drmariemurray

Irish Independent

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