Saturday 21 October 2017

Let's talk about grief: How Prince Harry has opened up the conversation about death

Prince Harry's revelation about how his mental health was affected by the loss of his mother has finally opened up the conversation on death

Sense of loss: Prince Harry opened up about the loss of his mother, Diana
Sense of loss: Prince Harry opened up about the loss of his mother, Diana
Still grieving: Sheryl Sandberg and her late husband, Dave Goldberg
Diana, Harry, William and Prince Charles

Tanya Sweeney

When Prince Harry agreed to do a podcast on mental health, little did he realise that he was about to prise apart one of the biggest taboos of our time.

Death, and the grief that follows, is as old as humankind; something that visits every one of us. And yet it's an experience still largely misunderstood and feared. And the 32-year-old prince found that all the privilege in the world couldn't inure him from the fallout of the death of his mother, Princess Diana.

Earlier this week, Harry acknowledged that losing his mother affected his mental health for many years.

"I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12 and then shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years has not only had an effect on my personal life but my work as well," he admitted to author and mental health campaigner Bryony Gordon.

"It was 20 years of not thinking about it and two years of total chaos. I couldn't put my finger on it. I didn't know what was wrong with me."

Harry's revelations - roundly lauded as a brilliant and brave turning point in the mental health debate - coincide with a new initiative from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, called OptionB.org. The initiative is designed to help people overcome grief, and the accompanying book sees Sandberg recall the devastating impact of her husband Dave Goldberg's sudden death in 2015.

Both Prince Harry and Sheryl Sandberg are appealing to people to acknowledge and open up about one of the hardest experiences in life.

In Ireland, there's a running joke about how we 'do death well'. Our wakes are colourful and raucous, our funerals emotive and, well, beautiful. But what of the vast, silent expanse that comes after that? How good are we at grief?

As the author of How We Die Now, consultant gastroenterologist Seamus O'Mahony has long observed our inability to deal head-on with death.

"This is something that happens all across developed societies," he explains. "Because we now expect to live well into old age, we have a cultural taboo around death that makes it feel so very far away and so distant.

"We've also created a climate where subliminally, we feel that medicine can fix just about everything, and that it's a matter of time before all diseases are cured," he adds. "If one thing is certain, it's that we are going to die, and modern medicine needs to be more honest. We've done a lot of great things, but we can't cure death."

Death is something that happens to 80 people in Ireland a day, meaning that hundreds of people every day start the bereavement process anew. And with so many different people on that journey, it stands to reason that there's no such thing as a 'normal' grieving process.

"We live our lives the way we live them, and some people like to talk and share things, and that's likely how they will grieve," explains Dr Susan Delaney, bereavement services manager at the Irish Hospice Foundation. "Others are more stoic, and there's a mindset of 'there's no point crying over spilt milk, suck it up'."

The entire process, and 'death culture', is slowly and inexorably changing. In the UK and US, 'death doulas' or 'death midwives' are growing in popularity. In other metropolitan cities, death cafes are springing up: places where one can sit with a stranger over tea or coffee and discuss the unspeakable.

In Ireland, time once was that friends and neighbours would be a physical, comforting presence in the days after a death. Nowadays, condolences are more likely to be delivered on Facebook.

"It's funny to see how digital natives have approached grief, but for my generation the personal touch is so important," says Delaney. "Grief on social media is not all bad, but we need to show up as fellow human beings. When a neighbour died, I told my children to go into the house and the response was 'what will we say? Or do?' I said, 'go in and start washing dishes. Put the kettle on'," advises Delaney. "Less is more. People think that getting in touch with someone a month after a funeral is too late, but it isn't. Because bereavement is a thing that people carry for the rest of their life."

The trick to handling grief, she argues, is not trying to outrun it, or get rid of it, but to find a way of carrying it through life. "Your life has fallen apart. You don't go back to being the person you were. It's not a linear thing like getting the flu, where you get over it and get back to yourself."

Bereavement counselling was of huge help to both Prince Harry and Sheryl Sandberg, but Delaney notes that what clearly suits some might not suit all: "Most people don't need bereavement counselling," she says. "Counselling is best for people who are having difficulty with grief, and those experiencing 'complicated grief' do need particular help."

It's thought around 10pc of bereaved people experience 'complicated grief', where their grief fails to integrate into their life. "For a small percentage of people the years pass and their grief stays frozen and you would think they were newly bereaved," explains Delaney.

Tom Fitzpatrick, a voluntary counsellor with the Bereavement Counselling Service, feels that talk therapy is an invaluable part of the grieving process.

"In most of these situations there's shock and a difficulty in making sense of things, and therapy helps people to sort out their feelings," he explains. "Mostly we do this in our heads, and mostly we get it wrong. What people need to hear is that they're having a normal reaction and not having a nervous breakdown or going out of their mind... If we don't talk about this stuff, it often gets carried around and not dealt with, and, like any trauma that is not processed, it can reappear later on to cause problems."

What many grief and bereavement professionals would like to see, in a wider sense, is the blowing apart of this taboo: for us all to have the conversation, really, that Prince Harry's revelations have started - ideally even before the grieving process starts.

O'Mahony adds: "Death hasn't come out of the closet yet, but its foot is peeking out the door."

For information on the Bereavement Counselling Service, see bereavementireland.com. For more on the Irish Hospice Foundation see bereaved.com. For info on the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network, see childhoodbereavement.com.

How to support a bereaved friend

Show up in the weeks, years or months after the death: "Make a note of the anniversary and send a handwritten note, with a little something in it about the person," suggests Delaney.

Provide practical support: "It's never enough to say, 'give me a buzz if you need anything', and we need to do better than that," says Delaney. "Remember that it's not just emotional support that people need. Most people are exhausted and not sleeping, so see if that person needs the grass cut, or something picked up at the shops."

Offer a diversion: "Some people are not great at having the big deep emotional chat, but might want to just take a walk with someone and not talk about it," says Delaney.

Have a 'grief system' in place at work: "A line manager needs to know if a person wants other people to know about the death, for instance," says Delaney. "A good idea might be to come in for a half day, and see how that feels for the bereaved person."

Irish Independent

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