Musings on Bereavement
Updated: 3 days ago
A very personal experience of bereavement, written and generously shared by Michael Kindred, to help others who are grieving.
My lovely wife, Maggie died on 15 June 2016, after 38 years of marriage. In 1979 we had a daughter, and she and I have been a great support to each other since this big hole was left in our lives.
For people who have lost a loved one, this article is one that can be dipped into. It contains musings covering 42 topics concerned with the grieving process, based on experiences so far. It mentions coping strategies that have worked for me as well as those which have not.
It makes suggestions and recommendations of what might help as well as what to be wary of or avoid. Some topics are almost one-liners, others are more detailed.
I have avoided jargon and theoretical language where possible.
For those professionals who offer bereavement therapy,it is an aid which they could recommend to clients. It might also help students who are training to be therapists in that field.
What I have written about my grieving has been supervised by an eminent Jungian analyst, with whom I am having therapy sessions.
I am semi-retired and have lived in France since 2003. I have been an inventor of board and card games for 60+ years and have had more than 50 different board and card games marketed with total sales of over 3 million in 23 countries. I have also written or co-written a dozen non-fiction books, mostly about groupwork, teamwork and communication.
Please feel free to distribute this file or any part of it to any organisation or person who offers help to those who have lost a loved one, or to anyone who is grieving. If you do so, I would appreciate your mentioning that I am the author.
Setting the scene
The idea to write some musings about my experience of bereavement, came to me early on in February 2021, nearly five years after Maggie died.
Making sense of the musings
In order for you to have a chance to do so, you need to know something of what happened to Maggie and myself before we met when she was 36 and I was 39. We both thought that we were destined to be single for the rest of our lives. We were married in 1978, and had a daughter, born in 1979.
I also want to mention things I have learnt from having psychotherapy when I was in my 20s and 30s because of being depressed and over-anxious. I hope these musings may help others with their grieving, and also be of interest to therapists who offer bereavement counselling.
A lot of what follows about the mental and emotional aspects of grieving is interlinked. This is partly because our brains work to some extent on association of ideas. So please bear in mind that these topics are not in watertight compartments.
Everyone is different
When I met Maggie and began to know about her life, she came over to me as mainly extroverted and was very sociable, although she could enjoy time to herself. I am mainly an introvert, although I have had experiences in later life which show that there is a 'showman' inside me waiting to be let loose!
Describing one person as an introvert and another person as an extrovert seems to give the idea that each human being is in one camp or the other. That is not the case. Most people fall somewhere in the middle of those two extremes.
Although people have similarities with others in terms of background and experience, everyone is different from everyone else in many ways, and the genes we have inherited together with those backgrounds and experiences, vary enormously from person to person. So, although there are aspects to grieving which we have in common with other people, there are aspects which are less common. Therefore in trying to help those who have lost loved ones, one approach does not fit all by any stretch of the imagination, and competent and well-trained therapists are aware of this and proceed with great care with clients.
Maggie's life – a brief snapshot
My wife Maggie and I were married in 1978, and she died of cancer in 2016. Death became a large part of her experience from 18 months onward when her mother died in childbirth and her father died of cancer when she was 21. Often she wondered what it would have been like to have had a sister. There were times when she was cared for by various relatives, almost all of whom died at intervals, most from cancer. Eventually, she realised that it was a case of either sink or swim and she decided she was NOT going to sink. This wonderful spirit she had pervaded the rest of her life.
She had read C. S Lewis's 'A Grief Observed' years ago. She decided to write a little book entitled 'A Grief Unobserved' to illustrate how she had very little emotional support in her early years. None of her relatives really knew how to handle this distraught and traumatised child. The subtitle of her book was 'Helping parents and carers with early childhood bereavement'. When I proofread her manuscript, tears were very often in my eyes. Knowing she came from a cancer family was a background worry for her, on and off. She didn't know she had cancer until a few days before she died.
If she had to have this horrible end to her life, thankfully the illness was over quickly. From the first very painful symptoms on Easter Sunday 2016, it was three months to her death. At the beginning of the illness, various diagnoses were made each time she saw her doctor. It started with 'It's a virus that's going round', then 'It could be kidney stones', then 'It's most likely to be lumbago'.
She was in hospital twice. During the first time, the hospital doctor told me they had diagnosed osteoporosis. When they told her she could go home, she was as high as a kite. We then had three weeks together, until the result of a further test showed it was not osteoporosis, and her doctor in Eymet came round to say that her situation was serious, and she went back into hospital. I began to think that she might probably never recover. At one point Maggie rang our daughter using her mobile. Afterwards she told me that her Mum sounded as though she had been crying. I think that Maggie had realised she was going to die very soon, and that was her final chance to speak to her daughter, who she always referred to as 'her baby' when talking to me. Whenever I think about her last few days before she was in a coma, when she would have been very frightened, and anxious, my eyes fill with tears. She would never come back to me, or the home she loved and cared for so much. Soon her condition deteriorated rapidly and I couldn't talk with her. I had to rely on touch, hoping that stroking her skin would provide some comfort.
Maggie was born in 1940. She trained to be a teacher of music and religious education. During that time she became interested in trying to help children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds and she left teaching and became a social worker. She loved her career, and received promotion and then trained to become a part-time university lecturer in child care. Twice she suffered from depression and thus she experienced something of the ways in which psychotherapists work. She was very kind and warm-hearted, and had the sort of spirit which enabled her tackle the problems of infancy, childhood and early adulthood mentioned above.
My life – a quick tour
I was born in 1937. When I left school with four GCE O levels, I was advised by a youth employment officer to try architecture, as I had passed in maths and art. I gave up eventually, did a number of boring jobs and eventually decided to try being a games inventor in my late teens. Eventually I met Malcolm in the mid-70s via a friend, Joan, who said that as he was the Bishop of Southwell's Adviser on Industrial Relations, he was looking for interesting ideas to use in his training sessions for clergy and laity. We decided to work together for half a day a week. We soon became great friends and produced a card game that he used to good effect. After that he became my colleague in the games inventing career I had embarked upon and we devised and marketed over 50 different board and card games, a lot of them by Waddingtons. We also co-wrote a couple of training books. Sadly, he died in 2011. I miss him greatly and was determined to celebrate his life by continuing the creativity.
As I have mentioned above, I decided that I needed some professional help with the difficulties I was experiencing in my early adult life. For some situations that people are in, the advice from friends and acquaintances of 'Pull yourself together', 'Get a grip on yourself' and the like, is facile.
Knowing and deciding when to ask for help is a strength, not a weakness. In having that help, I learned a bit about, and benefitted from, the various techniques on which therapy for emotional problems is based. This helped me in trying to locate a psychotherapist a couple of years after Maggie died, because although I was, in some senses, coping, in others I was not. I knew that I
needed more help with anxiety and phobias. In my search for a therapist, I hoped I could find one whose basis was Jungian, because I had had excellent help from one in the past. I was very lucky to find one via the Internet, and the help is so beneficial.
Finding a competent counsellor or psychotherapist is not all that easy. The mental health services provided by the NHS are stretched, and many poor and disadvantaged people cannot afford private therapy. I have said 'competent' because I have learned from trusted sources that there are therapists around who have not been properly trained and should not be in practice. Counselling is a two-way experience between the helper and the person helped, and developing a good rapport is essential – it's not just that the counsellor is doing all the giving, and the client is receiving all the time. It is more subtle than that.
My musings ...
I found it difficult to put the titles of these topics into some kind of order – after all they are random ponderings. The grieving that follows bereavement is not an orderly process. Avoid any websites which say there is a timetable for grieving and ignore the advice of anyone who says there is. There isn't.
I could probably have included more topics, but I didn't want to make this booklet too long, which might put people off. I hope I've covered enough aspects of the grieving process to satisfy readers. The other thing which I have found is always a problem for writers, is when have you typed the last word? It can be the same for artists - when do you put your brush down and stop tweaking!
Crying and weeping
When I was at the hospital with a couple of friends during Maggie's second time there, the doctor advised me to call relatives to see if they wanted to come over, because her death was very near, hours or a couple of days at the most. I have only four relatives left, my daughter, and three elderly cousins who could not travel because of infirmity. That phone call to our daughter was the most difficult of my life. I was crying when I rang, and she cried as well when I told her, and was frightened. We had to pull ourselves together as best we could. She was so brave, because she booked a flight from East Midlands to Bergerac on Tuesday 14th June, the day before Maggie died. When I met her off the plane at Bergerac she rushed up to me and we put our arms round each other and wept. We were the odd ones out, as all the meetings between those who had disembarked, and those who were waiting to see their visitors, were full of happiness. It was a strange experience.
I appreciate the way in which ideas, feelings, sentiments and much more can be expressed in poetry, although I haven't read many poems at all. Several years ago, I came across this verse from W. H. Auden's The Shield of Achilles. It had a real impact on me, as I was brought up in the 'Big boys don't cry' era.
A ragged urchin aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy, a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.
I researched the web to find out why crying can be beneficial, and I found the following. I cannot quote the site, because none was given.
'Research has found that in addition to being self-soothing, shedding emotional tears releases oxytocin and endorphins. These chemicals make people feel good and may also ease both physical and emotional pain. In this way, crying can help reduce pain and promote a sense of well-being.'
The celebration of Maggie's life
A few weeks after Maggie died, my daughter and I decided to plan a celebration of her life at my place, to which we would invite English and French friends. She asked two of her lovely friends if they could come with her for support. I had known both of them from when she first went to school. I suggested it might be a good idea to do a collage of photos of Maggie at various stages in her life, annotated in French as well as English, and hang it on a wall in the sitting room, and she agreed. On 19th August 2016, in the afternoon, friends who had helped with refreshments started to arrive, and by 3.30pm there were about 40 of us in the sitting room.
I realised at an early stage of the preparations for the event that I would probably be expected to talk about Maggie. I was very anxious about this as I get the well-known symptoms of 'stage fright'. I knew that I had to commit to doing this, so I prepared a script of what I wanted to say. This left a wastepaper basket with a lot of failed attempts in it! I then contacted two very good friends to ask them if they could help me with the task. They were most willing to do so. I wanted one of the them to explain in French each paragraph as I read it, so that my French friends wouldn't feel left out. I built a 'podium' on which the three of us could stand, because if we were at floor level people wouldn't hear properly. We had a rehearsal and it went well.
My daughter and her friends Hannah and Gemma arrived on 18th August and I picked them up from the airport. They asked if I would like a rehearsal of the talk, and I got upon the podium. Soon after I started, they stopped me and said I was going far too fast! This is a common mistake. I started again and managed to be a lot slower. I was so grateful for that help.
It's interesting that getting stuck into the task helped with the grieving.
After my talk, which went well, I got off the podium and sat down so that another good friend could organise those who wanted to say a few words about Maggie. By now there were tears in my eyes.
We finished with two songs from a record of the Seekers: The Carnival Is Over and I'll Never Find Another You. The words in each song were so apt for the occasion. I had introduced the CD to Maggie very early on in the marriage, as I loved Judith Durham's voice, and the backing from rest of the group. By now I was weeping quietly, and when the songs had finished I got up and turned round to go out of the room, but then I saw my daughter and her friends and they were crying, so she and I hugged each other and wept.
Hugs, cuddles, kisses
I miss these so much now I live on my own. When meeting friends who are really special, they give me a hug. That's acceptable, but I believe that cuddles and kisses should be between two people who have some sort of intimate relationship. Not a behaviour practised by everyone! Our great friend, Malcolm, to whom I have referred elsewhere, used to make us laugh when he described Maggie and myself as 'touchy-feely' people! I think he was, but he never admitted to it!
Because I have no chance for a long and intimate hug at present, each Monday morning when I change the bed linen, I hug the rolled up duvet when I go and put it in another room temporarily while I change the sheets. I pretend I am hugging Maggie. Some readers may find that bizarre, but sometimes, trying to cope with grief needs a bit of 'thinking outside the box'.
I sometimes laugh when I think of the humorous situations that happened to one or the other or both of us.
It has often been said that laughter is the best medicine. When we laugh, there are many benefits, physical and emotional for us. To list them here would take too long, so have a look on the web. I realise from my own experience, that it is difficult to find laughter in life when we have lost a loved one, but I believe it is important during grieving to try to find opportunities to laugh. This is where contacting friends with a good sense of humour may be a help. Apparently, even fake laughter benefits us.
I smile at my reflection in the mirror in the bathroom each morning. I smile during the day when something funny happens. Each time we smile there are benefits for our mind and body which are similar to those when we cry or laugh.
A sense of humour
Having some kind of sense of humour in life generally is beneficial. Trying to keep in touch with it during grieving can seem very difficult, even impossible, but it is well worth doing so. Maggie and I co-wrote a couple of training books on groupwork and communication, and I illustrated them with humorous stick-person 'cartoons' to help make the text memorable. Our motto at the end of the Introduction to each book was 'Take the issues seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously.' The ability to laugh at ourselves at times is very necessary.
Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting
I am, of course, aware that some people who have this little booklet may have an impairment in one or more of these senses, and one or more of them may not be available to use at all.
Throughout the grieving so far, I have felt overwhelmed many times by the number of memories of Maggie that are stirred up in the home, garden or away from the house, by each of these senses. I am a sentimental person. Some of my friends are not, and others are in between.
A photo of her, her voice in my head, touching things she wore, smelling and tasting food that she used to cook, all bring back the pain of the loss as well as the happy memories. Rather than try to avoid these experiences, I decided that I needed to accept that they would be around, probably until I die. Human brains are massive computers that store all the experiences in our lives, and they continually try to sort things out. The fact that we forget most of what is stored, is mainly to do with memory. It's not necessarily that our brains have chucked things out!
Talking to oneself
This is quite normal. I talk to Maggie from time to time. As an atheist, I know she cannot hear me as she is dead and gone and I will never see her again. I gain some comfort from the lovely memories of our times together. I can also understand, from when I was a member of the Anglican church, the comfort that people who are religious can get from believing that a loved one can hear them, and they can be in touch.
Motivation and lack of it
In several of the topics, I have mentioned strategies which have helped me to deal with these two aspects. I tried others as well but they fell by the wayside. Since Maggie died, I have had phone chats with a few friends who are grieving, and sometimes mention is made of their general lack of 'Get up and go'. It may be experienced as intense or fleeting or somewhere in between the two. It can occur frequently or not very often or anywhere in that range. Sometimes it can arise as the result of a particular incident or as part of the general level of anxiety. All of what I have just outlined has been, and still is, very familiar to me.
Often, when I'm struggling to get going, I have to give myself a good talking to. Getting up in the morning is one of the classic times when this happens. At other times in the day, I tell myself that I've done X, Y or Z before and of course I can succeed again.
Some people hate routine and others thrive on it. Most people are somewhere in between. My daughter and many of my friends have suggested that keeping busy is important, and I have benefitted from that. Housework, keeping in touch with friends, and working on projects, for example have been helpful. Maggie and I used to have a routine, and I have a routine now I'm on my own. When we were together it was governed by what I call a 'Mars Bar' way of life. The original slogan was something like 'It helps you work, rest and play.' Maggie and I tried to fit in these three aspects of life each day as much as we could throughout our married life, and I continue to do so.
We used to try to exercise for 20 minutes each day Monday to Friday. If I was not feeling very motivated, Maggie would encourage me to make the effort, and vice versa. If the weather wasn't good, we used a gym DVD by Rosemary Conley. Without Maggie's encouragement, I lose the motivation quite often. I have started to use the DVD again and aim to continue even if I'm feeling like giving it a miss.
Exercise can certainly be helpful in dealing with stress and anxiety and may help the grieving process.
I decided after Maggie died not to be a moaner when contacting relatives, friends and others as it can put them off. I tried instead to tell them about what had happened, mentioning in a non-moaning way how I was feeling, and also to be a listener, so that the conversation wasn't all one-sided.
Maggie didn't have a funeral. Both of us had donated our bodies to medical research, and her body was sent by the hospital at Marmande to a crematorium near Bordeaux. Her ashes are in an urn in a small walled garden dedicated to those who had donated their bodies. This garden is in a huge area of beautiful parkland next to the crematorium and is solely for those who want to scatter the ashes of their loved ones at the bases of the vast number of trees and shrubs. There are no gravestones because there are no graves, but relatives are allowed to put a small plaque at the base of a tree or shrub. I think it's a lovely idea. However, I have never visited the park since she died, as cemeteries and the like do nothing for me, but it was interesting that about two years before her death, a friend told us about the parkland and we visited it. The person in charge told us all about it and took us round.
Instead of visiting a parkland a long way away, I wanted a memorial in our small garden. Maggie was the gardener and she loved tending the trees and shrubs and the plants in pots. I am not a gardener, so I helped her by doing the heavy work. I mentioned this memorial idea to my daughter and we worked together on the design and the wording for the brass plaque. We decided on a bird table theme. I bought bricks and two garden paving slabs, and did a dry assembly to see what it would look like. I was very pleased and took a photo and emailed it to her. She was delighted with the result, so I went ahead and built it using cement mortar. We had decided to place it next to the bird box and feeders which were higher up. She found a sun-dial which had two butterflies on it and I ordered it. We also worked out the inscription for the brass plaque:
Maggie Kindred 31st October 1940 – 15th June 2016 Savoured each moment and was grateful for all life brought her. You have inspired us and we really miss you.
Maggie loved birds and enjoyed feeding them, and seeing them feed, and she really enjoyed being out in the sun, and she loved butterflies, so we were very pleased we had incorporated these themes in the memorial.
From a religious point of view, readers of this booklet will comprise fully committed believers, semi committed believers, agnostics and non-believers. Maggie and I used to be involved in the Anglican Church, before we met and during part of our time together. Then began a slow process of withdrawal and we became non-believers. It is from this point of view that I tried, and am still trying, to cope with my grief, and it is reflected in what I have written.
Some therapists, and others who offer help to people with emotional problems, don't always allow enough time to get to know a client, before they say what they think are ways forward for them.
When I was in my early twenties, and was depressed, I found 'alternative parents' because I came into contact with the local Anglican church, which was low church, and I became friends with the vicar and his family. However, at one stage, I suffered greatly from an attempt by the vicar to help me get better from the depression. During one visit to my parent's home, he told me I wouldn't get better if I was masturbating. I haven't a clue how he sussed that out!
So what that vicar learned during his training, I don't know. As he was an evangelical believer, perhaps what he had been taught about the god he believed in was based on 'thou shalt not', and 'hell fire and damnation'. I am sorry to say this about him, because he helped me very much in many other ways.
There are some therapists, and others, professional or lay, who want to help people with emotional problems, and they can tend to forget what they learned in any training they had, and in life in general, in their desire to offer their advice or, dare I say, 'pearls of wisdom'. It's almost like not being able to see the wood for the trees. This leads to not listening properly to the client, and ignoring the non-verbals.
Sleeping and eating
When functioning properly, these two aspects of life can take up a lot of time in 24 hours. People vary enormously in the amount of sleep they get or need – at one end of the range there are those who find it very difficult to get up in the morning, through to insomniacs at the other end of the range.
Maggie was a bad sleeper from early childhood. Some people who are grieving may lie awake for long periods in bed at night. I had some nights where I thought I wasn't going to get back to sleep after waking up, but thankfully it wasn't a problem that occurred all that often. I was reassured to learn that even though a person is not asleep, they are resting. Whether to take sleeping tablets or calming ones is a moot point. I decided not to use them
Appetite can be affected after losing a loved one. Maggie's appetite was satisfactory, but she suffered from awful constipation in early childhood, and had to go into hospital for treatment at one stage. My appetite didn't suffer very much after Maggie died – I still looked forward very much to the next meal, and still do. I'm not sure if some of it was comfort eating. When I found out that making meals which are colourful is a way of improving the appetite, I started experimenting. It certainly added to the enjoyment. Red and yellow ingredients are particularly helpful.
Treat yourself kindly
Caring for yourself is so necessary. Allow yourself treats – physically, mentally, emotionally – don't become a martyr. My daughter and I have always pursued this advice when life is difficult, as well as when it isn't. In any social work training material which Maggie wrote, she always emphasised that caring for the carers was vitally important - and one is largely one's own carer in bereavement.
The art of listening
A child once defined 'listening' as 'wanting to hear'. Finding friends who really listen can be difficult. I have friends who have mastered this art. I have other friends who haven't, and I can sense that they are waiting to pounce and tell you about what's on their mind. Where it's feasible, I find a 'share and share alike' approach in such conversations is helpful.
Knowing and waiting
Maggie and I knew several married relatives and friends who became aware that their spouse was terminally ill. The knowing and waiting can be very hard to bear, especially if the spouse who is terminally ill becomes aware of the situation. When the hospital doctor told me Maggie was near to death, I had already realised that this was most probably the case. Even so, it was devastating.
'I know how you feel'
Be wary when well-meaning friends say this. Although they are trying to be kind and help you by showing they really know what you are going through, they are misleading you and themselves. Even if she or he is in a very similar situation, there will be many differences between you both in terms of personality and background.
When used by friends and others I sometimes laugh inwardly, because I find a lot of these words and phrases very comical . Euphemisms are mainly about death, sex and the toilet and tend mainly to be related to situations that are scary, worrying or embarrassing.
We have the perfectly adequate words in 'death' (noun), 'die' (verb) and 'dead' (when used as an adjective). The French often say 'Elle nous a quitté'. It might sound as though the loved one who had died had decided arbitrarily to leave this world. However, an English friend whose husband had died, told me that she had felt like that: he had left her totally bereft.
I heard about a mother who said to her young daughter, whose best friend had just died, that 'God wanted her for a sunbeam'. I felt so sad and upset on behalf of her daughter. What on earth would be going through that child's mind whenever the sun came out. Would this 'god' her mother had mentioned kill off anyone if s/he wanted him or her in what is often called 'heaven'?
Therapy – a two-way relationship
If you experience helping someone who has asked for your help, whether it be physical like gardening or DIY, or psychological, and they are helped by you, it can give you a warm feeling. It's a bit like holding their hand.
Each of us has a massive computer!
Grieving takes forever in one sense – the brain is a massive computer and everything that has happened from birth onwards is in its memory bank, even if we can't recall it. We may be able, gradually, to feel more able to cope, but the sense of loss will never go away. The brain spends a lot of time trying to sort out all the bits and pieces of life for us, especially when we are asleep. It is never off duty! I love crosswords and if I'm stuck on a clue the solution may well come to me the next day. The same process happens with most creative and problem solving activities. Hence the saying 'Sleep on it'.
What I did notice during the grieving, is that sometimes I took more time than usual to complete a task, or that my short term memory became shorter. I knew from friends who were 75 plus, and did not have a bereavement to cope with, that these symptoms were par for the course anyway. Even so, I worried about it and thoughts about the onset of dementia floated around in my mind. However, I was reassured when I learnt from my therapist that the brain can work slowly to make the grieving process easier to bear.
Anxiety and phobias
Eventually these kicked in and hindered the grieving process. At first they didn't affect me much at all because I was so busy for what seemed ages trying to cope with all the jobs that have to be done after a death.
I am an anxious person and I know what it is like to suffer from agoraphobia, claustrophobia and acrophobia. The one that has caused most difficulty is the agoraphobia, but my present therapy is helping very much with that. At one stage during the grieving, I remembered that I had read a most heartwarming book called An Aspect of Fear (2011) by Grace Sheppard, who was the wife of the Revd David Sheppard, a former Bishop in the Diocese of Liverpool. She wrote about the great difficulties she had in coping with being in the public eye and at the same time suffering with agoraphobia. The awful panic attacks associated with this phobia can occur in a multitude of different situations, whereas if a person is terrified of heights and edges as in acrophobia they know what to avoid, and life can usually go on as normal.
Feelings of non-being
I have had experiences in waking life of feeling that I am in a dream. Thankfully, they didn't occur very often. Usually it was when I was away from home, but occasionally it could be there as well. The panicky feeling that accompanied each occurrence, was concerned with how to feel normal again, and what can I do to get out of it. Over the years I found that making contact with someone helped. At times, I would go into a sweet shop and buy something I didn't want, just to be able to meet another human being and interact with them. At other times, I found that furniture shops, and toy shops let me be in a soothing and homely environment. One therapist did reassure me years ago by saying that I seemed to know how to deal with these feelings.
The technical term for this kind of feeling is disassociation.
Sympathy and empathy
It's important to know the difference between them. There are detailed definitions on many Internet sites, but I wanted something concise. I found this, but I can't quote the site because it isn't given.
'Empathy is a term we use for the ability to understand other people's feelings as if we were having them ourselves ... sympathy refers to the ability to take part in someone else's feelings, mostly by feeling sorrowful about their misfortune.'
I think that concerning sympathy, we cannot take part fully in someone else's feelings, and as for 'empathy, we never know exactly how someone else feels. I tend to tread with care if I'm trying to support a friend who is suffering emotionally, in order to avoid 'putting my foot in it'.
At various times in my life I have misunderstood whether I have been angry about something or regretful. This has happened during the grieving. The other emotion that springs to mind is 'rage'. I can't think of any times when I have been in a rage about a situation, but did I have rages when I was a baby? I don't know. I can think of times when I have been angry. I usually substitute the word 'cross'. For example, I get cross with myself if I do something stupid which I could have avoided. I get cross with governments, with people whose carelessness puts me and others in danger. I find it helpful to think of emotions on a scale of 1 to 10. I can be mildly angry or very angry, and any shade in between.
What generally works well for me is that if I've had an experience which has generated strong emotions and they are whirling round in my brain and maybe affecting my sleep, I write about what has happened and the feelings generated. Getting it 'out there' is not a substitute for discussing problems with a therapist, but it could be a step along the way. I save what I have written so that I can read it through again whenever necessary.
In the quick tour of my life, I mentioned that I had had experience of various kinds of therapy.
Knowing when to ask for help is a strength, not a weakness. The next step is deciding to seek that help. This is where certain aspects need considering.
a) Determination to find that help is a must, as it is easy to find yourself wavering if your first few tries to don't work.
b) You need to decide between NHS or private.
c) It may help your quest to write some notes about why you have decided to seek help. Having these in front of you when phoning friends, therapists' secretaries, or therapists, means that if you become a bit anxious during a call, you won't forget things you need to communicate.
d) Have you any friends who have had help for emotional problems, or know any of their friends who have done so? Sometimes a recommendation could set you on the right path.
e) If you are researching on the Internet, be extremely wary. There are people who advertise their services as therapists, and they are not competent, and may be using techniques which can be harmful.
Before Maggie died, neither of us had anything to do with superstition. In my grieving, I have carried on that attitude. For example, if a black cat crosses my path, it means nothing to me.
When I was a small child, my mother used to draw the front room curtains for a week, to show that a relative had died. I hated that, and it made me afraid.
At primary schooI, I played the 'game' of not treading on the joints where one paving slab met up to others on pavements. At grammar school I learned the expression: 'Touch your collar, never follow' when an ambulance went past. 'Follow' was pronounced as 'foller' to rhyme with 'collar'.
Some people acquire 'good luck' charms in order to avoid nasty things happening to them. There are always stories floating around where people claim that their charm had worked in a particular situation. If they hadn't had the charm, they would most probably have been safe anyway.
I do avoid walking under ladders, but that's for safety reasons, I don't want bricks or paint pots dropping on me!
I want to mention one aspect only, as I am not competent to explore a topic which is so complex and controversial. Although losing a spouse or a partner may make a person feel impotent, sexual thoughts, desires and urges are still there to be tapped in most of us.
Previous losses in one's life
These can have a considerable effect on a person's ability to cope with the next loss, whatever its nature. In addition to the loss of a loved one or friend, losing a job, losing a pet, splitting up from a partner, divorce, for example, can all take their toll.
Losses in infancy and childhood are usually very emotionally damaging and they can affect the various stages of growing up, as was the case with Maggie and myself. When I was about 3 years old, I had to be circumcised because of a problem urinating. When I was 18 I suddenly had a flashback and remembered being separated from my parents by a nurse wearing a mask and being put on a trolley which was pushed into the operating theatre. I screamed until a mask was put over my face. When I woke up I was back with my parents. My mother told me that I then screamed all the way back home and it took hours to quieten me down. Very traumatic. That was the awful way that young children were dealt with in that era. In passing, I am intrigued by the fact that I don't mind at all wearing a mask during the Covid restrictions, and I am not upset when I see someone else wearing one!
Separation anxiety, as it is sometimes called, is fairly common, and can spoil the enjoyment of some aspects of life. I have a friend who says that it has been the bane of her life. She sometimes finds it difficult to go out of the house, even though she told me she has never suffered from agoraphobia. Any adjustment to losses in later life can be very trying after ones in early childhood.
Pet names for spouses and other loved ones
I don't know how many couples divulge such intimate details! A dear friend who I have known since my early 30s let on that she called her husband 'Scroopy'. My pet name for Maggie was 'Tweety-pie' and she called me 'Tweet'. These 'sweet nothings' can churn the emotions anytime they are recalled after losing a spouse.
Maggie loved putting our photographs in albums. She had fifteen of them covering different years and events. When she was in hospital for the second time, I asked her during a visit if she would like me to bring any for her to look through but she declined. I accepted her decision without asking why. Perhaps it was because she was beginning to wonder if she would ever get better, and felt she couldn't cope with the memories the photos would evoke.
Is it comforting or anxiety-making? It depends on what kind of upbringing and background a person has had. We are all different in so many ways.
In my late 20s and early 30s, I went to a religious community several times to take part in their holiday house parties. I remember one service in their chapel when we had to meditate in silence for a while. I am not good at meditating, and the silence went on and on and I was getting more and more anxious and starting to panic. When would it end? I wanted to get up and walk out, but that would draw attention to me, which I would probably find embarrassing.
Another instance was after I met Maggie. When she was a social worker in London, she had a colleague who was her supervisor, and Maggie rated her highly. We were invited to lunch so I arranged an extra visit to London. This colleague was a Quaker and so was the woman she lived with. Maggie had a high regard for Quakers. I didn't know much about them. On arrival, we had a chat before the meal was served. When we sat at the table, the Quakers bowed their heads and closed their eyes as did Maggie, so I joined in, but was not sure what was going to happen. Perhaps a short prayer? No, it was silence, and it went on and on. I don't know how long it was as I daren't look at my watch. I didn't know what to do with the time, so I played word games in my mind! Once again the rising panic and the desire to get out of the room. It's interesting that Maggie's colleague didn't explain, before heads were bowed, what was going to happen.
I don't mind silences if I'm in control.
Celebrating the life of a loved one
I have described elsewhere the event at which my daughter and I and friends celebrated Maggie's life. I wanted to add a bit extra here about what I believe is an important way forward in trying to cope with grieving. She and I decided very soon after Maggie died that we would take every opportunity to celebrate her life. This gave us a purpose and offered a positive approach amid all the 'doom and gloom'.
In one way, I am very lucky that I have enjoyed inventing games and writing articles and books since my 20s. I have continued trying to be creative whenever possible in this field, and also in DIY. I have also studied creativity in general and read several books about it.
Over the years, I have also tried to help friends to explore their creativity. Some have said immediately 'Oh, I'm not creative'. I have then asked them if they like, for example, cooking, baking, gardening, knitting, painting. One friend said that she loved making cakes and icing them. She had never thought of this as linked to creativity. Others responded in similar ways. I was always so pleased if a friend embarked on a new way of being creative after our chats.
Maggie's main areas of creativity were to do with career and her writing, home-making, cooking and baking, gardening, and dressing attractively.
Our creativity doesn't have to be about massive projects – it can be expressed in small ways in our everyday life.
A few more coping strategies
I have mentioned elsewhere in this narrative a few of the ways in which I have tried cope with what the anxiety and phobias were doing to the grieving process . Here are some more of my strategies:
When I go to bed at night and get up in the morning, I look at, and sometimes pick up and hold, one of my best photos of Maggie. She looks so spirited, and happy, and has a broad smile. Sometimes I give the photo a kiss, at other times I tell her how very much I miss her.
When I dust the bedroom, there are lots of reminders which are mainly about Maggie. There is a one of her favourite little bowls on a shelf, and when, in July 2016 I collected the items of jewellery she wore in hospital, I put them in there. Holding her engagement ring, her wedding ring , a bangle and her favourite earrings, is a very emotional experience, which I find very positive, even though tears are not far away.
Maggie and I liked classical and choral music, and occasionally I put on one of our favourite CDs. On her birthday I play the two songs performed by the Seekers which were played at the celebration of her life. Again, tears may come, but I find them therapeutic.
I record TV programmes to watch in the evening while I'm having my lap tray meal. All of them are light entertainment – ones which can lift my mood if necessary. I never watch dramas which could be frightening. There are times when I find having a vivid imagination a bit of a pain!
Making people laugh is something I love trying to do, whether it be by e-mail, phone or face to face. I love it if something comical occurs to me spontaneously. I really enjoyed the situation comedies of the 50s and 60s. The other side of the coin is that I don't like telling jokes, and I tend to avoid watching stand-up comedians.
Soon after Maggie died, I made a list of all my friends in and around where I live and in the UK. At times when I felt the loss of her so deeply, I would look through it. Being reminded of each of them in turn helped me to feel some kind of support.
Here's a little poem I put together, in memory of Maggie, which picks up in a different way from what you've just read, what losing her felt like for me.
No more, my love ...
No more hugs, no more kisses,
No more holding hands.
No more times together
In this life of shifting sands.
No more smiles, no more laughs,
No more lovely cuddles.
No more your sound advice
In sorting out life's muddles.
No more your voice to comfort me,
No more your care each day.
No more your quiet tenderness
In a life that's oft astray ...
Auden, W. H. (1955) 'The Shield of Achilles' Random House
With thanks to Michael Kindred for generously sharing his personal experiences and what he learned from living through the different stages of grief, after he lost his beloved wife Maggie.
If you would like to share your experience to help other people with any aspect of end of of life or bereavement, please email dyingmattersleicestershireandrutland.com