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When someone dies

When we grieve, what do we grieve? And how can we possibly come through?

Every single person reading these words, and I, sitting here at my laptop writing them, will die. It goes without saying that death is, and will always remain, the most challenging final question we all must face. By its very nature, death defies our understanding. Whilst we are all aware of the biology, of the role of disease or of ageing, at another, existential, level it seems to make no sense. How can we, or someone we love, just stop? When yesterday their heart beat, their life force was present, their blood moved around their bodies - central features of their being from the earliest moments of life - now, it does not. If you have a religious or spiritual belief, your thoughts may turn to ways that they may continue in the non-physical, or perhaps how their essence or their soul might return, to become embodied again. For others, the moment of death is final, the very most final moment of all. The whistle has blown. There's no extra time. No second chances, no waking up as if from a sleep. It's over. 'How can that make any sense?!' part of our mind might be saying - or screaming. Our trauma will likely contain shock and sadness, especially if we were close to the departed person, even if the death was expected. But it may also contain a sense of incomprehensibility. And so we mentally go back to it again and again, somehow. Or at least I did, when a close family member died last year. He had been ill for sometime, but no-one predicted the final chapter. Things got better, then they got worse. Then there was some optimism, then another sudden setback. Ultimately his death was a shock. He had returned to hospital urgently having been only recently discharged yet within a couple of days he was dead. I got a call from his wife early one morning. She was completely overwhelmed and barely functioning. "How can this have happened?!" she said, through her tears.

I have seen three dead bodies in my lifetime. I count myself very fortunate to not be living in parts of the world where avoidable, tragic, death is a too common feature of life (and my thoughts right now go to the people of Gaza, Ukraine, Yemen or to areas of the world with too little food and too much poverty). Every time I have seen a dead body, in amongst a cascade of emotions and shock, I have been powerfully struck by just how...well...dead they looked. I can, of course, only speak for myself. Maybe if you have had this experience you were left with some other impression? Or perhaps, like me, you were shocked by how the body that you were looking at was so clearly, unmistakably, not alive. After getting that phone call that morning and driving for ninety minutes to reach the hospital, I knew and yet did not know what to expect. Was he peaceful? I guess. Was he dead? Very much. Nothing prepares you for it. And thus starts the grief and the process of dealing with it. It is a strange term. We make deals with people of whom we can take a measure. We judge them, assess them, come to conclusions about how negotiate with them. If it's a situation, we're used to assessing things from a number of angles maybe to figure out the best course. 'Deals' suggest two sides manoeuvring around each other in some way. But how do you deal with something that will not deal with you, that has only one demand, that won't negotiate or explain, no matter how many questions you ask it? It just stares back at you.

As I sat with a client some of these themes were coming up. They were discussing a recent loss and, as can be common, their complicated feelings, held back for a while immediately after their loved one's death (as the practicalities of funerals, the ritual, the organisation and aftermath of it all unfolded), were beginning to surface. They shared that the person they had lost (who had been ill for sometime) had written shortly before dying of their hope that those left behind wouldn't grieve. They had written that they had had 'had a great life'. We reflected on these words and on the pain of loss. 'Loss of what?' pondered my client? What was hurting so much? Loss of a future, loss of possibility maybe? Loss of what might have happened instead of death? We speculated. Painful as part of any grief, these aspects can be a particularly overwhelming if death has come young and or suddenly. Apart from their obvious compassion in hoping to spare others sorrow, perhaps there was a clue in those parting words? 'I have had a great life', he had written. Was he saying, focus on what actually happened and the reality of my life? Keep the things that happened in your mind if you can? Try if you can to dwell less on what might have been but on what was?

Because what still? Is still? In the effect of that person on us and in the mark they made on who we are now. In their clear place in our memories. In how they touched or changed us, our stories, our paths - from the biggest to the tiniest of ways. In all the respects in which we have been altered by knowing them, perhaps not all of them conscious. When someone close dies, we cannot erase our grief and it must follow its path. One day, it starts to transform into something that continues to contain remembrance and love, but less of the pulsing, sudden, blindsiding, pain. Along the way, can the process be accompanied by something to which we can reach, in a way, to keep our loved one close? Not in a denial of death but to help light our way as we travel through our distress? Is this their imprint on us, that real and present effect within us - not seated in a past that's gone nor in an imagined future that's been taken away, but in our here and now. In us, and who we are? Maybe that's what stays alive - because we stay alive. The piece we carry, in the present, inside us, that carries on with us, that does not die. ************* Jo Shaw is a psychotherapist based in London and Tunbridge Wells in the UK. She sees clients both in person and online and can be reached at



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