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LIVE BY DESIGN | Your Grieving Self: Who Will You Become When Grief’s Work Is Done?

Live by Design is a weekly News24 column by Dr Helena Dolny and Mapi Mhlangu about mortality and the conversations surrounding it.


I met a friend for lunch. Her response to the question ‘how are you?’ was: ‘The water levels are a bit high.’

As she said this, tears welled up in her eyes and she wiped them away. She had lost a beloved pet. I listened to her story: the symptoms of the pet’s unwellness, her concerns, her visits to the vet, her briefing to a kennel owner about the pet’s poor health before she went on holiday…

And then the fear when the kennel owner called to report a worsening condition and the need to return to the vet. My friend’s daughter ended up sitting with her mother’s pet while the vet performed the euthanasia.

My friend quotes lines from John O’Donohue’s poem About sadness:

When you lose someone you love,

Your life becomes strange,

The ground beneath you becomes fragile,

Your thoughts make your eyes uncertain…

It can be even harder when beloved animals die and we are absent – ​​although I have heard comments that it is indeed our absence that creates the space for them to die – and that can be true for people too. As a grief counselor, I try to offer this perspective as an antidote to what O’Donohue calls “the flickers of guilt.”

It was easy enough for me to adapt to the prevailing mood of sadness.

A month ago, on March 19, I sent a WhatsApp message to a dear friend who lives in England. I asked if we could have lunch together in the British Museum restaurant on June 15. I am a forward-thinking planner!

Later that day I got this response: “Damn! That’s more planning ahead than I’ve done in recent years, but let’s assume it’s good. You’ll recognize me; I’ll be on the stairs with a big smile stand” the Russell Street entrance at 12:45 p.m.

The beautiful turn of phrase brought a smile to my face as I noted the appointment in my calendar.

But now that lunch will never happen again. Last week I received a phone call informing me that my friend had passed away. Even though I was a minor character in the grand panorama of that person’s life, my heart still aches and, in the words of my animal-loving friend, my water level is running a little high, too.

O’Donohue writes:

Your heart has become heavy with loss,

And although this loss has hurt others,

No one knows what was taken from you…

Correct; No one else can know what a particular loss means to you, whether it is the loss of a person, a pet, a job, a child leaving home to begin an independent life as a young adult.

Some people are judgmental and have a mental hierarchy of grief, assuming that grief over the loss of a human being is higher than the loss of a pet; the loss of a child outweighs the loss of a spouse or parent.

My lived experience, as well as my theoretical knowledge as a grief teacher, is that grief is grief, regardless of its origin. It hurts! It is also unpredictably different with each loss, although many of us will have similar experiences.

There are days when you wake up happy;

Once again in the fullness of life…

Suddenly, without any warning,

You are overcome with sadness.

O’Donohue urges us to be patient with ourselves; that we sit with the sadness as it passes through us:

Sorrow will remain true to itself,

It knows the way more than you do.

My preferred approach to grief work is that of Canadian expert Thomas Attig. In his opus, How We Grieve: Relearning the Worldhe describes how our losses can undermine the essence of ourselves. Grief work, he explains, requires us to relearn how we choose to interact with the world in the presence of the loss we have suffered.

For example, a laid-off person held a position that entailed status and a set of relationships. The loss of the job requires them to redefine their new identity. The owner of the deceased pet returns to an empty house, without an animal at the door. The young female migrant who used to return to her mother’s house and is now an orphan will miss her mother’s caresses and favorite dishes. What new patterns will each create to reshape their world and ease the pain of loss? Processing grief requires a realignment of the inner self – an acceptance of a new identity.

In my book, Forever after, I wrote about my dear friend Getti, whose beloved Alan died all too young of a brain tumor. They had shared a life for decades. Getti identified three losses: losing the person you loved, losing the unique intimate self you were in that person’s eyes, and losing social status.

Grief has no timelines. Experts say that you should give yourself a few years where you can expect to be occasionally “thrown back into the dark age of loss,” and that the first year, with its first anniversaries and first festive occasions, may be the worst could be.

Ultimately, you will be the architect of the life you choose to shape from that point of loss.

The cover of Before Forever After by Dr. Helena Dolny. (Staging Post)

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