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What I have learnt about grief, 20 years on from my sister’s death.

On January 13th 2001 my younger sister Arabella died in a car crash.  She was 26 years old and half way through what should have been a trip of a lifetime, as she had taken a year out to travel the world.  Arabella was dedicated environmentalist and a talented Marine Biologist who had achieved a first-class […]

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On January 13th 2001 my younger sister Arabella died in a car crash.  She was 26 years old and half way through what should have been a trip of a lifetime, as she had taken a year out to travel the world.  Arabella was dedicated environmentalist and a talented Marine Biologist who had achieved a first-class honours degree for her pioneering research into dolphins. She was on her way to visit the Barrier Reef in Australia, when a stoned and disqualified driver fell asleep at the wheel of his car and drove straight into her camper van. 

When a person you love unexpectedly dies there is a huge amount of shock to process, your brain literally short circuits as in a split second, you try to come to terms with not only the fact your loved one has gone but also the loss of the rest of their life, which they will never get to live. 

 Eleven years later I held my mother’s hand as she slipped away in a hospice. She died of breast cancer and had been sick for months. Although equally incredibly painful and sad, it was a very different experience because I had several months to come to terms with the fact that she was dying.  I also knew that as a result of previously losing my sister at such a young age, I was much more prepared about grief. I knew how it felt and what was ahead of me. My experience of surviving the loss of Arabella had shown me how strong and resilient I was capable of being.

For several years after Arabella died, I suffered from extreme anxiety, panic attacks and a compromised immune system, however without me realising it I had also begun to develop into an incredibly resilient person at a very young age. My grief and subsequent personal healing journey was an unwanted but profound life-lesson that ultimately shaped my life and resulted in me changing career and training to become a Cranio- Sacral Therapist, so that I could also help others recover and heal from trauma. 

 Cranio-Sacral therapy is simply like no other therapy because it works directly to resolve and heal the physical impact of trauma on your nervous system and has been life -changing for me. For many years I wasn’t able to cry sober about Arabella’s death  and I had remained dry-eyed even at her funeral. During one of my first Cranio training sessions we were working on hip opening as the hips and sacrum are considered to be significant areas of emotional holding.  As my partner gently began to unwind my left hip I experienced a huge rush of overwhelming sadness. Tears streamed down my face as I ran out of the practice room full of other students and I began to sob uncontrollably in the corridor. One of the tutors followed me and we sat in another room, where I literally howled for at least half an hour as all of this stuck grief came pouring out of me. Afterwards I felt so much lighter and calmer, it was as if over a decade later this huge weight of sadness had been lifted from my body and through further sessions I continued to work through resolving the aftershock of Arabella’s death on my nervous system for many more months and I finally began to heal. 

 Experiencing and surviving grief can offer a huge amount of personal growth if you are willing to accept the pain and learn from it. Death is natural part of our life experience and there is a whole spectrum of grief experience, each with its own lessons to learn.  There is a perceived wisdom in getting older but I actually believe that it’s the breadth of your life experience , your own personal spectrum of grief experience and not necessarily your age, that potentially offers a deeper insight into the meaning of life itself. 

Of course I still sweat the small stuff but not as much as I used to before Arabella died. I miss Arabella and my mum every day but I am lucky enough to now have a beautiful teenage daughter. My relationship with my wonderful Dad has deepened over the years and I have the most incredible friends. I am happy, healthy and experience ongoing fulfilment through my work as a therapist, witnessing my patients lives improve as they embark upon their own healing journey via Cranio-Sacral Therapy. 

 To follow are some tips about coping with grief. I hope they are useful.

1. Be very gentle with yourself. Accept that there is no set way to feel or think and it probably doesn’t feel the way you expected it would. If you have recently experienced a particularly traumatic bereavement then you will be in deep shock and the after effects of this will last for many months. You may feel numb, disconnected and life may take on a very surreal quality. You may say or do things which are entirely out of character as you begin to process what has happened.

 2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either from friends or professionals like your doctor or a counsellor. Try to be really specific about your needs with your friends as they will be pleased to feel as if they are doing something to help. Some people are not good at asking for help but trust me your friends will actually feel relieved if they are given specific things to do. Draw up a list of practical things, whether it’s minding your children, food shopping, dropping off cooked meals, helping with the logistics of the funeral etc, write down everything you need to do on a day to day basis and see if you can apportion some of it out to your friends. Equally don’t be afraid to ask them for space and ask a close friend if they will temporarily act as the main point of contact for you if it all gets too much.

3. Follow your body and practice extra self -care. You may feel more tired and need more sleep or you may feel wired and need to work off the extra adrenaline with more exercise. Take salt baths, daily walks outside and practice deep breathing to calm your nervous system. Gentle stretching can also help regulate your nervous system.

4. Nourish yourself. You will naturally be attracted to sugary comfort foods as your nervous system looks for a quick fix to repair the damage done from the shock and also searches for a way to quickly raise your feel-good endorphin levels. Unfortunately what goes up has to come down and the rollercoaster of sugary unhealthy foods will ultimately make you feel sluggish and drained. Try to focus on a balanced healthy diet with whole-grains, lean meat and fish, nuts, fruits, vegetables and drink plenty of water.

5. Allow yourself some time and space to grieve. Remove as many of your usual day to day life stressors as you can, even if only for a short time (see point no.2) Journaling your feelings is a really helpful way of emptying your mind and also provides you with a tangible personal road-map of your day to day recovery. In the weeks and months to come you will be able to look back and see just how far you have come.

 6. Try to cushion yourself from the outpouring of everyone’s sympathy by not attempting to make it alright for them. This was a lightbulb moment for me during my training as a Cranio-Sacral Therapist where we were taught to not openly express sorrow for a patient because by feeling sorry for them you are denying a patient the space to express their own feelings. When someone tells you how deeply sorry they are and gets upset around you, it’s hard to not take this on and feel responsible for their feelings but you have enough of your own to handle right now.

7. Know that these feelings you are currently experiencing won’t last forever and that you will find happiness and begin to enjoy your life again. Your life will of course never be the same but that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t ever be good again. In the meantime you will discover depths of strength, bravery and resilience that you previously had no idea you were capable of. 

NB. For anyone reading this and wondering what the best thing to say to someone who is experiencing the grief of a significant bereavement, it is only natural to want to express how deeply sorry you are and clearly a personal relationship is very different to a therapist’s one.  However it can really help to better support a grieving person, if you shift your focus and behaviour away from how you are feeling and focus solely on them and their immediate family. Try if you can to avoid dramatic displays of grief when you speak to them or doing anything which overshadows the space they currently need to express their own grief. If you do cry, definitely don’t apologise for crying as this again shifts the focus away from their grief and back onto your feelings. In conversation use less “I” and more “you” – so you could for example say, “I am so sorry for your loss, this must all be so hard for you. (x) was such a lovely person I remember (insert a nice memory) .” Or ‘I was really sad to hear about (x) dying , I really hope you are managing ok, how is your (mum, dad, brother sister etc)  coping?” Really don’t be afraid to talk or ask about the person who has just died, most people who are grieving love to hear funny stories and memories about the person they have just lost.  Even if you haven’t met the deceased person you could always comment in a positive way on a photo they might have shared on social media or at the wake/ funeral. 

www.thiskatestuart.com

My university graduation in 1994 with my mum and sister (on my right).
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