Inevitably, and increasingly as we get older, we lose loved ones – and come closer each time to our own mortality.
How do we deal with this most fundamental truth about being human in a society which prefers not to think about it? Death is the great modern taboo: talking about such things can cause shock and offence, while anyone who has been bereaved will know the embarrassment and reticence which surrounds the subject. Widows often say they are shunned by former friends; some people seem to find it easier to cross the road to avoid you than to offer their condolences.
These days, caring for the terminally ill happens increasingly outside the home in specialist units and hospitals. Not only does this remove loved ones from us in their last days, but it removes death and dying from our normal experience. And as we have become estranged from this power and potentially devastating process, our ability to cope with it has diminished accordingly.
Yet bereavement, together with other kinds of loss or separation from loved ones, can have serious consequences for our health, with the potential to undermine sleep patterns, appetite, mental health, and physical energy and well-being. In the early months of a bereavement, you may experience distressing physical symptoms, including headache, dizziness, tiredness, diarrhoea, nausea, tightness in the throat, difficult with breathing, palpitations, and chest pain. There is evidence too that serious illnesses like cancer are more common in people who have suffered a recent bereavement.
Loss is also a well-known trigger for insomnia. Research shows that many people suffer from disturbed sleep patterns for several years after a bereavement.
Bereavement, loss, and separation are also major precipitating causes of depression. Clearly, the death of a loved one is a considerable loss, but the break-up of a marriage, the loss of a job or home, separation from your child or partner can also have devastating effects. Many women suffer a deep sense of loss in midlife when their children leave home. This “empty nest syndrome” may be compounded by other simultaneous losses – a sense of lost youth and perceived attractiveness, the loss of parents, the loss of fertility, even the loss of hopes for the future.
Many factors influence how well we deal with the bereavement, loss or separation, ranging from our previous experience of loss, to the strength (or otherwise) of our social support systems. The conventional view of grieving is that it is a process which has several stages, beginning with numbness or a sense of unreality, then moving on to a mixture of complex emotions including guilt, fear, longing, and anger. Depression and despair may follow; it is only after a year or two, perhaps more, that life returns to some semblance of normality.