The KEY Questions: How long should I grieve?

My father looked pretty good, lying in his coffin.

That’s not intended as a sick joke, and it certainly doesn’t reflect my feelings at the time, which were pretty much what you’d expect as I stood over him in the funeral parlour, preparing to lay the old man to rest. Despite my sadness I couldn’t help noticing that he looked handsome and very much at peace lying there, death having finally freed him from the demons that had haunted him his whole life. He looked like the dad I always wanted him to be, the one that he really was, behind the mask of pain and disappointment he had always seemed to wear.

I was, and still am, grateful that we had been on good terms in the last few years of his life. I felt paradoxically very close to him at that moment, and though it’s not really in my nature to dwell on questions of the afterlife I found myself wondering, like so many before me, whether something of the human spirit survives death. I found myself whispering, just under my breath:

“Dad… if you can hear me … give me a sign.”

In the course of my work as a transformational coach and educator I naturally encounter many grieving people, some whose lives have been so shattered by the loss of a loved one that they live in the firm belief they can never be truly happy again. Whatever else they are struggling with in life this burden of grief is the one seemingly insurmountable difficulty they face, and often they make it clear to me that I can be of no help at all in that one area. It’s hardly surprising then that they are sometimes angered by the suggestion that grief is a choice we make. I can understand why, but all of my personal experience, along with the philosophical teachings that I’ve long been studying, tells me that it’s the truth.

Our psychological and physiological responses to pain are one. They are inextricably linked. You have an accident in which your arm or leg is broken. There is major trauma both physically and mentally. Your limb is in plaster for weeks, and the memory of the accident haunts you, perhaps even gives you nightmares. Then what happens?

It gradually fades.

The pain, in each case, lessens. It’s supposed to. The limb is healed, the nightmares become less frequent until eventually they cease altogether. The accident that was so painful at the time becomes no more than an anecdote, something half-remembered at best. You even find yourself joking about it in time.

The pain of loss of a loved one is terrible, and I would never try to deny or downplay it. But the truth is that it fades, like any other pain, because we human beings are designed that way. What happens with many of us is that as we feel the pain gradually leaving us we work to keep it alive through our thoughts, perhaps from a sense of duty to the person we loved, or from a sense of guilt that we are still here and they are not. And of course the culture we are raised in plays a big part in encouraging us in this respect. Queen Victoria famously mourned the death of Prince Albert in 1861 for the remaining forty years of her life, wearing her widow’s clothes and instructing her servants to keep filling his shaving bowl with hot water every morning as usual. So public was her grief that even her own loyal subjects began to wonder about the state of her mental health.

Whatever our reasons we suffer through each anniversary, reliving precious memories of the loved one, willingly re-opening old wounds even as we sink into despair. All this time we know full well that our grieving does not return this person to us, nevertheless we feel helplessly caught in the negative emotions that their loss has caused.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging, condemning or criticising anyone. I’m simply pointing out that it is not in our emotional and psychological make-up to grieve beyond a certain point, so there must be choice involved. If someone wants to make that choice it is of course up to him or her, but perhaps the knowledge that pain is supposed to die away might bring some comfort.

I think about my dad with affection, and I choose to remember the good stuff. Did he hear my whispered question in the funeral parlour? I’m not sure. All I know is that the instant the words ‘give me a sign’ left my lips a pneumatic drill started up outside with a hellish clattering that I swear could wake the dead.

I nearly jumped out of my skin!