The coronavirus outbreak is affecting the way we are able to grieve. You may be dealing with sudden loss or trauma, and may be cut off from your usual support network. FIND OUT MORE
January can be a really hard time for people who have lost someone close in the previous year. In addition, it’s unsurprising that significant losses from previous years can also play a strong part in your thoughts at this time. In this article, Cruse Scotland volunteer, Graham Stevenson, outlines feelings that may arise as you look to the new year ahead.
January 01, 2022
Below are some of the thoughts and feelings you may experience when you are facing a new year alone, and advice on how to cope.
Everything at this point can just seem wrong. You may have somehow coped with Christmas, even while feeling sad when thinking of the empty place at the table. You may have managed to put on a brave face over the festive season while feeling anything but festive, especially if you had to keep the show on the road for the sake of young family, or indeed other relatives and friends. You may have tried to keep the yearly traditions going, and just about managed.
But now January beckons, a time for everyone else of new beginnings and New Year’s resolutions, while for you it’s still a time of loss, and the overwhelming feeling that a time of emptiness lies ahead.
In one sense, January is just a date, a day, a month like any other. But for anyone grieving, it’s different, since it can also feel like a signal that a loved one has slipped further away. Last year was actually the last year you had with them. Together, you shared mutual experiences. With a new year, these links are more remote, and the events have somehow slid further into the past. What hope can be held out to help people at their lowest ebb in January, a dark time of year and short days that anyway can be hard to cope with?
This January, many others are sharing the experience of trying to find their way in a new landscape. So, although it may be small comfort right now, you are not alone. Others are just beginning to discover that this dreadful feeling of emptiness will gradually pass. Hold on and try to take even the smallest of steps, finding little ways to cope, which will build up cumulatively.
At this moment, in 2022, some people feel that if their loved one did not die of Covid, their loss is somehow secondary, less significant, as the spotlight is on the pandemic. Please be reassured that this is absolutely not the case; for every single one of you, your grief matters, whatever its cause and whoever you have lost.
“But it was almost a year ago - shouldn’t I be starting to feel better by now?”.
Does this sound familiar? So many people think that grief operates to a timetable, but nothing could be further from the truth. Well-meaning friends in particular may not understand this. Lots of people don’t realise that even the average length of the bereavement process (if bereavement is really a process that we can actually measure) is two years, but for many it is longer. Possibly quite a bit longer.
There is no right or wrong way of grieving. Each bereavement is individual. Everybody’s journey will take its own route and time, so it’s not a good idea to compare ourselves with anyone else who’s had a loss. The most important message is that we each grieve in our own way. You will feel the physical sensations and emotions that it’s right for you to feel at the time as you start to heal, whether these are of anger, or sadness, or guilt, or blame or feeling lonely or hopeless.
As time passes and you may notice that you are feeling just a little bit better, suddenly out of nowhere you can have a bad day. It doesn’t mean that you’ve gone back to square one and have not made any progress at all - it only means you’ve had a bad day. You will be travelling generally upward on this journey, which is rather like travelling to a destination on the top of a hill... but sometimes you will find it’s a bumpy road with a few potholes on the way. It does not mean you will have slid downhill all the way back to the start.
What about displaying emotion? Especially if you’re out or with friends. Isn’t that so embarrassing? Well, it’s true it can be, particularly when it’s unexpected. But if you can just share with friends or even colleagues that it’s ok, you just feel tearful at times, they will accept it.
Tears are actually natural and have a healing function, so it’s good to allow them their place. They are not a sign of weakness. People sometimes worry that if they start crying, they won’t be able to stop, but let me reassure you that it does pass.
Some people try to suppress all their emotions so they can carry on without feeling too much. Unfortunately, the more you try to ignore or stop something, the more established it becomes and the more it will eventually pop up. So it is actually better to lean into your pain or sadness and acknowledge it for what it is: a sign of how much the person who has gone meant to you, and a symbol of how valued they were, and still are. In a way, your grieving is an indivisible part of your loving.
But surely you should be moving on by now? This is another cry we hear from others, as if grief can be neatly parcelled up and discarded along with the memories and the meaning when it is past its sell-by date! The phrase “moving on” always makes me think of leaving the loved one behind, which can feel like a betrayal. It can therefore be much more helpful if you think of “moving forward”, accompanied by your treasured memories of your loved one and all they meant to you. People who are grieving say almost unanimously that the person who has died would not want them to stay stuck in that sad moment forever, nor would they want those left behind to be unhappy or lead an unfulfilled life.
Another worry expressed by the bereaved is the fear they will forget their loved one if they move forward. On a note of reassurance, when you move forward, you are not in any way abandoning your loved one. The memory of someone cherished by you is woven indivisibly into the fabric of your being. What happens is not that their memory shrinks, but that your life naturally grows bigger as you continue to add experiences, and more people come into it. We mustn’t think of it as a competition!
Sometimes, we who are grieving get stuck with the haunting memories of a sudden or traumatic death or the difficult days towards end-of-life. In that case, it is still generally the case that the upsetting memories generally do fade through time, as long as we can avoid endlessly ruminating over them, consciously place our attention elsewhere - and allow them to be replaced by the memories of happier times. This is something that we can contribute to by starting to gather reminders of these more positive experiences, sharing them and celebrating them with others close to us. But anyone who is suffering from trauma and feels it is impossible for them to move forward should not hesitate to seek specialist help, e.g. from a GP or Cruse. Help is available.
This January, you will be aware of the fact that a lot of anniversaries may lie ahead - the anniversary of the death, possibly the first birthday alone, and so on. These can definitely be challenging, and can lead to strong feelings - an “anniversary reaction” - which is hardly surprising.
Our best advice is twofold:
Remember to be kind to yourself. Treat yourself like your best friend, speaking kindly and patiently in your self-talk. You would be unlikely to say to your best friend You SHOULD be doing this, you MUST do that. Think of the words “should / ought / must / shouldn’t” and the like as rather unhelpful intruders! In other words, don’t beat yourself up! If necessary, you can reframe it more gently as “I would like to try something new / go back to our meetings” etc.
In addition to being kind with self-talk, remember to take care of yourself generally. Grieving can cause lots of physical symptoms such as issues with sleeping, appetite, tiredness, more colds etc., while the rollercoaster of emotions can be exhausting. So, as ever, focus on helping yourself to get good quality sleep, eat regularly, take regular exercise (even in small amounts), get out if possible and enjoy nature’s energy from trees, gardens or parks.
The usual suggestions of meditation, mindfulness and yoga are extremely helpful, so do give them a try. Admittedly they need practice and guidance, but there is so much help available out there nowadays. Also, you could have a go at something creative, even if you’re a complete novice. After all, it’s for your pleasure and recreation, no one else needs to judge.
Try starting with the advice on clearyourhead.scot, (the Scottish Government website for mental health and wellbeing).
If you find difficulty with any of the points above, try talking to someone helpful for you. Sometimes people do get a bit stuck with feelings at a certain point of their grieving, and sharing can be just what you need. You may have to do the reaching out, though, as after a while even close friends may assume you’re fine.
Graham Stevenson - Cruse Scotland Volunteer
Graham's main career has been in teaching and supporting a range of secondary pupils and adults, both in UK and overseas. For 20 years, she taught in a large British International School with 55 nationalities and many religions. She has also taught English to refugees arriving in the UK, while helping them become familiar with British life.
Graham has been a counselling volunteer with Cruse Scotland for 13 years, supporting adult clients from a variety of backgrounds and ages, including adults with learning disabilities.
Graham is a keen writer and has written and edited a number of newspaper articles and blogs focusing on various bereavement topics.