HEALTH / When loss may bring gain: The pain of bereavement can be overwhelming, but, Carol Lee argues, some people find learning how to express grief positively can enrich their whole lives

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The Independent Culture
ON HIS last visit to his dying godfather, a 15-year-old boy tried to work out what to say. His godfather, who was only in his early forties, lived 200 miles away, and as the end of the train journey drew closer, Thomas became more and more nervous. 'He'd put so much into my life,' he says, 'the good bits of me, the things that are kind and caring, that I had to let him know this. I had to let him know that he wasn't only an ace bloke who wore great clothes and was terrific fun and that kind of thing.'

Sitting later that day at the hospital bedside, Thomas did begin to say his piece: 'In the end I just came out with it. I said something like, 'There's something I want to say to you.' 'What's that?' he asked, and I sort of swallowed, gulped, and looked down and said: 'I want you to know that out of all the people I've ever known, you've made such a big difference to my life.' ' Thomas tried to continue, but couldn't. 'I started crying,' he recalls, 'and I just said, 'I'm going to miss you so much,' and he said, 'Ah, come here' - and he gave me a big hug and I swear it's the best hug I've ever had from anybody.'

Almost two years after this happened, Thomas is certain about the enduring nature of his godfather's gifts to him. 'They're things to do with treating people with respect,' he says, 'and being kind and not being selfish or arrogant. And things to do with treating women with respect, and how you can be a strong man, like him, and have loads of fun, and be kind as well.

'He was unique really. He had a really deep philosophy about life. He seemed to be laid- back and non-violent, but he was really strong as well. I know that, if I've got a difficult decision on my mind, part of me is always going to think 'What would he have done?' And I think I'll find a good answer.'

Not everybody can be as open or positive about the loss of a loved one. Often, people are too embarrassed to talk about their loss, fearing they will be judged weak or self-obsessed. Yet the vast majority of people do recover from grief. How they do so, how long it takes, and what influences their recovery depends on the individual.

Responses to grief are often visceral, because with a death we suffer the absolute loss of someone's physical presence. A woman in her thirties recalls the first thing she did when she heard of the death of her lover in a road accident 10 years ago: 'I went straight to the laundry basket, got out the clothes he'd been wearing the day before and started smelling them. I buried my face in them. Then I went all the way through the basket, picking out his clothes, smelling them and holding them to me. I didn't change the sheets on the bed for weeks. I wanted to keep as much of him as I could with me until I was ready to let go.'

She believes it was the 'animal', or physical, side of her nature that made her do this. 'When someone you have been sleeping with, who has been alive, is suddenly dead,' she says, 'part of your defence is to try and keep something physical about them with you for a little while longer - like their smell.'

A kind of animal behaviour is not uncommon in people who experience grief. Alan, in his fifties, 'bayed like a dog' after his wife died. 'We had a good marriage,' he explains, 'and I was deeply affected when she died. I roamed the house for nights with this awful, physical pain in my solar plexus - and I howled. It was the only way I could express what I was feeling - and the only form of relief I could get from this awful pain.'

A link between grief and physical behaviour - like wanting to tear clothes, howl, or just wring one's hands and cry - is common, but people are not always able to behave in this way. They may bury their feelings because they are too busy, or too fearful, to acknowledge them at the time. Months, or years, later they find themselves in tears over something relatively trivial - such as the death of a family pet, or a dying shrub in the garden.

Ena, a woman in her sixties, broke down after the death of the family alsatian, although she had barely cried over the recent deaths of her parents. Her daughter explains: 'She coped when my grandmother died - and when my grandfather died a few months later. I didn't think much of it at the time, although when I look back she was remarkably unemotional about it.'

A few months later the dog died, and Ena was distraught on the phone. 'Here I am crying over a dog,' she kept saying. Again, it is difficult to know with certainty, but Ena's daughter believes the intensity of her mother's reaction was less to do with the dog than the death of her parents. The dog's death may have sparked off her deeper grief for her mother and father.

Nobody can lay down rules about how best to handle grief, but where it is accepted it can offer a chance to reflect. This was certainly the case with one woman who had lost her mother, her father, a sister and a marriage, all within the compass of a few years.

Speaking of her eventual recovery from grief, she says: 'After two years I started to get on with my life. I was tired of grief. I'd had enough of it. And I thought of it as being like bumper cars. Their 'turns' had stopped - and so had mine for a while - but I still had some 'turns' to come. I felt this in quite a selfish way, that even though their lives had ended, mine was still going on. And I thought: 'It's my turn now.' '

This is why the acceptance of grief, rather than distracting yourself by keeping busy, is crucial - even if it is difficult. Not only does it offer, as one woman in her thirties describes, 'a searing sense of aliveness, of being awake rather than dead', but also it offers the gift of sharp reappraisal.

Lorna, who is now in her early forties and lost a younger sister when they were both in their twenties, describes life as being very precious because of recollections of her.

'I find that this memory is a focus for what is good in my life - and hopeful. She had a wonderful spirit, and when I think of her it urges me on. It makes me do things, good things. She had a warm smile, and that smile of hers is behind things like wanting to reach the top of the next hill.

'I think I'm too tired to do it, and I turn to go back down again. Then I smile, too, and I push on. It's as if the fact that she's dead makes me more glad, more determined to be alive.'

This determination is tinged with regret rather than bitterness: 'She would have been 40 next year and sometimes, when I'm working in the garden or when I'm walking out in the hills, I think how I would dearly love to know what kind of woman she would be now. What would my sister be like at 40?'

Lorna believes the memory of her dead sister even affects the intensity of her sight and hearing. 'I see things with extra eyes,' she says, 'and hear things in a keener way. Standing on a mountain top, looking at the view, I sometimes turn to go - and then turn back again and look properly. I've seen it once, but I look again - and it's the second time that I take it in.'

What we do about the dead, and who they become to us, is a critical part of living, especially as we grow older. A man who lost both his parents as a child says: 'The dead are held in trust in the minds and hearts of the living, and if we have cared for them we take from them as gifts the wise and the strong things about them. But we can only do that if we've cared. Those gifts aren't ours if we haven't. It's true we can't bear to part from them, and we take - we bring - bits of them with us.'

A vicar endorses this in describing how important it is for people to find, in the experience of grief, the ability to 'honour the living, beginning with ourselves'. 'We must take the opportunity, afresh, to love while we can,' he says. 'It's not death that's the problem. It's knowing how to live.'

Carol Lee is the author of 'Good Grief, Experiencing Loss' (4th Estate, pounds 8.99).

(Photograph omitted)