How we learnt to grieve

For decades, a stiff upper lip was how Britons were expected to deal with the death of loved ones. As a society, we're finally starting to let our feelings show, says Charlotte Philby
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Indy Lifestyle Online

More than four years may have passed, but for Diane Ber the events of 27 December 2005 are still as raw as they ever were. That evening, Diane's teenage daughter, Kasia, arrived home at around 6.30pm, having finished a shift at the clothes shop near her home in County Durham where she worked part-time. She was her usual chirpy self, chatting away to her parents as she got ready to go out. Indeed, Kasia had every reason to be in good spirits; one month ahead of her 18th birthday, she'd recently won a university place to study law, and had just booked a holiday with friends: "She was jumping about and carrying on, being her normal funny self, " Diane recalls all too clearly.

At 7.30pm, Kasia went to have Christmas dinner with her boyfriend Steve at his parents' house. The pair returned a couple of hours later, and planning to hit the sales in the morning, turned in early, setting an alarm for 7am. Kasia looked tired and her mother made a comment to her husband, John, about the dark circles under her eyes; but when questioned, Kasia said she felt fine other than having a slight sore throat. She was "all smiles" as she kissed her parents goodnight.

The next morning, though, Diane and John awoke to the sound of Steve crying out from the bedroom. "I just froze," Diane says. "I knew something really bad had happened." Less than an hour later, on the morning of 28 December 2005, Kasia Ber was pronounced dead in hospital. In the long, mind-spinning hours that followed, Diane and John slowly gleaned the truth: their only daughter had suffered from a rare and undetected heart condition called Long QT Syndrome, and the ringing of the alarm on her mobile phone had triggered an abnormal heart rhythm; the otherwise healthy teenager died soon after.

Unsurprisingly, the impact of the loss for Diane, John and their son Christopher, who was 14 years old at the time of his sister's death, is beyond words. "The pain is with us every single day, and every day is different," says Diane. At times she feels she could talk and cry forever; at others, she just feels numb. As is common with bereavement, emotions swing between guilt, anger, disbelief and fear. Furthermore, few of her friendships have survived: "Many of those we were close to before act completely differently as soon as John and I walk into a room now. No one knows what to say."

If there is any comfort for the family other than that which is found in each other, Diane concludes, then it is to be had in making contact with people who have had a similar experience, who have some sense of what it is they are going through. Ultimately, there is no solution to the pain, no words that can make things better, but there is something in mutual understanding.

It is with this idea in mind that a forum called My Story was launched recently at the website for the charity Cardiac Risk in the Young (CRY). Here, people like Diane – who has created a page in memory of her daughter – are given a space in which to share the memories of those they've lost. Creating a legacy for Kasia is hugely important, she says: "I would paint her name in the sky if I could." The sense of relief that comes with sharing messages of remembrance shouldn't be underestimated: having an environment in which to express your feelings at your own pace is sometimes as good a therapy as one can hope for.

To see how much this site has meant to people, one need only glance through the pages of emotionally charged outpourings, as mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, celebrate the lives of their loved ones and articulate their devastation in heart-wrenching detail. Poring through them all, one wonders when we became capable of such honest and tender expressions of grief. Could it be that after years of resolute stoicism in the face of death in Britain, we are finally acknowledging the cathartic value of letting the tears fall?

CRY's My Story is just one of a number of such memorial sites that have sprung up online. Websites such as gonetoosoon.org and muchloved.com allow visitors to create a free online tribute, while eponymous websites such as sophielancasterfoundation.com (in aid of a teenage girl who was beaten to death by her peers for being a Goth), celebrating and mourning a lost life, are abundant; as are tribute pages on social networking sites such as Facebook and Myspace, which allow friends and family to share messages and photos with each other and the world.

So commonplace are these pages now – particularly in the event of the death of a young person – that they are often the first go-to for journalists researching stories about someone who has died, and heartfelt messages from these pages often subsequently appear in print. A Facebook page called R.I.P. Sofyen, in memory of the 15-year-old London schoolboy recently stabbed to death in Victoria Station during the rush hour, is one example. These online tributes are a progression from the roadside memorials which have been increasingly prevalent in recent years. Across Britain, shrines constructed of bunches of flowers, teddy bears and cards can be found spilling from the pavement, while so-called ghost bikes – bicycles sprayed white and chained to a street sign near the place where a cyclist has been killed – have appeared in cities across the UK, as a reminder of ones we have lost.

CRY's founder is a professional bereavement counsellor, Alison Cox, who acknowledges a series of shifts in the way we've dealt with our mortality across the ages.

"A century ago, death was part of the currency of life in Britain," she says. "When someone died there were established rituals: dressing in black, wearing an armband, and a proper period of mourning was observed." But then, she says, we went through a period of social sanitisation that involved moving death out of public view, into hospitals, and behind closed doors. This has prevented us from learning how to deal with our inevitable fate.

Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, dates a detached approach to mourning back to the First World War. "There was so much death of an inappropriate kind – including parents seeing their children die – that people got grief fatigue," he says. "Effectively they said: 'Don't tell me your troubles, I've got troubles of my own'." With the Depression of the late Twenties, leading into the Second World War, this attitude hardened.

The death of a loved one increasingly became something one simply didn't discuss outside the family unit – if at all. To do so was branded a sign of weakness and bad taste – imposing one's personal misfortune on others. As Hodson observes: "There has been a tendency to say: 'Wasn't she marvellous? She never shed a tear.'" Now, he says, we're beginning to realise how wrong we were. "In fact, the brave thing to do is to let your feelings affect you. Because, in effectively saying, 'I've been stripped by this', you're telling the truth."

Stories of what a prolonged and traumatic effect repressed grief can have were told by a number of readers of this paper who wrote to The Independent last year to share their own experiences after we ran a piece about bereavement in childhood and the silence that has traditionally surrounded it. One man, recalling the death of his mother when he was a boy, said: "I grieved constantly, crying myself to sleep most nights for many years, but never telling anyone how I was feeling. It was wrong to talk about people who died, wasn't it? Months turned into years, and I continued to grieve privately and guiltily." It wasn't until he underwent counselling as an adult that he could finally come to terms with what had happened and let go of persistent feelings of guilt and anger. Another reader, using the name Celia, wrote: "My sister and I were allowed about 10 minutes of crying [after the death of their mother], then we were told to stop by my grandfather. I pleaded with my father to be allowed to see my mother's body, but he refused. He also refused to let me go to her funeral." Again, it wasn't until years later, this time having been referred to a therapist by a GP, that she was able to confront what had happened. At that point, she says, it felt like "several tons had been lifted off my shoulders". Compare this experience to that of someone who loses a loved one in the UK today, and it would seem we've come a long way.

Still, we are not quite such elaborate mourners as, say, the Russians, who routinely have to dole out tranquilisers to calm the wailing crowds at funeral services, such is the emotional outpouring; but perhaps that's no bad thing. After all, grand displays of grief – such as those we've experienced with the death of various public figures, and specifically Princess Diana – are not in themselves particularly useful. Working through bereavement successfully is about allowing yourself the time and space to let your feelings come out naturally, rather than working yourself into an hysterical frenzy.

At last we seem to be getting the balance right. After all, there could be little genuine benefit from the contrived Victorian death-bed scenes which were no doubt more about theatre than coming to terms with a loss of life; and while we don't conform to the ongoing rituals in some countries, which advocate screaming your anguish from the rooftops, we have developed a delicate sense of respect for our emotional needs.

Today, after the death of a loved one, one can reasonably expect to be offered individual counselling or group therapy by a GP. Compassionate leave is offered by most employees, and while, in the main, death is not yet a comfortable topic of conversation even among close friends (and can we really expect that it ever will be?), the idea of shedding a tear in public is not something to be ashamed of. Talking about one's feelings, not bottling up, after all, is one of the great psychological breakthroughs of our age.

Of course, as Diane Ber and her family can attest, we aren't perfect. But how can we expect anything different? Humans are flawed and clumsy creatures, and faced with tragic situations we don't always know what to say or how to behave. Furthermore, asks Hodson, what culture is ever going to be entirely comfortable with death? It is, after all, the great existential dilemma. But we are, he believes, part-way there. "Finally, we are learning to cry, to use our body's natural healing system as it was intended, and that is the first step to dealing with the ultimate crisis. After all, all tears end with a shudder of relief."

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