Last Updated on November 11, 2022 by Editorial Staff
This is a summary transcription of our podcast interview with Silke Herwald, a grief specialist and hypnotherapist, working especially with subconscious processes. Click here to listen to the full interview.
Losing a loved one is always hard. But how you grieve (or help someone else to grieve) can make it much harder or easier to process. Here are some great ideas on how to cope better with losing someone you love.
Learn to face and accept death
Western cultures are particularly bad with facing and accepting death. It’s a product of how we have evolved culturally and as a society. On the one hand, it’s wonderful that we have modern medicine, but on the other hand, it’s part of creating this problem, because in the old days, the babies were born in the village and the old people died in the village. That was just the way it was and so the dying grandparent was part of family life because the dying grandparent was just lying in the living room and that’s where it happened. The kids would get it, come in and run out again, and witness the dying process.
Now it is all removed to hospital, to hospice, to the ICU. The kids, if they’re lucky, they’re allowed to go to hospital. They’re hardly ever allowed in the ICU. They’re practically never allowed in a hospice. A lot of the time I even hear people say that, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t take my kids there. I don’t want them to see him like that. I don’t want them to remember grandpa like that.”
They need to. It is really helpful for them. If kids are lucky, they’re allowed to go to a funeral. But we have so sterilised the dying process. In our language, you hardly ever hear somebody say, the person has died. They say they have passed away. They have moved on. They have transitioned or whatever other stuff people say. But the truth of it is, they have died. We have just really removed ourselves so much from that process.
We don’t really know how to help a grieving friend anymore because we’ve been trained that we need to help our friends feel better, that we’ve got to jolly them along. But in grief, there is no jollying them along. It’s just sitting there and letting that person be as sad and devastated and in anguish as they need to be. Once we realize that there’s nothing we can say that will make them feel better, that’s a huge relief. It takes the pressure off. There’s nothing anyone can say to make them feel better and that’s okay. They’ve just got to be that.
Learn from other cultures
I love having conversations about how other cultures do death and grief. So many other cultures just do grief so much better than our western cultures. Somebody from Zimbabwe told me that the whole village comes, every family member, no matter whether it’s the third cousin, they all arrive. There is a spit roast.
The body is in the living room or in the kitchen or wherever there is room, and then there is like a huge party with all of those people around the body. Everybody tells stories about the deceased person. It’s mandatory for fun things to happen so that then the funeral experience is not just this horrible, sad memory but also those fun things that happen as well. It’s really simple.
Clear the decks of other stuff going on
Start at what is the one thing that will give people the most relief at that moment in time. Very often, it’s actually not working with grief. Very often, I call it almost like clearing the decks of other emotions. Very often, there is a sense of, I should have done this. I shouldn’t have said that. I could have done more or that there’s some kind of guilt. I should have sent them to the doctor sooner. I should have done this, even though logically, they completely know that there was nothing else that they could have done.
There is often resentment towards the medical practitioners or there can be all sorts of other things that interfere. It could be guilt, resentment, anger. Quite often, there’s just massive overwhelm and anxiety about having to handle everything. I start working with those things first. Sometimes people have an endless internal dialogue with themselves where they are having arguments with themselves. “I know, I couldn’t have done anything better but I should. What if I had gotten to the hospital sooner?” By just clearing that up, it actually allows the person to actually be with their grief.
You clear those things away by working with the subconscious processes. Your subconscious is very much when somebody gives you well-meaning advice and on the outside, you’re nodding your head and you go, “Oh, yeah, yeah, no, that sounds like a good idea. Yeah, yeah. I’ll try that.” And on the inside, you’ve got this voice loud and clear. That goes, “Hell no. No, no way. I’m not going to do that, no.” That’s your unconscious.
I help the person really tune into that subconscious and go okay, so what’s the objection here? What’s the reason behind that you don’t want to do that instead of kind of going, ah, that’s crazy. You logically know that this would be the best thing to do. We can’t work against the subconscious so I just become curious about what the subconscious is actually trying to achieve and dial into that and help the person pay attention to their subconscious processes a lot better.
Don’t feel disloyal in how you grieve
The disloyalty piece is, if I stop grieving, that means I never really loved them or maybe if I am not in so much pain anymore, then maybe I didn’t love them as much as I thought I did. It will be disloyal and that disloyal piece also comes in, for example, when after a few months, all of a sudden, the bereaved person catches themselves, having a smile or having a little laugh and it’s like they instantly whack themselves over the head and go, how dare I?
Then, they go back into their grief. Sometimes consciously they get that doesn’t necessarily make sense. For me, the important thing is that death ends a life but it doesn’t end the relationship. When we can find a way to actually grieve resourcefully so that it’s not that awful, horrible, visceral pain that just throws you on the floor and rocks you to your core, but that actually, through doing a resourceful grieving process, we can actually feel closer to our deceased loved one.
We can actually feel like they are in our heart forever and that we move from this complete visceral pain into living a life that is inspired by them, that brings forward all the things that we loved doing with our deceased loved one, that integrates everything we loved about them and so that we can actually live a life that honours them and that they’re still part of in some shape or form.
Take the five stages of grief with a pinch of salt
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross did some amazing work. Her first book was on death and dying and she came up with the five stages that terminally ill people go through. Then, they tried to take that same thing and put it on the grieving process and that just really doesn’t work. In the five stages, nobody talks about anxiety and overwhelm which are massive in grief.
They were never laid out to be a linear process but still people just go, for example, I’m not experiencing anger or I’m not experiencing depression, am I doing it wrong? No, you’re not doing it wrong. It’s just not something that you happen to be doing. It’s far more complex than the five stages. There are so many more different emotions that are not even part of the five stages.
The five stages usually land in acceptance. My sister died four years ago. My dad died last year. I have accepted that they’re gone but to me, acceptance feels a bit too much like, okay, that has happened, what’s next? I don’t think anybody who’s grieving actually wants to get to that stage.
What we actually want is to find a way to live a life that they are still part of and that honours them. I’ve created a grief roadmap and when I spoke to the graphic designer about it, I said, “Look, I need about 4000 squiggly lines that go from the top to the bottom and left and right and round and round in circles and a few mazes and lots of dead end roads in there.” She said that wasn’t going to happen.
That really is grief. Grief is just exceptionally messy. There is no clear path forward and there is definitely not a one size fits all path. For me, it is always about helping the person find a way that they can grieve in their own unique way. That is what the grief to love roadmap is designed to do, to go, here are certain things that may or may not happen for you. I just wanted to warn you that if that happens, you know that’s okay.
Choose to move through grief
When a person really doesn’t want to stop grieving, I ask them what would be even better than that. If they really don’t want to, that’s okay, then there’s not much I can do to help, but very often, the reason that they come to see me is because a part of them does want some help. It might be that they don’t want to stop grieving, but they don’t want to be in that incredible deep visceral pain anymore.
It’s absolutely okay to still grieve but maybe not in that absolute raw, brutal force. Then we just do work around the grief, bring that down a notch. Most people I work with are still missing their loved one. When an anniversary happens or something, they of course still remember them. Most people just remember the horrible last memories, the person being very sick or them being the dead body or their decline and they don’t actually remember the entirety of that person’s life.
That’s kind of also not particularly fair to the deceased person because they were a lot more than just that. They were a lot more than those last couple of weeks or months or years. And so then, through doing the work, we quite often get to the stage where they have lots of spontaneous memories.
They might be driving past somewhere and they see a sign or something and it reminds them of something they did 17 years ago, that they hadn’t thought about in ages. Those are those living memories that then actually put a smile on their face and where it moves more into a bittersweet sense of remembering which is a nicer way to be really with lots of those memories.
Listen to Silke talking about how to cope with grief on the Magnificent Midlife Podcast
Just be there for the bereaved
At the very beginning, just after impact, just be there. Literally just be there. If you don’t know what to say, just say, I actually don’t know what to say but I just want to be here. And that being there, surrounding that person is really important but also reading the room, taking the cues. Just go look, I can be here, I’ll just come over, make a cup of tea sit with you, I’ll be in the background. If you need to rest, that’s okay.
Very important simple things. In grief, everything is just so overwhelming. Just vacuuming the house becomes like this monumental task that is really difficult, so people who are a bit proactive and going, you know what, I’ll grab the vacuum. I’ll just do the dishes. That kind of stuff, super helpful.
The thing is, though, that usually up until the funeral, everyone is around. After the funeral, three months later, six months later, remember their anniversary. Remember their loved one’s birthday because those are really important days and it’s so sad when nobody else remembers and you feel like you’re the only person who still remembers.
It’s really helpful when somebody else says, hey, I know you’re probably having a really difficult week. I know Wednesday will be his birthday or his anniversary, you probably won’t feel like it but how about we meet up this week or we go for a walk or you can just send a card, say, hey, I’m thinking of you.
Those kinds of things, just remembering. The other thing is sharing stories about the deceased person. Just keeping the memory alive because very often, people say they don’t want to talk about the person because they don’t want to make the grieving person feel bad. They’re thinking about them all the time anyway so it’s not like you’re bringing up something new. It actually makes them feel good that somebody else remembers them.
Midlife is the time when we often lose our parents. I always say to my bereaved clients that people who react in a non-resourceful way, they just can’t get it yet. They haven’t been in the front row of a funeral yet so they don’t actually know what it’s like. I always go for a forgiving angle because they just don’t know. They might come around. Give them a second chance.
The interesting thing for me was that I was a grief specialist before my first proper grief really hit me, that was when my sister died four, four years ago. I had that weird experience of, on the one hand being the grief specialist, but on the other, just being the little sister who lost her big sister who had been there from day one.
It was just me who was grieving. It wasn’t the grief specialist. I knew it was horrible but whoa, I didn’t know it was that horrible. It took my understanding to yet another level, that grief understanding. I had to go even deeper on my grief understanding at some level, probably for very selfish reasons, because I just couldn’t bear the thought of losing one of my other loved ones to grief. For me, it was horrible enough that my sister had died. I can’t now lose mum or dad or my brother-in-law, to grief, and I need to somehow find a way to help them through this.
Embrace rituals that can help
I often ask my clients what rituals they can come up with to help themselves with their grief, because what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for them. I always say, I don’t really have any answers. I just have a lot of questions. What helped me was going to the ocean. I live close to the beach and being on the east coast of Australia, the sun rises over the ocean. I just loved going down to the ocean and watching the sunrise.
I remember the first sunrise I watched. I almost felt insulted by it. How dare the sun rise again. Sun, don’t you know what just happened last night? But at the same time, it gave me a wonderful sense of safety that even though my world had shattered into a million pieces, that one thing was still the same and that was kind of good. There was that constant. It gave me that sense of something that is still normal.
My parents always had this lovely ritual every afternoon. They’d sit down together and have a cup of tea. My mum still does that to this day. She sits down every afternoon and has a cup of tea with dad. Just sits there with his photograph and tells him about the day and I think that’s beautiful. Those kinds of rituals and processes really help people, especially in the early days to get some sense of normality and some sense of stability back.
Be willing to feel the feelings
The most important thing is to allow yourself to really feel the feelings. The only way through grief is actually through grief. In our society, we often get praised for, she’s so strong. She’s holding up so well. I doubt that’s a good thing because that’s just pushing it away and suppressing it. And those are the people who I see 15 years later and they presented with something completely different and underlying actually it was grief.
Allow yourself to actually go there and also know that you can grieve in a way that is not that horribly painful. That you can still feel loyal to your person and that you can remember them. People always kind of think like, either I grieve and I’m in this horrible pain and I still feel connected to them because I mainly remember the last bits or I stopped grieving, I stopped the pain and I forgot about them.
It’s not that at all. It’s a combination of both. It’s completely possible, to feel connected, to feel calmer, to not be in that horrible pain, to still remember them, to still get a little bit emotional or get very emotional but to kind of get through it. And then, after a shorter period of time, you kind of go okay and you’re okay again. That there is that hope that you don’t have to be in that horrible state forever if you don’t want to.
Find more about Silke:
Silke’s website: grieftolove.com