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This event with Dr Lizzie Paddock will explore the psychology behind grief. Grief is a normal and natural reaction to reaction to a significant loss, at Untangle we believe the goal is not about conquering loss and ‘getting back to normal’, but instead growing around your grief. Dr Lizzie will take us through the impact of loss and the psychology behind our feelings. With this knowledge, we hope you can allow yourself the time and space to process your loss.

This event will last for an hour, and there will be time at the end for a Q&A with Lizzie.

The Speaker:

Dr Elizabeth Paddock is a HCPC Registered Practitioner Psychologist specialising in working with children, young people and their families. She contributes to research and practice supervision for the Doctorate in Forensic Psychology.

Outline:

This event comprises of 1 hour over video call. Participants have the option to have their cameras on or off.

When relatives go into therapy or grief counselling together after a bereavement, it can help everybody discover precious pieces of their family’s life and heritage, says psychotherapist Anh Doan. 

What are the signs that therapy could work for my family?

It’s all about communication. When we’re hurting after a bereavement, we often act like wounded children and forget being adults. People start arguing over petty things and judging each other, asking: ‘Why didn’t they send flowers or a card?’ or ‘Why did they put a happy picture of themselves on Instagram’?

The family dynamic also changes when someone dies. For example, if mum was the one we’d all seek comfort from and rely on, we might want dad to play that role when she dies. And when he can’t, we get angry. 

If the person who died wasn’t very emotionally present, we might also realise we didn’t know them very well. That can leave us with a horrific feeling that we’ve lost something precious – important pieces of our family’s puzzle. 

How can grieving relatives benefit from doing therapy together?

When people die we can be left with lots of questions. Family therapists can facilitate important conversations that help relatives learn from each other, open up the photo albums and share precious stories. It’s a bit like digging for old coins and vases – it helps us discover the roots of our lives.

Culture plays a big part, especially for new generations. If your grandad was from Jamaica and now you’re a person of colour in the UK, you might realise you never got to ask him how it was to come here in the 1960s. 

If the relationship was terrible or the person who died hurt you, we can ask what you’d like to say to the person who has passed away and explore how to best support you now. This can help close old doors and open new ones. 

During this process people start to see life differently and relate better to each other, as well as to the person we’ve lost.

How can I encourage my relatives to join me in therapy?

There’s a stigma around mental health, but if you put it into physical injury terms people are often prepared to help. If your brother or daughter broke their ankle you’d be the first to call an ambulance.

With bereavement, sometimes all we can see is a grumpy or angry person, but they are in pain. And grief can trigger depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex trauma. So we need to give each other a hand emotionally too.

It’s also about bonding – a chance to connect with your heritage, your inner self, and your family. In this culture we often hide behind closed doors when we feel vulnerable, but we still crave being together. 

Family therapy is about everyone working together towards a common goal. People often agree to come when they see that everyone will gain. We always establish firm boundaries to make sure everyone respects and listens to each other.

What are the main differences between individual and family therapy for grief?

Systemic or family therapy focuses on how people see themselves within a wider dynamic. Even twins are different in terms of how they perceive their roles. 

For family grief counselling or therapy to work, everybody needs to commit to the same goal. It is a massive investment – timewise, emotionally and financially – and a luxury because you usually have to pay privately. It’s much more complex than individual therapy but that doesn’t mean you can’t achieve it. 

Sessions last 60-90 minutes with a maximum of four people, usually immediate family. We can be flexible, for example, an individual might prefer to come alone before the rest of the family joins in. You also need a therapist robust enough to hold it together. 

Now with Covid, things can feel worse for people who are grieving, isolated and alone. But working on Skype and Zoom is working well, especially for families that are spread out across different countries.

Anh Doan is Head of Counselling at Talking Counselling, an Untangle partner organisation.

After their son Josh died suddenly, psychotherapist Jane Harris and filmmaker Jimmy Edmonds discovered creative ways to rebuild their lives and support other bereaved families.

“The agony of untimely or parental grief is beyond words,” says Jane Harris. In 2011, her 22-year-old son Josh had a road accident during a trip to Vietnam and never came home. “When Josh died, I discovered that nothing much helped”. Jane and her husband, Jimmy, also found that grief can be a very lonely journey. “I realised bereaved people represent other people’s worst nightmares,” she says. As a psychotherapist Jane knew nothing could take the pain away: “You have to get alongside the grief and tolerate the discomfort.” But years of training to support others is very different from experiencing the death of your own child.

Love that never dies

To escape the silence and isolation at home, Jane and Jimmy – a BAFTA award-winning film editor – decided to take a road trip. They wanted to meet other bereaved families and learn from their hard-won wisdom. Having met in film school, they decided to make a film in their son’s memory. The result was A Love that Never Dies, a moving insight into grief across Vietnam, India and the USA.

The experience would also teach them something new: That articulating their grief actively and creatively was the key to making it more bearable. More films followed, Jimmy wrote a book called Released and in 2015, The Good Grief Project was born, founded on their family’s experiences of losing Josh. Today, their small charity encourages people grieving the untimely death of a loved one to express their pain through photography and film, talks and retreats – even boxing workshops.

Breaking the silence, creating new bonds

Approximately 6,000 young people aged under 24 die in the UK every year, leaving up to 50,000 bereaved relatives who often don’t know where to turn. “We live in a culture of silence when it comes to talking comfortably about death” says Jane. “But silence is deadly. Grief will find its way out either psychologically or physically. If we don’t acknowledge it, it can be catastrophic.” She says countless people have described watching their films as a turning point, because they realised there was hope out there. As well as supporting people to open up about bereavement, The Good Grief Project provides ways to create continuing bonds with the person they’ve lost. For example, using photos of their child to create a montage.

Taking the mask off

By the end of a weekend retreat, Jane often notices a difference in participants’ body language. “They’re amazed at what they can create and start to show other people instead of wanting to keep it private,” she says. “Through photography or just being with other people they’ve been able to take the mask off and be themselves”. At a time when we’re wearing masks physically as well as metaphorically, she feels it is more important than ever to give our grief a voice. A new film, Beyond the Mask, tackling loss and isolation during Covid-19, will screen online early in the new year.

Life after death

The Good Grief Project has always been a family venture. During their retreats, Josh’s sister Rosa does the cooking, while his older brother Joe, a personal trainer, runs boxing and fitness workshops, having learned to handle his own depression by being physically active. They welcome siblings as well as parents. “Bereaved siblings appreciate having a voice,” explains Jane. “They lose their parents in a way because they are so grief-stricken and watching out for them is a double whammy.” Almost 10 years after losing Josh, she feels the experience has changed her for the better. “There is definitely life after the death of a child. I would do anything to bring my son back, but he has taught me so much since he died.”

“It’s a huge relief when you realise that grief can become part of your life,” she explains. “You learn to carry that person with you and fold them into your heart. We’ve created new rituals – at Christmas we raise a glass to Josh – we talk about him, and there are pictures of Uncle Josh in my grandchildren’s bedroom. “As time has passed my love for Josh doesn’t lessen. You love your child forever.”

Image – Photo montage of Josh © Jimmy Edmonds

At just ten years old, Anna’s world was turned upside down by the sudden death of her older brother, Benny. She shares how she coped after experiencing a close bereavement at such a young age and how losing her brother has impacted her life.

When Anna was ten years old, her family were out one day, and Benny stayed at home alone for a few hours. During this time, Benny had a tragic accident and was found dead by a family friend. He was just twelve years old.

Anna has many happy early childhood memories of playing with Benny, who was two years older than her, and her other three brothers. She remembers, “Benny and I spent a lot of time playing together. We’d imagine we were pirates in our den in the living room or play football together in our local park. We argued too, of course, usually over silly things like who had been given the biggest portion of pudding.”

Like most ten-year-olds, Anna had never thought about grief before, but found her view of the world changed at that moment. “It was a complete shock. I’ll never forget the sickening, numb confusion that I felt when I first found out. It honestly felt like my whole reality had been pulled from underneath me. It was a tragic, seemingly random event that changed everything.” she remembers.

Support in the early days

In the early days after Benny’s death, relatives and friends rallied around: visiting, helping with the shopping and cooking, or simply sitting with Anna and her family. Anna feels lucky that she felt so surrounded by love at that time but recognises that grief can be very isolating for many people. She also credits her friends with providing some much-needed normality and fun. “There are a few friends, in particular, whom I spent a lot of time with, not necessarily talking about the loss, but doing ‘normal’ fun things that offered some light relief and reminded me that things could be good again”.

Learning to be kind to herself

In the year after Benny died, Anna and her family visited a family therapist who helped them open up and communicate with each other. However, it was when Anna saw a counsellor almost ten years later that she feels she started to process Benny’s death. She says, “This support was invaluable and really helped me understand how the death has impacted my life, and how to move forward in a healthier, happier way. Things have been better since I learnt to let myself feel, rather than blocking out difficult thoughts and feelings. I’ve become much kinder to myself.”

Anna has also found that writing can be therapeutic, whether scribbling incoherent sentences in a journal, writing poems and stories, or writing letters to the dead. “It often makes me cry, but in a good way. It really helps unjumble my thoughts and let go of painful emotions. It can make me feel more connected to my brother, too, like he is still alive in some way.” she explains.

The impact of the parent-child relationship

Sibling loss can often affect the relationship between the surviving child and their parents. At such a young age, Anna had only ever seen her parents as a source of safety and love. She found it painful to realise how much they were hurting and scary that this was a situation that even they couldn’t fix. Her parents were able to continue showing love to Anna and her other brothers, despite their grief, but she remembers feeling that there was no space for her to be a child any more, with a normal child’s wants and needs. From her 10-year old’s perspective, Anna didn’t want to be a burden when her parents were already dealing with so much, and she felt a responsibility to grow up quickly to make things easier for them.

Anna remembers feeling like she had to be a ‘good’ child, which has had repercussions throughout her life. “I pushed my struggles to one side, which in the long run has been exhausting and lonely.” she reflects. “It’s no ones’ fault; we were just doing what we could to get through. Despite these challenges, I’m grateful that our relationship has always been grounded in love and that we found a new sort of closeness as we fumbled our way through our loss – a closeness that becomes more and more precious as time goes on.”

Coping with grief over time

It’s normal for grief to change as time passes, and we find new ways of coping with feelings and remembering our lost loved ones. Anna feels a sense of peace and acceptance about the loss of her brother but admits that she still does have bad days, where she goes right back to that raw grief, missing her brother and mourning the loss of a care-free life. She has found ways to manage these waves of grief and says, “I always come out the other side. I wish my brother hadn’t have died, but it taught me a lot about who I am, and has shown me how precious life is.”

Anna credits her friends, family and professionals for supporting her through her grief journey. She recognises that having an outlet to express her grief, and accepting love and support from the people around her have been crucial to her healing.

“It’s been tough, and it’s not a journey I would have ever chosen, but I’m making the most of it and re-discovering just how beautiful life can be, regardless of the challenges it throws at us.”

Anna is a writer who has set up an organisation to support bereaved university students, the Student Grief Network, where she provides online resources and staff training. To see more of her work, you can find her blog here.

Image – Anna with her brother Benny and family.  © Private

After Sarah, 47, lost two people in her life, Untangle’s online bereavement sessions gave her a safe space to talk about her grief and gain a sense of community with other people.

I found Untangle after experiencing two very different losses in a very short space of time. First I lost my dad, and then just four months later my partner died. My dad was 85 and had had a good, long life. My partner’s death was very sudden – he had a cardiac arrest out of the blue. My first reaction was to bolt out of the house where I had lived for 22 years, cutting everything off. I stripped it all away: left my home, my job, everything. I tried to settle down in Mallorca, where my partner and I had considered living, but it didn’t work out. Importantly, I didn’t access any therapy in Spain – there was very little bereavement care available. I think the UK is much stronger on mental health, with support on offer through your GP and organisations like Mind.

Healing during lockdown

I came back to the UK for a few weeks in March 2020 to be close to my mum, who is in a care home. And then lockdown happened. At this point I hadn’t done any real healing – I’d just gone numb, living mostly in a survival state of fight or flight. I had a real sense of displacement, identifying with what I imagined life could feel like for a refugee – because I’d lost so much: loved ones, my home, my work, my identity. When I couldn’t go anywhere because of Covid-19 I finally had a meltdown. I had to learn about self-care and begin to forgive myself for my decisions.

Together under the umbrella of grief

A friend had heard about Untangle and sent me a link, so I just filled in a simple form online. Then I was contacted about joining a free bereavement support group and started attending Zoom sessions on Sunday mornings. It worked brilliantly for me. It was scary to potentially open up in front of strangers, but we were all there together under the umbrella of grief. And it felt safe because we had a therapist and a moderator with us. They didn’t always get involved, but when something deeper was triggered it was important to have a professional there.

A sense of community

It felt very scary to finally face my grief once the shock had subsided. But then I just fell into the routine and decided to show up for myself and for the group. It gave me a sense of community and felt very inclusive. Little comments or suggestions that someone made could make a big difference. Meeting on a Sunday morning also reminded me of going to church in my childhood, and was a good time for quiet reflection. I did sessions every week for three months. Other people came for one week or a few weeks at a time. As time went by I recognised that I was in a really strong place, and had processed a lot of stuff. Eventually it felt like the right time for me to leave and occasionally pop back in to support others – that’s my intention now.

Subtle yet life-changing

Being part of the online group showed me what enormous power can come from sharing in a safe space with others who are grieving. You can rock up and you don’t have to say anything – just gain a sense of connection by sitting with others who understand the extremity of losing a loved one.It’s so important to give yourself time, even if it’s just an hour, to show up to that place that you naturally want to avoid, because you just don’t want to feel anything when you grieve. Being witnessed, and witnessing others, and feeling part of a community online is incredibly effective. It’s an act of self-care – subtle but life changing, because it allows you to take the next step.

If you want to join in the Untangle community, click here.

Image – Sarah with her partner, Lester.  © Private

Cherry, 26, escaped an abusive marriage and lost her dad. Untangle’s online bereavement groups helped her to face her grief, feel less alone, and start to heal.

I was born in China and grew up in Australia. In 2015 I moved to the US to be with my husband. The marriage became abusive and took a long time to get out of. Then, just a few months after it ended, my father passed away on December 26th 2019. My dad was 54 and it was very sudden. We were still talking and texting the day before, and the next day he just wasn’t there anymore. He was one of the most important people in my life and I was devastated. Those two things happening so close together were very difficult to process. I only had a few months to grieve for my relationship before my dad passed away. I felt numb. Another part of my grief was changing countries. I left a lot of friendships and my community behind in the US. I’m now in the UK living with my boyfriend, and because of Covid-19 it has been difficult to build my own connections here.

Acknowledging grief

I started attending Untangle’s online grief support sessions in June 2020, along with other kinds of support groups. It’s definitely helped me to not feel so alone, especially now we’re so isolated. One of the reasons I joined was to meet others who shared the same feelings. Having this space is helping me learn to understand myself and my emotions. By talking about my experiences and hearing what others have been through, I’ve been able to fully acknowledge my grief – although sometimes I still feel like I’m in a dream.

Allowing yourself to feel

The first few months after my dad died it felt like I was in shock – it was very difficult to accept. Acceptance is a key step in the healing process and it takes time. The online support groups provide a safe space allowing me to feel sad, bad and angry, and to accept that this has happened to me. A good tip I got from the group is writing in a diary or journal about how you feel. One person said that after his wife passed away he would write down things he would have wanted to tell her that day – I think that’s a lovely gesture. Setting up a shrine with photos or objects that remind you of the person you’ve lost is also a nice way to immerse yourself in your memories and allow yourself to feel.

Having your voice heard

I like that the online groups are small and compact – it’s cosier and everyone has the ability to share. We all introduce ourselves briefly, then dive into talking about our experiences when we feel like it. I really like that each one of us has our turn to share and have our own voice heard. You can share as much or as little as you want to. If you don’t want to talk you are always welcome to listen and join when you are ready. You can turn off your camera if it helps you feel less overwhelmed and more in control.

A healthy and supportive online environment

It can be very scary to look at grief. But when you are in a healthy and supportive environment with other people who are also grieving, it is a lot easier. You don’t feel so alone and it makes you feel more capable of opening up to yourself and identifying your emotions. A couple of months ago I didn’t know that there were grief support groups out there. Having them online is great because people can access these resources from anywhere. And when you are grieving you might prefer to deal with the healing in the comfort of your own home, rather than catching the bus or train on a rainy day.

I am still grieving every day. There are days when sadness and tears find me out of the blue, and also days when I feel excited to start new adventures in my life.

Cherry Xu currently works as a freelance artist painting pet portraits. To find out more about Untangle’s free, moderated online grief community, click here.

Image – Cherry with her Dad, Lionel, and their family in 2000. © Private

After experiencing bereavement, grief can feel so overwhelming that it can be hard to know whether your feelings are normal or whether you may be suffering from trauma. Understanding the difference between grief symptoms and trauma can help you recognise a trauma response and know when and how to seek help.

The distinction between grief symptoms and trauma

Grief is a painful and complex set of emotions and can involve feelings of numbness, sadness, anger, and distress. It is a natural, human response to loss. There is no set grieving process, but over time, your feelings around your loss ebb and flow, and you find healthy ways to remember your loved one as you settle into a ‘new normal’.
Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing or disturbing event. Sometimes, bereavement can result in trauma, for example, if the death was unexpected, a result of violent crime, or was out of the expected natural order, such as the death of a child or young person. In these cases, you not only have the loss to process, but also the circumstances around the death. A prolonged trauma response is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

A trauma response is your body’s attempt at protecting you from perceived danger. It puts you into a state of hyperarousal, or ‘shock’, linked to the fight/flight/freeze responses. PTSD can present as agitation and aggression (fight), anxiety and hyperactivity (flight), and feelings of disconnection or numbness (freeze). Trauma can also produce physical effects, such as headaches, nausea, digestive problems, sleep disturbances, changes in breathing or swallowing, and panic attacks.

As your brain continues to revisit the trauma, you might experience flashbacks and vivid dreams or nightmares. The impact of these distressing symptoms can be emotionally, psychologically and physically exhausting, and if left untreated, can cause long-lasting impacts on your health, relationships and daily life.

When should I seek help?

It’s normal to feel a range of emotions as you grieve. As long as you can continue to move forward by working through your thoughts and feelings about your loss and leaning on friends and family if you need to, therapy isn’t usually necessary.
However, if you have any of the psychological or physical signs mentioned above or dealing with grief is stopping you from living your day to day life, you may be experiencing trauma and should seek advice from a professional. Using alcohol or drugs to help you manage your grief can be another sign that you may need to ask for help. Sometimes, people might not spot the signs of trauma in themselves, but the people around them start to pick up on changes in their personality or behaviour and suggest that they seek help.

If you suspect you have trauma, a trained therapist or counsellor can carry out an assessment involving a series of questions designed to identify signs of trauma. They can then work with you to help you manage the symptoms and start to heal.

Who can help me?

There are various ways of addressing and treating trauma and PTSD. When considering the available options, look for a service that delivers trauma-informed care, using specific techniques that avoid the risk of causing further trauma.
Trauma therapy or bereavement counselling can provide specialist treatment for PTSD. Two treatment modalities have been shown to be particularly effective in treating trauma: EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) and trauma-focused CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). You can find a therapist here.

Medication is not generally used as a first-line treatment option for PTSD but can sometimes be used alongside talking therapies. Your GP can advise you further.

Grief groups can provide additional support while you work through trauma and grief. We arrange various online support groups that can help connect you with other people going through similar experiences.

Stories from our community

We asked some of our current members of our community to share their stories about how they come to terms understanding their grief and trauma.

Linn- “I personally liked not being pushed; it was great to know I could come back anytime if I changed my mind. You don’t want to think about things when you’re in that headspace; you want very few options – you want to do the very minimum to get where you want to be, and because of the simple form, I didn’t feel overwhelmed. The therapist I am matched with is great. I never felt like I had to stick with someone I didn’t like.”

Lexie- “I found the whole process so simple – within a week or so, I’d had an initial session with a counsellor, and I’m still having sessions now. It was one of those things that you don’t realise you need until you’ve had it. It was a nice, easy process that made dealing with it at a time of high emotion easier. Without Untangle, I wouldn’t have known who to contact. I didn’t know that grief counselling was a thing.”

There is no escaping the fact that the funeral will be hard, but finding ways to alleviate your nerves and process your thoughts and feelings can help you feel ready to face it. We want to share a few ways you can emotionally prepare yourself in the run up to a funeral.

Be kind to yourself

The lead up to a funeral is often a particularly stressful and upsetting part of the grieving process. The practical aspects of funeral preparation and the worry about how you’ll feel on the day can be overwhelming while you’re coping with grief. It’s completely natural to feel apprehensive about attending a funeral. If you had a close relationship with the person who has died, you might have intense waves of grief that can sometimes be quite overwhelming. Worrying about how you’ll manage your feelings and whether you’ll ‘hold it together’ on the day of the funeral can bring added pressure.

Be kind to yourself and don’t expect too much. It’s normal to cry and express sadness at a funeral, and no one will expect you to hold it all in. You might find it comforting to share your grief and memories of the person who has died with other mourners. In a recent survey, our community members said that hearing other people’s stories about the deceased was one of the things they like most about funerals. It’s also important to know that there is no ‘right way’ to grieve. You might feel numb at times, and that can be a normal part of the grieving process, too.

Accept offers to help

After a loss, the people around you will often pull together to support you in any way they can. This could be with practical help, such as taking responsibility for part of the funeral preparation, or by simply being there for you as a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. Accepting offers of help can give you the time and headspace to process your thoughts and focus on emotionally preparing for the funeral.

Along with offers of support from family and friends, you might find that some colleagues, neighbours and acquaintances also want to help with funeral preparations. Don’t worry about bothering someone or being a nuisance – people are offering help because they want to be there for you. Contributing to the funeral in some way may also help them in their grieving process. Often, people want to help but don’t know how. They may well be grateful to be given specific things to do. Read our advice for planning a funeral for some suggestions of which tasks you can delegate.

When you look back at this time, it can be comforting to remember the people around you who reached out and were there to support you when you needed them.

Don’t numb your feelings

Waves of grief can be uncomfortable and intense, but dealing with them as they come, rather than pushing them away, can help the grieving process in the long run. Burying your emotions can impact your mental and physical health over time.

Try to resist numbing your feelings with alcohol or drugs. Unhealthy or harmful coping mechanisms only mask your feelings and will very likely make you feel worse. If you’re struggling to process your feelings around your loss, you might want to consider bereavement counselling.

Consider joining a support group

If you think you may find comfort from meeting other people going through a similar experience to you, we host in-person and online grieving groups that bring together people who are coping with loss. These can be particularly helpful for people who have experienced an unexpected, complex, or traumatic bereavement, such as losing a child. Some grief groups are run by counsellors, therapists, or other professionals who can offer specialist bereavement support.

Take advice from the funeral director

You might feel that fear of the unknown is one of the most upsetting parts of preparing for a funeral. What will happen on the day? What if something goes wrong? What if I go to pieces?
This is where a good funeral director is invaluable. Most good funeral directors will walk you through the steps and timings of the day, so you know what to expect. They work hard behind the scenes to make sure the day runs smoothly, so you can focus on saying goodbye to your loved one. You can find a funeral director through our funeral booking service.

Preparation is key

When attending a funeral, the little things can become big things if you leave them until the last minute. It’s best to be organised and ready, so you don’t have any decisions to make or jobs to do on the day.

Being organised can help to relieve nerves and will prevent any last-minute panic on the day. If you plan to read a eulogy or reading at the service, it can be a good idea to practice at home beforehand. You may become emotional when reading some parts, and it can be good to get some of this emotion out at home. You might still get upset when speaking on the day, and that’s ok; don’t put pressure on yourself to hold it all in.