OBSERVATIONS OF GRIEF

an interview by Corinne Parkes

In a small, warm office in Sydney sits Sharalyn Drayton. With intense azure eyes, she looks at me as she calmly rests in an unremarkable office chair, her elbows propped on its arms, a tattoo on her wrist flashing at me as she interlocks her fingers.

After working in the marketing industry, Sharalyn shifted gears and retrained as a counsellor. She developed a particular interest in the experiences of grief, trauma and addiction while also completing a Master of Public Theology at Charles Sturt University – a degree that investigates how theological narratives intersect with contemporary events. Her work now reflects these differing disciplines and combines elements of the psychological and spiritual to create a holistic approach to counselling. As a practising counsellor for almost two decades, Sharalyn has worked with a wide variety of clients, from addicts to the bereaved.

A clinical approach to grief is what I had anticipated I would be talking about in this small, warm room. Definitions, diagnostic tools, schools of thought and cultural perceptions. Though, as I sit having sunken deeply into a chestnut lounge, I quickly realise there will be nothing clinical about this interview like I had originally thought. In this room, grief isn’t seen as an ailment, but rather an inevitable experience that we will all encounter in some way. “It’s part of our humanity,” Sharalyn muses, “it’s part of our humanness to grieve, and we all do that in different ways.”

Broadly defined as a natural response to loss, grief is as visible as it is veiled. While stories of grieving people saturate both news and popular media, the experience on an individual scale can often illicit trepidation.

Sharalyn affirms this. “Non-grieving people struggle with grieving people because it makes them feel really uncomfortable and they don’t know what to do. Human nature makes us want to make things better, because then we feel safer. So I think we instinctively feel uncomfortable around other people who are uncomfortable”. Perhaps it is for this reason, then, that often those who grieve feel uneasy with the experience in itself. Perhaps it is why certain losses carry with them the permission to grieve, while others don’t.

This societal minimisation of someone’s grief is an issue, Sharalyn agrees and can make the experience of grief even more difficult. “People do the ‘shoulds’: I should be over this by now, I shouldn’t be feeling this way. But you should be doing exactly what is coming up you for you and processing that in the moment, and you should be taking the pressure off yourself” she says.

Whether you lose your home, a pet, your health, or someone you love – to grieve is human. It has many different multifaceted levels and is an experience that is both deeply individual and intrinsically shared.

“The grieving process is incredibly complex” Sharalyn states, “and although there are some similarities for everybody, it’s also different for everybody, and it takes as long as it takes. Some people can move through the process more quickly than others.”

This idea of a process leads our conversation to the broadly understood ‘five stages of grief’ – a theory that is perhaps the most recognisable concept of grief, taken directly from the work of Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

In 1969, Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, published On Death and Dying, the groundbreaking book that looked scientifically at the experience of grief and loss. Before this work entered the collective cultural understanding, how society dealt with grief was vastly different.

“Before that, it was ‘get over it, move on, don’t talk about it’” Sharalyn explains. “We live in a culture that says ‘don’t go there’ because it’s too hard, so the best way forward is just to push it away and not look at it, which is a culture we’ve inherited”.

Included in Kübler-Ross’s seminal work was the theory that the experience of grief noticeably progresses through five steps. Denial is the first hallmark, followed by anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. These five stages stand as the normal process, something that is both standardised and ultimately inevitable.

I asked Sharalyn if she believed this model was helpful.

“I think it’s helpful because anything that gives people a framework to help them understand is going to be beneficial. Grief is such an overwhelming experience, and people struggle to manage their experience, so we use our intellectual ability to try and make sense of the data that we’re experiencing.”

I pause.

This benefit of the model makes sense, of course. But surely it can be detrimental too. Surely, for some, these stages are restrictive; prescriptive, even. Instead of acting as a support or as a way to rationalise the intense emotions that arise in grief, surely these five stages could confuse the individual process, and stand instead as a way to make the people around you feel less uncomfortable.

Five steps to tick off your list, five steps that you need to move through quickly, five steps you have to take so that, all of a sudden, you can… “be better,” the kind voice sitting before me completes my thought.

Be better.

Could this globally recognised model do more damage than it does good?

“The 5 stages of grief don’t necessarily happen in that order, and I think that’s really important” Sharalyn offers. “People put a lot of pressure on themselves and I think society puts pressure on people because we don’t deal with each other’s grief very well”.

Traditionally, it has been this pressure that has convinced us to conceal our grief, to not look at it ourselves or let anyone else see it. This, Sharalyn says with a sigh, won’t fix anything.

A deliberate hand gesture draws my eye to a small framed image. A Leunig poem, one that Sharalyn presents to many of the clients that she sees. “When the heart is cut and cracked and broken, do not clutch it let the wound lie open…”

This could be the philosophy that informs the practice of grief counselling as a whole, along with the growing understanding that grieving is, in fact, essential in healing. An integral part of the grief experience is being able to process the phenomenon – a step not resolutely outlined in the five-stage model.

This is where counselling operates best. I ask Sharalyn how she, as a professional, would assist a grieving person. She responds, “Grief is such a profound experience that sometimes you need to let people come at it slowly, so it’s really just facilitating, giving someone permission to actually pull the blanket back a little bit and look at what is coming up for them, and giving them tools to process that”.

The permission to grieve is something that, societally, is becoming more accepted, and the once concrete cultural norms that prescribed how different individuals could experience grief are loosening. These two alterations are immeasurably beneficial, according to Sharalyn.

Processing and coming to terms with the grief an individual might feel is arguably the most essential element to the experience of grief as a whole. If neglected, Sharalyn notes “grief can create almost trauma-like symptoms and unresolved grief will reappear at different stages of your life when different things happen. It never goes away”.

While the experience of grief may never have a definitive conclusion, there are things that it should not be. The process itself should not be looked at as a prescribed course of action or an absolute answer to what is ‘normal’. It should not be aimed solely at ‘getting better’, or ‘getting over it’. It should not be entirely invisible. It is human to grieve and it is, for most, inevitable too.

With well-thought-out words, Sharalyn concludes our discussion. “Grief starts like a wave that can bring you to your knees, and slowly it will subside. We never get cured, but we learn to integrate it. It becomes a part of our story… it makes us larger”.

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