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Coping with bereavement: the complex stages of dealing with the loss of a loved one
December 15, 2014 | By:

How should you cope with loss? Annette Bening's new film, The Face of Love, helps unravel the complex ways in which people deal with bereavement. Celia Dodd examines the stages of giref

Coping with loss 620

The stages of grief are different for everyone. Take your time and ask for help. Photo by Jas Lehal

We are used to seeing bereavement as best coped with in stages: from denial through anger to final acceptance. But in Annette Bening’s new movie, The Face of Love (out on DVD on 2 February), grieving is seen as a much more complex process of adjustment.

“There are innumerable types of grief, and we can’t predict how people are going to grieve,” says Janet Nicholls, whose personal experience following her sister’s murder in 2001 inspired her to become a counsellor.

She adds, “People can grieve for many years without looking miserable or depressed; they just carry on as normal. But then something might hit them and everything comes crashing down. People find their own form of catharsis.”

That’s what happens in the movie. Five years after her husband’s death, Bening’s character, Nikki, seems to be coping well. But when she meets a man who looks exactly like her husband, her feelings spiral out of control and her behaviour appears increasingly mad and destructive.

“Grief is the nearest most of us get to going crazy,” says Janet. “Even very rational people may find that all their rationality escapes them when they’re grieving. They feel they’re plunged into a totally irrational world. Because it’s very hard to get your head round the idea that someone has gone totally. But generally, in the long term, people learn to adjust to their new life remarkably well.”

Communicating with the dead

The idea of starting a relationship with your dead partner’s double is a pretty dotty conceit, even for Hollywood. But it’s actually a rather poignant illustration of the heartbreaking longing which characterises grief. After all, isn’t that exactly what bereaved people crave – to be with their loved one again, even for a moment?

You only have to think of Orpheus searching for Eurydice in the underworld.

And it’s surely why people are so desperate to keep communicating. Robert Peston, the BBC correspondent, typed up the handwritten manuscript of his late wife’s final novel because he “wanted to keep talking to her”.  

Even the most cynical types are drawn to spiritualism in their longing to make contact.

Denial in bereavement

So there is much in this film that rings painfully true. Nikki purges her house of her husband’s stuff and can’t face visiting his grave. By contrast, her widower friend (Robin Williams in one of his final roles) gets solace from his wife’s possessions.

In real life some people rarely shed a tear; others cry all the time.

People really do seek out people who remind them of the partner they’ve lost, and make constant comparisons between the living and the dead. They big up their good side and forget their faults. In real life the bereaved often revisit the places they went together, and try to recreate the same happy memories.

All these ways of grieving are normal. But grief is harder to deal with if people feel under pressure to behave in certain ways.

“The healthiest thing is to encourage people to genuinely respond in the way that suits them, not to feel forced either to show grief or hide it,” says Janet.

“But it is good to let it out in some way – and in that respect counselling can really help. Grief is hard work; people have to work at it.”

And while Nikki’s behaviour could be seen as denial or wishful thinking or projection, what she’s actually going through is the kind of painful catharsis that ultimately enables people to adjust to a new life.

It’s sometimes described by bereavement counselors as a whirlpool of grief, in which you go round in circles getting nowhere until eventually you’re pushed into a totally new direction. Ultimately people have to accept that they can’t go back; and that while the new direction is not what they wanted, it’s nevertheless positive.

Coping with bereavement: ‘magical’ thinking

It’s during these crises that weird coincidences happen – and not just in the movies. A clock stops at the exact moment of death; people see the dead person in a dream or in a shop.

Janet attributes this to “magical thinking” – a kind of heightened awareness that comes at the best and worst times of our lives, familiar from Joan Didion’s acclaimed novel about her husband’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Janet Nicholls has personal experience of this. When her parents went home after her sister Liz’s funeral, a musical Get Well card that Liz had sent years earlier spontaneously started playing, although it had been folded away in a bookshelf for two years.

The night Liz died, of an internal haemorrhage, both Janet and her surviving sister started bleeding – even though both were menopausal.

There’s usually a logical explanation for this kind of thing. Perhaps it’s just that our senses are on high alert during periods of intense grief, so we pick up on connections and coincidences we might otherwise ignore.

But generally people don’t look for reasons; the last thing we want is a logical explanation. “Magical” experiences can be strangely comforting, as well as a highly effective way of coping with the most difficult periods of our lives.       

Six ways to cope with loss

Remember: there is no such thing as “normal” grief. Individuals react in totally different ways. Resist pressure to behave in a certain way

There are no time limits on how long grief lasts

You’re not going mad – it’s simply a human reaction to an extraordinary circumstance

If you need support, see your GP or Cruse Bereavement Care 

Most people hide their deepest feelings very effectively. It can be hugely helpful to work through these with a bereavement counsellor

Grief can be excruciatingly painful, but people can emerge with a new appreciation of their own resilience.