Complicated grief

jackie kayLast week Jackie Kay, our wonderful Scots Makar – Scotland’s poet laureate – was one of the guest editors on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and chose as one of her many fascinating topics, ‘complicated grief’.

She explained that though this is a term officially used for long term grief, this wasn’t her context. Her personal context was grief in the context of complicated relationships… her birth mother, as someone who was adopted.

She read a poem she wrote on the death of her birth mother: Margaret’s Moon. These are just a few lovely snippets from it: “After she died, I swear the sky had the most beautiful of all sunsets… blush of pinks, then reds, a glass of red…” “I had kissed her head in the strange room.” “You became all spirit, released … at last in seemed, at least to me, you were free.”

Jackie was as moved re-reading her words as I was.

What makes grief complicated?

How hard, to bear witness to your mother’s death?

How much harder if you haven’t been able to spend your life together as you might have wished (in Jackie’s case, being adopted into another family)?

How much harder still when you are not fully acknowledged by the rest of the family at the funeral? (Being introduced as the Scots Makar but not Margaret’s daughter.)

Jackie’s adoptive mother explained her grief to a visitor who asked why she was upset: “my daughter’s mother’s died”. Complicated grief indeed.

Psychotherapist and agony aunt Philippa Perry was the Woman’s Hour expert on hand to consult on this topic.

As ever, being British, we’re consumed with getting it right in terms of social niceties, paying close attention to the ‘shoulds’. Should you go to the funeral? How should you respond if it’s the death of someone you haven’t spent much time with?

Philippa thankfully confirms there’s no more or less or entitlement when it comes to death and grieving. You greive as you grieve. There’s no hierarchy of grief. There are no correct or incorrect feelings. Feelings are your dashboard for where you’re at… to keep you right. And in fact you might grieve more for the long term loss you’ve suffered – not being able to openly have a relationship with the person during their life – not just grieving their loss upon death. The finality of the end of that relationship may be just as significant for the person who has not been able to fulfil a relationship than someone who had a daily relationship.

Jackie’s grief is complicated because she feels her grief doesn’t count, she’s outside the family and not entirely sure she’s welcome. And she felt that by turning up at the funeral and being introduced as the Makar, not Margaret’s daughter, she in fact colluded in continuing the secret about her hidden relationship to Margaret.

And the value of a funeral?

“Sometimes it’s only when you go to the funeral and take part in the ritual that makes it real,” offers Philippa. “When you’re joined together with others in grief it touches a part of you that can’t be touched in any other way.”

Memory Box

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One thought on “Complicated grief

  1. How wonderful to hear Jackie speak of ‘complicated grief’ in such manner. As a bereaved person and a clinician of more than 40 years I am so disappointed to hear colleagues ‘diagnose ‘Complicated Grief’ as if it were a well accepted ‘medical/psychological condition’. In my experience people have complicated grief because they have a complicated life. It should not be seen as a psychiatric condition.

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