For the last week, I’ve been reflecting on a question Professor Allan Kellehear raised about how long grief lasts. He posed this question during his keynote speech on Creating Compassionate Cities at the Everyday Compassion conference in Glasgow.
Why was he asking how long grief lasts?
In part, he was poking fun at those timelines that show death, dying and bereavement as a series of chapters in life that we pass through episodically before moving on to the next stage.
He answered his own question. “Grief doesn’t last 6 weeks or 6 years. It lasts forever.”
How long grief lasts
How long grief lasts has been hanging around in my head ever since, like a to-do list task that’s yet to be dealt with.
I don’t think I’m on the same page as Professor Kellehear on how long grief lasts.
Just like our ability and tendency to feel joy and pain, I imagine we will all be ‘prone’ to grief in different ways. I believe both nature and nurture will shape our attitude and resilience. Our life experiences as well as our death experiences will shape our grief experiences.
Of course I felt sadness when my parents died but I don’t think I was visited by grief. This might be because I was lucky. I had had them for a long time. Their deaths were on a relatively predictable trajectory. By the time their deaths arrived, they and we, the family, had accepted it was time. In some aspects there was a sense of relief. All said, they had good, rich, fulfilling lives, left behind great legacies of love and nothing had been left unsaid.
I have so much gratitude for the wonderful life they gave me, the wise and resilient-making upbringing they offered me, the lovely pile of madness, fun, games and nonsense we enjoyed as a family.
For sure, sometimes in a moment of memory I could weep for the joy of all of that and feel sadness at the loss of it but I know I’m mourning the loss of my childhood and a generation on, the loss of my grown-up children’s childhood and the lovely growing we did together. I don’t think those poignant moments are grief at the death of my parents. I felt prepared for that. I accepted that.
Me and my sibling grew up on a farm. The Waltons in 60s Scotland, we saw life and death all around us, throughout the seasons. So I get it and accept our built in obsolescence… the constant, slow turning of our world that gives us all our day in the sun and then lets the shade cover us and let us rest again. It’s a poetic context for living.
Of course I don’t for a minute think that’s everyone’s experience. I have close friends and family who have suffered traumatic experiences and tragic losses. I imagine their grief to be a whole other beast that lurks under the bed; the scary thing I hope to never meet… the thing that immobilises you. Maybe that’s what Allan was talking about.
Death as a positive experience
Professor Kellehear has had an interest in dying since he did his PhD on people with 6 months to live. He’s made a career out of studying experience of death and dying behaviours. His specialism is developing public health models for care of dying people. He’s a 50th Anniversary Professor of End of Life Care at Bradford University. He’s a major contributor to growing Compassionate Communities.
Like me, Allan believes end of life has positive dimensions too – love, happiness, peace, personal insight and growth, the chance to wrap up a life.
“The more you look for death,
the more you find that the only thing there is love”
Allan is an inspiring and accessible speaker. If you watch and listen to this short video, you’ll discover a wonderful insight he shares… he believes that the more you look for death, the more you find that the only thing there is love. “You expect to find a deadness there somewhere, but I’ve never found it.” What a profound and beautiful thought.