OPINION: Why lighting a candle can help you deal with grief in winter
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Grief can be a pain in the neck – or the lower back, head, or any other part of the body come to that. And it hurts.
The sadness is bad enough, but the physical aches and pains that frequently flare up to accompany it are very draining.
They are also worrying because we can’t help but think that they betoken some dreaded disease. More often than not though, they are simply physical manifestations of our distress, and they usually go away in their own time.
In my last column, I wrote about low mood and isolation and how these can be more problematic at this time of year.
I am also aware that many people feel loss more acutely when the sun doesn’t shine, and the nights start around 4pm.
So, I thought I would write about the weight of grief, because that’s what it can feel like – a huge weight.
The other day, a client described one of her symptoms to me in this way: ‘I feel my head is too heavy for my body and it’s taking massive effort to support it,’ she said. I think many of you will recognise that sensation. Someone else confided in me recently that he felt as though his grasp on everyday life was hanging by a thread. These are horrid feelings.
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Last week, the actor Damien Lewis released an audio recording of him and his late wife. Helen McCrory, reading love poems at a festival in 2014. You might remember that she died at the tragically early age of 52 earlier in the year.
I fully understand how much Mr Lewis must have wanted to issue that podcast. In his grief, as so many of us do, he is striving to find ways of keeping the characteristics and the talents alive of the person he has lost.
But even when we are dealing quite well with our loss, a sudden trigger can plunge us back into emotions that are much more raw. And this can happen decades after the death.
A friend of mine, whose mother died six years ago, can’t stop crying about her mum since hearing that her aunt is terminally ill. These situations happen to us all. Every fresh loss rips a Band-Aid off the original wound that you had thought was healing nicely.
But as we all discover, grief has no time limit. There is rarely a moment when we ‘get over it’. And why should there be? That person mattered too much for that. But we do eventually learn how to blend the loss into our on-going lives and begin to look forward.
It’s not very British to write about grief in this way, but I’m doing so today because I want those of you who are hurting to feel connected to other people who are coping with similar suffering, and to draw strength from their experience.
So, if grief is lying heavily on you, what can you do?
I suggest you do something to commemorate the person you mourn.
One of my closest friends, who works in the theatre, marked the 19th anniversary of his mother’s death by dedicating that day’s performance to her. These initiatives mean so much to us. After my husband died, I decided to award an annual prize for medical journalists in his name. It gives me pleasure and solace to do it.
I think we all feel better if we do something in a loved one’s memory.
It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture – quietly planting a rose in a window box or a shrub in the garden can feel deeply touching. Writing a journal of the high spots of the loved one’s life is cathartic and therapeutic. Even just lighting a candle when you want to feel close to the person you mourn can be hugely beneficial.
Above all, do go out of your way to talk to others who have been bereaved themselves, and discuss the people you have lost. I particularly like having an occasional phone conversation with an elderly friend who trained in medicine with my late spouse in the early 60s.
We have always liked each other a great deal, but the big common bond is that we both truly loved my husband. I always come off the phone after speaking to him with a smile lifting the corners of my mouth.
So, there are always strategies you can put into place to cheer you up and alleviate the misery which sometimes threatens to engulf you. But sometimes, it can also help to let the pain in and allow yourself to have a really good cry.
Personally, I think we should limit such events to half an hour or less, but it can feel massively healing, and as if the weighty burden that we carry has got a bit lighter. Grief is a universal emotion, but we have to deal with it in our own way.
It’s tough. So, do make sure you seek help where you can, and when you need it.