loss 15It helps during these challenging years of our lives to accept that loss and sorrow are the natural order of things. By accepting loss, we can make the moments and relationships between richer and more meaningful.

Recently I had a small issue on which I needed advice. I was ringing friends and relatives to have a chat, but there was hardly anyone available. For one shocking reason: many of them were busy helping other people close to them with a fatal or debilitating illness. It was sad and frightening.

I’ve been there as a helper-carer too. For those of us in middle age this seems to be a time of constant shock, of losing parents, friends or even partners. Two friends recently lost mothers; three lost fathers; one is looking after a friend with a brain tumour; one friend lost a friend to stomach cancer; another’s husband just died of bowel cancer; and one has a mum with Alzheimer’s, which is as much a loss as physical death.

With the years of loss upon us, how do we cope with grieving — particularly the sorrow of ageing parents? How to reconcile so many conflicting emotions?

One friend told me she felt so guilty about how relieved she was when her sick father died. “It had been so painful to see him like that and a huge burden of time. I had to neg­lect the kids, work and so many other things. I wasn’t giving my husband much attention and that impacted our marriage. “Don’t get me wrong, I am sick with grief. But I just feel that … well he was suffering, and we were all suffering.”

The guilt of relief seems to be a big factor that is unexplored in the murky mix of emotions that is grief. Another friend who had to keep flying interstate to see ageing parents echoed similar sentiments but was obviously full of shame. Yet such complex emotions are common and natural. We are not educated by our culture to know how to deal with the ambiguities of loss.

The thing about helping sick or dying parents in particular is that in our later years we are often just tired. When we are parents of small kids, our instincts of protection are strong. As we get older we feel we’ve worked hard all our lives and brought up kids, and there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel. When our parents start getting seriously sick, and needy, we can feel overwhelmed.

Our energy is further sapped by self-critical feelings about how we are acting and coping. Discussing death is a taboo subject in the West, so many of us don’t know what is appropriate and we fall into self-recrimination.

An interview I did a few years ago with grief counsellors Mal and Dianne McKissock, the now-retired founders of the Bereavement Care Centre in NSW, helped me deal with a spate of deaths at the time. I had lost three girlfriends my age within a year, and I began acting most strangely.

One friend had a sudden onset of motor neurone disease and within a few months was confined to a wheelchair. On one visit, seeing she had deteriorated, I was heartbroken and panicked at seeing her haunted face. I stayed calm for her. But I then rushed out to Kings Cross and spent a fortune on sexy underwear, suspenders and even a bodice — lingerie I was never likely to wear. It was bizarre. Standing with the bags in my lounge I felt full of self-loathing. But then I attended a lecture on bereavement, and talked to Mal McKissock afterwards.

He told me grief takes many forms, not just the four stages we are taught about. For one thing grief exacerbates our natural defence mechanisms — like one client who was putting on his amour and angrily marching to war against the “enemy” each day, without even knowing who or what the enemy was.

According to the McKissocks, these defence mechanisms are formed when we are children and are all normal.

If you responded to pain or fear as a child by riding off on your bicycle, becoming loud and rebellious or hiding, that is likely to be how you will handle grief.

Common grief responses can include excessive shopping or forms of escape such as sex, partying or workaholism. There can be withdrawing, lashing out, blaming, manic organising, being in denial, crying. Some people even laugh or make jokes in times of loss. Biologically this is normal as there are feel-good hormones in tears and laughter and we release opiates during laughter. Emotions are nature’s way of helping us cope.

As for my buying lingerie in the face of death, it seemed life-affirming at the time. I have always been an escapist, running away if not literally then in my imagination. Pleasure, partying, travel have always provided solace, given I’m prone to drifting into depression.

But acting this way during grief can make people appear heartless. For instance, Mick Jagger was spotted with a new woman, a ballet dancer of 27, not long after the death of his girlfriend L’Wren Scott. Was he a cold-hearted bastard or someone trying to escape guilt and a devastating loss?

Some people even have bouts of exaltation during times of grief, more aware than ever that they are alive. Take Vanessa Gorman, who made the documentary Losing Layla, about the death of her baby daughter.

“Quite soon after Layla died I went for a walk down a country lane near my house and I asked the forces of nature, God, to give me some sign that this had happened for a reason,” says Gorman.

“In that state of heightened sensitivity, I began to see the beauty of what was around me: the afternoon light dancing on the edges of silver gum leaves; the million shades of green in the foliage; the exquisite delicacy of the currawong’s call. And from a place so broken open, the magnificence of that afternoon entered me and filled me with itself until I was only crying at the extraordinary beauty of it all.”

University of NSW Scientia professor of psychiatry Gordon Parker is a strong opponent of the psychiatric profession’s pathologising grief as an illness, especially if it goes on too long.

He believes grieving is normal and there should be no time limit on it. A person who was close to a spouse or mother will grieve differently from one who was not. Grief for a parent is different from grief for a child. There are no rules and Parker believes we need to give ourselves permission to grieve as profoundly as we need.

To soothe the pain of loss, I have always found ceremony helps me: writing a letter, then going into nature and doing a sacred closing ritual with flowers or a prayer.

It helps during these challenging years of our lives to accept that loss and sorrow are the natural order of things. By accepting loss, we can make the moments and relationships between richer and more meaningful.

By Ruth Ostrow