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CRUEL HAND OF DEATH

Why you should let grief take its course

Victims and psychologists discuss the stages of grief and how to deal with them

In Summary

Hallucinations, cooking for the dead person or seeing them in your dreams are part of complicated grief.

• Psychologists say we should not belittle, compare or run away from heavy emotions.

"I started losing items in my home and would get intense dreams about my dead sister, to the point I felt as though we were communicating and she was real and alive," Mercy quietly narrates her grief process after her sister died. 

The businesswoman, 45, lost her younger sister Susan eight years ago to pneumonia. She says it is one of the most painful things any person can go through. 

"Losing Susan was so heartbreaking, and grieving her was more intense and emotional. We were so close and this made things harder because I missed her a lot," she said.

 
 
 

"She started appearing in my dreams for many nights, and I believe some of my items started missing. The dreams were so vivid."

Mercy got overwhelmed with emotions. At one point, she became very angry at her deceased sister.

"I was angry at her for passing on and over time, the anger led to bitterness and I was out of control. I got pissed at the smallest inconveniences or at anyone who crossed my path," she said. 

She says her sister's appearance in her dreams led her to question everything, and she wanted to ask her so many questions and let her know what was going through her mind.

"It's a roller coaster of emotions and I've never really understood why she appeared in my dreams. Perhaps it was pure hallucination," Mercy said.

However, once Mercy admitted and accepted Susan was really gone, she started becoming her former self and suddenly, the dreams came to an end.

"I'm almost done with therapy and honestly, this is the best I've felt in a long time. I needed professional help and it's paying off," Mercy said.

 
 
 

BEREAVED CHILDREN

Kim*, 26, lost his mother two years ago in a road accident after she succumbed to her injuries moments after arriving in hospital.

"I'm going through my process as her loss is still so surreal. I have my moments almost each day but I'm still pushing," Kim says.

Being the first born in a family of three kids adds so much pressure to him, and that takes a toll.

"My mum was raising us alone and it was very tough. Now that she's gone, things are even tougher emotionally and financially. But, we have a great support system and every day we are getting by," Kim says.

"My twin sisters were eight years old at that time and constantly asked me when mum is coming back. I always dodged the question but couldn't do it for long since they were becoming aggressive.

"The pain of losing my mum was so heavy. I was always so emotional, crying, and that's something I hardly did."

Kim is considering seeking professional help for his younger sisters, as they are now almost teenagers and they need it most. "We will all do therapy as a family because we need it and I want to lead by example, although I started earlier," he said.

HOW TO GRIEVE

Riziki Ahmed, a psychologist based in Nairobi, says shock is the first step of the grief process.

"The person will be in shock over what has happened or what they've heard. There will be some form of denial because they don't want to process that information at that particular time," she told the Star.

Ahmed says the victim may act like nothing has happened and avoid discussing anything related to the demise because they are not ready to process anything related to the death.

"That's why we call it the denial episode because they are not ready to process the loss," she said.

"At times, they may feel guilty, depending on the cause of loss. They start asking themselves questions as to whether they did enough to save their loved one," Ahmed said.

She said they might have doubts in God, question Him and become more religious.

"They feel the need to get closer to Him to understand what has happened," Ahmed said. 

She calls this bargaining and says they're still grieving. "They can get a mild depression and at this stage, they want to be alone to process their loss. They could be sad, cry a lot and not be their normal selves," Ahmed said.

Slowly, she said, they get into an acceptance phase, which is a journey of grieving. She said it will be different among people, depending on which other death experiences they've gone through and how traumatic the experience was.

"At times, people develop complicated grief. At this point, they need to seek professional help to cope," she said.

They may start doing abnormal things like cooking food for the dead person, seeing them in their dreams and talking to them often and hallucinating. She calls this complicated grief.

DOs AND DON'Ts 

"Don't say things like, 'I know what you're going through or I lost my mum, too, so I know how you feel'. The experiences are different. We can't compare and we shouldn't demean other people's pain," Ahmed says.

Julia Kagunda, a psychologist based in Nairobi, says children shouldn't be ignored or overprotected.

"Let children feel what they're going through. Understand their fear because the shielding can be negative, if we don't give them an opportunity to process death at their level," she tells the Star.

Kagunda adds that if children aren't helped, they may start bullying others or wetting their beds because of the loss they've undergone.

"Allow the victims to go through their emotions. Allow them to talk when they want to, and avoid saying, 'It will be well'. Go with their pace," Kagunda said.

She says death is never easy for anyone, but we forget and say things like 'be strong', which the victim doesn't need to hear at the moment.

Ahmed says your presence is really important for the affected person, especially after the funeral.

"After the funeral, reality hits them that they've lost a loved one and sadly, that's when nobody is around when they need them the most," she says.

She says we should let them talk when they want to, avoid getting uncomfortable, and not change topics when the victim wants to talk about the loss.

"You must also learn to be comfortable in their silence and let them process their loss," Ahmed says.

What about breaking the news to children? "Kids should be talked to if they don't understand what's happening, and adults should make things understandable for their age. Be truthful and let them be part of the funeral to the level they can understand," Ahmed says.

She warns that ignoring children in the whole process is wrong, and their feelings shouldn't be belittled. We should also watch out for their grieving signs because they'll also be affected.

Both psychologists said a good support system really helps one deal with grief.

Kagunda says people grieve differently, as some want others around them and others want to be left alone. If things start getting complicated and go on for too long, that's when you seek professional help to assist in processing the loss.

"Death is cruel, selfish and hurts a lot. Things will be different and not okay, but don't run away from heavy emotions. Honour the anger, give pain the space it needs to breathe. This is how I let go," Kim said.