Death Is A Natural Part Of Life. How To Deal With It? (Interview)
With psychologist Karolína Peruth about mourning, death and abandonment, but also about life and living in the present.
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Around 150,000 people die every day around the world. That's over six thousand deaths every hour and 120 every minute. Whether we admit it or not, death is all around us. It is inevitable and we will all encounter it one day.
How to make it easier for your loved ones, what words to choose and how to think about your own mortality. Refresher spoke with psychologist, crisis interventionist and psychotherapist Karolína Peruth.
"We shouldn't lie to a dying person. Caregivers may often deny their true state of health, even though they have already heard the verdict from the doctor. They tell them that they will go on holiday together next year - but they knows that they won't be here anymore. When we talk about death, the dying person can begin to reconcile. They will not be deprived of the process of leaving, of remembering. Otherwise, they may feel that they are completely alone in death, as those around them keep lying to them that 'you will be here for a long time,' ” she said in an interview with Refresher.
Why are we reluctant to talk about death? Is it still a taboo?It certainly depends on the socio-cultural customs of the given society. For example, it is very common in some societies, to be by superstitious and think, that if we talk about death, we will invoke it. When I say that my husband will die one day, is to some people the same as if I killed him. Grandma says that one day she won't be here, and we tend to respond very often: "Grandma, please don't talk about it, you'll be here for another twenty years." For many, it is unimaginable to talk about it with Grandma, and it can thus also the idea that by admitting mortality and the subject itself they are shortening her life. It is not rational, but we are brought up to do so, and so death is something terribly scary to us.
People also tend to feel that others do not want to talk about death. For example, psychologist Brian Carpenter described situations where people wanted to talk about death but did not. They realized that it would certainly be very unpleasant for others. But when they started trying it, even the more "anxious" listeners were relieved, because they could finally talk about their mortality. Maybe the opportunities and space to talk about death are here, we're just closing the door too soon.
If we accept death as a normal part of life, will we cope with loss more easily?
Certainly. Death is a part of life. We can die at any time at any age. It happens every day, every moment. Just because we don't talk about it doesn't mean we can erase it. Accepting death as a normal part of life, on the other hand, does not mean that we will not fear it at all, nor that we will laugh at it and trivialize it.
Not to repress, but to experience, not to delay, but to adapt to a world in which the deceased is no longer present. It's a terribly abbreviated guide, but it's the basic steps we should go through in order to function after the death of a loved one.
And even if we accept it, it does not mean that in the event of the death of someone close to us, we will be fine. We will always have emotions, it will hurt and trouble us. Sadness and other emotions are natural, they will not go away. It is primarily about ensuring that they do not interfere with our lives with their intensity and that they heal over time to the extent that we can function healthily.
Is there a "one-size-fits-all" guide to grieving?
In general, it is advisable to accept the loss as a reality, we should not deny it. Sometimes it can help to focus on how we actually manage to talk about death. The right words can also help us - instead of saying that someone left us, fell asleep, that he is in heaven, we say that he died.
In the first stage of grieving, which takes place from the immediate discovery of the death, shock occurs. One does not believe it, one is numb. The shock phase can last up to three days. This is followed by a phase of self-control - a person suddenly mobilizes and has to organize, plan a funeral, contact the family, create a parte. This phase lasts approximately until the funeral. Then comes the regression, when one needs to vent one's emotions. We get back into the emotions of a child, we cry - even hysterically, that's okay too - we can't sleep properly, follow a routine, we're withdrawn, anxious. This takes about three months.
At this stage, it is good to take a vacation from work for a while and give your emotions the proper space. However, needs at this stage are individual and deserve to be heard. It has to come out, we have to come to terms with the loss so that the adaptation phase can come. Gradually we learn to live without a loved one and find the lost control. We know we can be sad, sometimes we can still cry. It still bothers us, but we are getting back to life.
Death is accompanied by strong emotions that need an outlet. It is important to know that the individual stages of grieving intertwine and flow in different ways. It's not like we have to get stuck in one when we experience it. We will move on, it just takes time.
Can we tell how long we will mourn?
It is very often said that mourning takes about a year. But as I already mentioned, it has certain phases. It's not the same from start to finish - there's not the same emotion over and over again and then it just shuts down. We certainly shouldn't be stuck with one and the same emotion for seven long months, but at the same time we should allow ourselves to grieve for more than a week after a death. But there are more vulnerable groups, for example widows, whose mourning can last for 3 to 4 years.
I can feel sadness even ten years after the funeral of a loved one. But that shouldn't destabilize me anymore.
If grief is intense for a long time, is it a sign to seek professional help?
We can seek help for a variety of reasons and with a variety of emotions. For example, when a person feels that sadness is turning into depression, then sure. However, professional help is also often sought by caregivers who feel that they cannot ventilate their pain. A dying person often experiences completely different emotions and stages of grief than the person caring for them. They have no room to vent and can feel very lonely. As soon as a person feels that he needs support or "just" to talk about it, it is definitely advisable to find a specialist.
The first contacts with death are also challenging. A very common reason is also complicated or delayed grieving, when a person realizes that he has been grieving for a very long time with the same intensity of emotion as he had a week after the death of his loved one. It's very intense and exhausting. Such a person does not go through the natural stages of grieving and needs support to get over it.
Ignoring grief is not a solution, rather, it complicates grieving and creates a traumatic experience that is terribly difficult to access after a while. This can lead to bigger problems that a person does not understand. He may somatise, have anxieties, nightmares - but he doesn't associate it with delayed grieving at that moment.
We talked about the grief we experience after the death of a loved one. But how to treat a dying person?
Again, it's very individual. It depends, for example, on how long a person has known about their diagnosis and what their health condition is - how they can receive information and care from us at all. Therefore, the basis is to work with experts, doctors, hospice workers and find out how to talk to the person in question, how to care for him. We won't be completely alone.
We should not lie to a dying person.
"Caregivers may often deny their true state of health, even though they have already heard the verdict from the doctor. They tell them that they will go on holiday together next year - but they knows that they won't be here anymore. When we talk about death, the dying person can begin to reconcile. They will not be deprived of the process of leaving, of remembering. Otherwise, they may feel that they are completely alone in death, as those around them keep lying to them that 'you will be here for a long time,' ”
It is important to be able to listen and to be able to accept his needs. When he asks us for forgiveness, for example, let's not say: "But please, I have nothing to forgive you." Let's let him finish. The dying person needs to have the space to close life gradually and to experience the departure with greater relief and more naturally.
Are the stages of grieving and the stages of dying similar?
Yes, they look alike. Shock, denial also sets in. But they differ in that the dying can be "completely elsewhere" at that moment. They come to terms with their own death, whereas caregivers come to terms with loss but will live on. They may want to talk about life "after them", about the funeral, but this may not be acceptable to the bereaved at the time. It can be hard for them to just listen. It is therefore appropriate for the bereaved to find support from the outside, an expert, a friend to whom he can vent his emotions. Quite often it happens that they "pass" with the dying person, everyone is at a different stage of the process.
It's good to share emotions, feel free to cry together, get angry. But complete ventilation is simply not possible sometimes. When we see that the dying person is in a phase where they just need silence and peace, to lie down and "not deal with it", then process it, for example, only through touch. The grief of loved ones is also difficult for the dying person. At that moment, it is better to vent the emotions to someone who is able to receive them.
How can we support a grieving person?
Unfortunately, I know from my experience that the grieving often refuse help. But the presence as such helps a lot - someone can think that they will come to see the mourner, but he just wants to watch a movie. It seems to him that watching TV will not help him in any way. But just being there does a lot.
Another tip is listening, but we shouldn't include the typical "I understand you completely", "it will pass", "I experienced something exactly the same, you will get over it". Try to perceive that the grieving person is really not well right now and cannot imagine that the pain will ever go away. They need to focus on themselves, on their grieving, not on our experiences.
If a person is reconciled and is able to talk openly with the dying person about what will happen after "it", it is natural to feel relief in addition to grief. Because what they have been preparing for for so long will come.
Specific offers also help a lot. People contact me saying that they cannot help the grieving person, they don't know how. They often ask him what they can help him with. But it is very heavy. We have to come up with something concrete - I'm going to the store, I'll buy you something for lunch; I'm going to the park, how about I take the kids. Even if they don't want to, we provide them with stabilization ideas, what they might need. Grieving people often forget to drink. It may seem like a banality, but grieving has a really intense phase at the beginning, and one can forget even basic needs.
Is there any way to prepare for the first lonely anniversary, a lonely Christmas?
I think people sometimes underestimate that a lot. They know it's coming but they completely ignore it. They want to function normally, but emotions can hit us unexpectedly in such cases. Even if we don't want to. Emotions during the first lonely anniversaries or important holidays can be similar to those experienced shortly after the death of a loved one.
That's why I always recommend being prepared. Plan where and with whom I will be and what I will do. It probably won't be easy to prepare. However, this does not mean that the person is back in the initial stage of grief.
People can also feel anger. They are angry with themselves for not recognizing it, for not asking if everything was okay. But also at the beloved deceased for leaving them here.
Can you see something positive about death?
That's a tough question. Very personal for all of us because it affects absolutely everyone. Someone can perceive death positively, because they see it, for example, as a form of transformation into another life. But in general, I think that the thought of mortality, which we always have somewhere in the back of our heads, helps us really enjoy life. Basically, it reminds us of the preciousness of our life and individual moments. Mortality itself sometimes helps us to return to the present and perhaps to experience it better.
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