Good Grief

The world has changed. We cannot go back to where we were, nor continue to head in the same direction we were set upon before this crisis. But that is easier said than done and will be impossible if we do not embrace the grief of what we are journeying through together. There has been and continues to be painful loss. We have lost dear friends, family members, neighbours and colleagues. We have lost jobs, income, holidays and social gatherings. We have missed births and birthdays, key social events, final goodbyes and funerals. We are bereaved of whole ways of behaving – our ways of life, everything we’ve known has been entirely interrupted.

 

For me, as a type 7 on the Enneagram, it’s all too easy to engage in the future, to think about the ‘what next?’, to avoid the pain of the here and now, by letting my imagination run wild of what the world might be like instead. But we cannot and must not miss the vital part of our current journey, which is to recognise, embrace and partake in the grieving process. Grief is not comfortable, it is not easy, it is not enjoyable – in fact it is both tumultuous and painful…..but it is good. Refusing to enter into it, or trying to suppress it, will only lead to a deepening of the trauma and a delay of this inevitable experience.

 

The thing about grief is that it is unpredictable and what makes it even more so in this current experience is that it is both personal and corporate. However, the cycle of grief is well known and although each of us will go through the cycle differently, it’s worth recognising where in the cycle we might be, both as individuals and as a wider community/society.


This is the classic ‘grief cycle’ (I’ve borrowed the graphic from psychcentral.com) and it demonstrates well how the experience of grief is neither straightforward nor easy. However, psychologists agree that each of us will pass through each of these phases, no matter how briefly – though we can remain stuck in some areas for quite some time.

 

The isolation of this time has been the starting place for most of us. For some that was coupled with an acceptance that we are where we are, but for others there was a denial that this could be real and a refusal to engage with the idea of social distancing (although with police enforcement, this quickly began to change!).

 

The anger phase is clearly present for many at the moment, and understandably so. Anger is not wrong, it’s how we respond to it that becomes the issue. Sadly, in many households we’re seeing a rise in Domestic Violence , particularly towards women and children and this is something we need to take really seriously. Learning to control our anger and find a positive outlet for it is absolutely key. There are all kinds of online resources to help with this, but the deep cuts to social services and policing over recent years have made it difficult to work with families in a more proactive way. The Violence Reduction Unit in Lancashire, led by Detective Chief Superintendent Sue Clarke, who is a brilliant leader,  have done some incredible work in this area over the past couple of years, which is well worth learning from. The approach is much more productive than traditional methods of dealing with this issue and involves being with families more proactively to bring restoration and redemption into broken situations.

 

We’re also seeing the rise of a corporate anger. Tony Blair stated the other day that this is the most difficult time to contemplate being in government, and it’s true that we are in unprecedented times, but he feels our response nationally was slow. However, many feel that more serious questions, now being asked across the media spectrum, still need an answer:

 

These are all important questions that require an answer. Anger can be used to facilitate the right kind of conversations to bring challenge to the status quo and demand that it never leads us here again. The outcomes we are seeing were not inevitable – so what will we learn? What will be different? How will we change? If people in positions of power are willing to own up to mistakes, are we willing to forgive? I hope so…..how do we rebuild society otherwise? We must be able to learn and change our ways. It’s at the heart of what it means to love. But we must also recognise that some of this anger is simply part of the grief cycle and there may be no answers. We’re angry in part, because we are grieving. Sometimes our anger brings challenge and change, but sometimes we yell into the night and are met with silence.

 

Depression in grief can become clinical depression, but the word, in the context of grief, more describes a sense of deep sadness, loss, numbness, apathy and is often accompanied by tears. We must not try and keep a stiff upper lip, or push this away. Some of us will feel this more acutely than others, depending on our personality type, but this is a vitally important part of the process. This deep sadness can catch us unawares. It can come almost out of nowhere and we can find ourselves having a good cry in the bath or struggling to find the motivation to get out of bed of a morning. Talking about these feelings is absolutely vital, and it’s important that those of us who listen, ensure that the person experiencing these emotions feels heard. They don’t need fixing. They need validating. They need to know it’s OK to feel like this. We can’t just wish it away or get back on with things. There is a certain wallowing in this place that is extremely healthy and right. It’s true, we don’t want to get stuck here, and by putting some positive measures in place, like exercising, eating well, mindfulness and keeping a positive sense of routine, we can avoid becoming more mentally unwell. However, we must not try and rush through this phase or refuse to embrace the pain of it.  But this can become a very dark experience and some people will wonder if life is even worth living. We can find ourselves asking searching questions: Can we really go on without our loved one? Will we ever get through the brokenness of this current situation, when we have lost so much? If this becomes overwhelming or there are serious thoughts of not wanting to carry on with life, this is where therapeutic interventions or medical treatment in the form of medication can be really important and literally life-saving.

 

At a corporate level, we share a sadness that 20000 people in the UK and 200000 people globally have lost their lives so far, due to COVID-19 – and that is just the recorded deaths. We will potentially feel lost that a whole way of being together is no longer possible, nor perhaps, desired. The artists will help us the most here. Songwriters, painters, choreographers and playwrights. Are we mature enough to embrace the songs and dances of lament? DO we know how to do this?

 

Bargaining is about us trying to begin to formulate some meaning or sense of what has happened/is happening. We might find that we want to talk about our experiences more, tell our stories, reach out to others and explore some of the ‘why’ questions we’re wrestling with. We might find we start ‘big conversations’ with God or ‘the universe’ – some thing like – ‘if you help me get my job back, then I’ll live a good life from now on’ or we might find we’re dealing with several regrets in our interactions or relationship with the person we have lost.

 

Acceptance is about realising that we are where we are and we cannot change a thing. It allows us to breathe deeply into the reality of the horrors we have walked through and begin to face into the future. Some people think of the grief cycle as more like a river with the grief cycle being a whirlpool that we get stuck in for a while. We go round and round, but eventually we come out the other side. On a personal level, perhaps, before we entered the whirlpool, we had a dearly loved one in our boat with us and we entered this whirlpool once that person became sick or was no longer in the boat with us, because they had died. The whirlpool can feel overwhelmingly difficult, with the stages above. We come out of the whirlpool with an acceptance that this dearly loved person is no longer in the boat with us….but there are other boats that we travel alongside, and perhaps there are others who still remain in our boat. We must now learn to live in this boat, without the person who was with us before but knowing we can face the future with our other companions. At a corporate level, this is about us sense making that the future cannot be like the past. Things have fundamentally changed. We cannot go back to how things were and so together we can build an altogether fairer and kinder future for our global population and the planet we inhabit together. This becomes what some refer to as the 6th stage of grief – ‘Meaning’. We begin to make sense of what we have journeyed through and use it to transform our experience of the world and how we want to live in it. My next blog will explore some of the meaning we may find the other side of COVID-19.

 

Whatever your experience of grief at this time, embrace it and talk about it, but don’t try and hurry it away. Good grief is a part of life and enables to process our loss, feel our pain, heal our wounds, accept our scars and find a new future. The ‘Good Grief’ movement is something I would really recommend exploring, especially if you are struggling to process your own grief. There is also lots of mental health support available through your local GP or online via nhs.uk. Grieving allows us not only to engage with the pain we are going through, but allows us to let go, so that we can reset and rediscover a way forward together. It’s impossible to walk through it alone, which is why as the city of Liverpool reminds us in the amazing song, sung at Anfield, friendship is everything.

 

 

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The Rise of Antidepressants

The BBC ran a news piece today about the massive rise in use of antidepressants in England and Wales over the last 10 years. And depending on which study you believe between 1 in 11 and 1 in 6 people in England are now on an antidepressant (though we must remember, that antidepressants can be used for other conditions like pain management and irritable bowel syndrome – IBS). In the USA, antidepressants are now the second biggest group of prescribed drugs.

 

So, what should we conclude? Well, firstly, it is good news that it has become much more acceptable for people to talk about struggling with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. It is good that people are going to see their GP when they feel depressed and anxious, rather than just trying to cope with it. So, we mustn’t now necessarily insinuate that the increase in prescriptions is a bad thing, because firstly, that can heap shame on those who are taking them, which is unhelpful at so many levels and also, we need to remember that there is actually a good evidence-base behind anti-depressant medication. They really do work – I’ve seen that again and again for my patients, who choose to go on them, and for sure, I would love to see more psychological therapies available on the NHS, as an alternative or as an adjunct to medication. Waiting lists are currently far too long for such therapeutic interventions and many people choose medication because they cannot afford to pay for therapy or indeed to wait several months for the help they need. We don’t report the use of antihypertensives to control blood pressure negatively and so we need to be careful about taking a dim view of medications which help improve mental health.

 

However, when so many in our society are struggling with anxiety and depression to this extent (and it’s really positive that we’re talking about it and that people are getting help), we need to ask ourselves some big questions about the root causes of this and what we can do as a nation to improve our mental health. One of all time favourite quotes is that of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when he says:

 

“There comes a point, where we have to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.”

 

So, in the rest of this blog, I’m going to explore some root causes, whilst recognising that for many people, endogenous depression (i.e. a neurochemical cause in the brain) IS the root cause, and therefore their depression may not have any other roots to it.  I’ve also done this vlog (which I did for mental health awareness week) about what depression is and some of the things that can help.

 

But in looking for root causes, let’s start at the beginning. I’ve written on this blog a number of times about the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences and the impact of Trauma on our lives. So many of us live with unhealed pain, which over time eats away at us and makes it harder for us to remain mentally well. Many of us go through trauma and are able to survive it better than others, but that is because we’ve had other things in our lives at the time which have helped us navigate the storm. However, we need to recognise more the massive reality of trauma in our lives, so that we can face it, and find healing together. This is one of the reasons why I’ve co-written ‘The Little Book of ACEs’ with some friends and colleagues, here in Morecambe Bay. There is a free PDF version of it, if you click here. You may also find this inspiring talk by Jaz Ampur-Farr, herself a survivor of significant trauma, really helpful. Jaz is joining us in Morecambe Bay very soon, to explore some of these issues.

 

We must also be brave enough to recognise that we have a complex corporate history, which shapes our identity and we have a society, which is by no means equal or fair. Prof Bev Skeggs, and Prof Imogen Tyler, two of the foremost sociology professors in the UK/world right now, are writing so powerfully about this. It’s well worth digging into their work, and I am so excited that they are here at Lancaster University, in Morecambe Bay, and will be exploring some of these issues with us in more depth over the next few months. We cannot underestimate how injustice, poverty, and inequality impacts our mental health.

 

Stress has a hugely negative impact on our mental health. Our work patterns have become so manic and busy and our weekends often so full, that we have forgotten how to rest, how to stop, how to switch off and take notice of the beauty all around us – of the things which really matter. This takes a huge toll on us. The girl guides took part in a fascinating survey about what causes them stress and feeds mental health issues. The number one factor was the pressure they feel to do well at school. Our very systems and the treadmill of the exams are making our young people unwell. The idea of slowing down and learning to switch off from our ever faster, consumerist world, seems laughable to so many of us – and yet I would argue that this is one of the greatest causes of our ill-being. We have created an economy which treats people like fodder for the economic machine and is literally killing the planet around us – another underlying huge but often unrecognised cause of our stress. We must rebuild an economy based on wellbeing. It’s why I’m so excited that we’ll be welcoming Prof Katherine Trebeck to Morecambe Bay in the next few weeks.

 

Another causative factor of our growing mental illness in society, perhaps caused by all the busyness, is loneliness and isolation. Despite our many frantic activities, and social networking, 20% of the UK population say they feel lonely, but that jumps to between 50 and 75% of people over 75. We were made to be in relationship. When we are disconnected from community, we become sad and low. We need to remember how to love people, and also to be loved. Our disconnection is leading to increased separation, suspicion of others and a rise in racism and hatred. This is in no way good for our mental health. Valerie Kaur explores this so powerfully in her incredible TED talk on revolutionary love. We need to reimagine a society in which relationship is at the core of our being together. Hilary Cottam’s work is so vital in helping us recover this. Again, Hilary is coming to the Bay in the coming months to help us dig deeper as a community into these ideas.

 

I am so glad that we are talking about mental health so much more seriously. I am glad that people are able to take medication that can help them and that the stigma is being broken. I am hopeful though that we can recognise together just how broken our society is, and how our current political and economic systems (including our beloved health system) cannot fix this. Perhaps, in learning to be together in the dark, when we cannot see the light, wrestling with the complexity of our pain, healing our trauma and reimagining our future, we might find that our need for medication decreases.

 

 

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Cuts and More Cuts – a Disaster for our Population’s Health and Wellbeing

Tweet It amazes me, in this 24-hour news world that we live in, that a further £1 BILLION of cuts to our county councils doesn’t remain on the BBC front page until much past lunchtime! It feels a bit more important than some of the stories being picked by the editorial team instead!   https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-45573921 [Continue Reading …]

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Mental Health Help

Tweet Here is a series of 5 videos I did for Mental Health Awareness Week this year. Mental health is SO important and struggling with mental health issues, is NOTHING to be ashamed of. These videos cover, depression, anxiety, exam stress, suicide and getting to the roots of stress. There has been really positive response [Continue Reading …]

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A-Z of Health and Wellbeing

Tweet Happy New Year!   We often start a New Year with resolutions, things which we would like to change for the better. so, I thought I’d start this year of blogging with a vlog about my perspective on the A-Z of what affects your Health and Wellbeing the most.   It’s longer than most [Continue Reading …]

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Our Nation’s Biggest Public Health Problem

Tweet The subject of this blog is sensitive and difficult. It may stir up some difficult issues or memories for you, as you read. If this happens, then please take time to seek the help you need. I believe this blog and ones to follow might be some of the most important I have written to [Continue Reading …]

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Solutions Focused Thinking for the NHS

Tweet One of the main headlines in the news this morning is that without extra funding, the NHS is in dire straits and patients are beginning to suffer as a result of less financial provision than is needed.   http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-38019771   One of the things I have trained in, during my career is Solutions Focused [Continue Reading …]

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Learning to Celebrate Success

Tweet The NHS really is amazing. Today, I have been at the NHS confederation (confed2016), a conference which helps to set the pulse and rhythm of the health system over the following 12 months. I heard Dame Kelly Holmes speak movingly about her own experiences, help she received from across the NHS and how grateful [Continue Reading …]

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5) GIVE (5 Ways to Wellbeing)

Tweet Here is my latest vlog on using the 5 ways to wellbeing to help change the culture of the NHS.   Share This:

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Reconnecting Clinicians to Healing

Tweet In the USA, doctors have the highest rate of suicide of any profession. In the UK, a similar picture unfolds. Why is it, that 69% of all physicians suffer with depression at least one time in their career? It could be because of the high workload, high stress, high demand, an increased sense of professional [Continue Reading …]

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