The grief people experience due to mental illness and death by suicide raises very complex topics. Many participants in the SANE Mental Illness and Bereavement workshop are particularly interested in new ways of thinking – or ‘models’ – of grief, and challenging the old assumption that people should simply ‘move on’.
When considering bereavement, many people think about the ‘stages of grief’ – a theory originally suggested by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s. Kubler-Ross' research studied people with terminal illness and how they came to terms with their diagnosis. Her theory was later applied more broadly to how people experience loss through the death of a loved one. Although the theory does help to describe many of the emotions people feel – anger, denial, bargaining, and acceptance – more recent research has shown that the ‘stages’ model does not always fit with people’s experience.
For example, sometimes these stages are viewed as linear and rigid – stages that people must move though in order to complete their grieving and accept the loss. But for many people the idea of acceptance is a difficult and even insulting expectation – it implies that once you are over grieving you are also over the person. People may also feel that if they haven’t been through a certain stage they are somehow failing at grief.
New models of grief keep some of the original concepts of the Kubler-Ross theory, but set them in a more flexible and personal framework. While they do suggest tasks – accommodating the loss, processing grief and pain, adjusting to life without the person, and finding a way to maintain a connection to the person who has died – new models highlight the flexibility and individual nature of this process. They emphasise the importance of moving between facing up to the pain of the loss and, at times, avoiding the pain and focusing on the future instead.
The concept of continuing bonds is important, as we now understand that grief is not about ‘getting over’ someone, it’s about reshaping how we relate to them now they are gone. Grief doesn’t disappear or shrink, but we learn how to grow around it.
Mental health professionals in the SANE Mental Illness and Bereavement Workshop say this new understanding reduces the pressure to move to a stage of ‘closure’. Instead the focus is to help people work through the pain and loss, encouraging the bereaved to find new ways of maintaining connection with the person who has died.
The SANE Mental Illness and Bereavement Workshop is currently touring Australia. The workshop covers topics about the grief of mental illness, how families cope after the death of a person with mental illness to suicide, and how services can better support the bereaved.