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"There is no instruction manual": How to cope with grief

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On the vast spectrum of human emotions, grief is the one nobody want to experience - and yet almost all of us will go through the pain at some point. 

Right now, many fans are feeling grief for someone they never met, the talented and deeply likeable Sarah Harding of Girls Aloud and Coronation Street fame, who died at the weekend from cancer, aged just 39. 

As tributes poured in, her mum, Marie, wrote on Instagram, "I know she won’t want to be remembered for her fight against this terrible disease – she was a bright shining star and I hope that’s how she can be remembered instead."

Grief has been an unwelcome companion for many, too, throughout the pandemic. In the UK, over 156 000 people have now died with COVID-19 given as the cause, leaving hundreds of thousands grieving their loss.

File photo dated 20/02/2015 of Sarah Harding attending the Jean-Pierre Braganza Autumn/Winter 2015 London Fashion Week show, at the BFC Courtyard Show Space in Somerset House, London. The Girls Aloud star has died at the age of 39, her mother has said in a post on Instagram. Issue date: Sunday September 5, 2021.
Sarah Harding, who rose to fame with Girls Aloud, has died aged 39, and fans are grieving. (PA)

People dealing with the deaths of loved ones exhibit all the symptoms of grief, both physical and emotional. 

According to the NHS, symptoms of grief generally include shock and numbness – "this is usually the first reaction to loss, and people often talk about 'being in a daze'", overwhelming sadness, with lots of crying, tiredness or exhaustion, and also anger – towards the person you've lost or the reason for your loss". 

There's also guilt – about things you feel you should have done, or your inability to prevent their death. 

Physical symptoms may include insomnia, lack of focus, pain - from headache to stomach upset to muscle aches - loss of appetite and shortness of breath. 

Grief is an agonising but necessary process, to help the bereaved come to terms with the loss, and begin, eventually, to heal. 

Female doctor in protective suit consoling senior patient. Elderly man with oxygen mask is lying on bed in intensive care unit during COVID-19 crisis. They are in hospital ward.
COVID-19 deaths have led to many of us grieving over the past 18 months. (Getty Images, posed by models)

Read more: Amanda Kloots on why she hates the term 'widow': 'I am not a glass half empty kind of girl'

Holly Matthews, of The Happy Me Project, is a life coach, hypnotherapist and NLP practitioner. She lost her husband to brain cancer in 2017, and was left to support two grieving children, Brooke, now 10, and Texas 8.

"Our job to navigate grief isn’t to fight against its existence but to build our lives so amazingly outside of the pain that the grief feels smaller," she says. 

"To really live whilst we are alive. Grief doesn’t ‘go away’ and this doesn’t make it a hopeless thing. Grief cannot exist without the love of someone, and love cannot exist without the experience of grief at some point."

It's vital that you don't judge yourself for grieving 'wrongly,' she adds.

A sad little girl hugging her parent to feel safe, tearful.
Showing love and listening can help others through grief. (Getty Images, posed by models)

"How you grieve is very individual and it rarely looks like the black veil and teary eyes we see in movies," says Matthews. 

"I have known people grieve by taking up salsa, writing, dancing, by moving to a different country. Grief can look angry, numb, disengaged - so let go of judgement of how you get through yours."

Although many expect grief to be a linear process, she goes on, it's often far less tidy than that.

"It comes in waves. Forget the 'stages of grief'. Depending on where you are in your journey it can hit you at the strangest of moments," she says. 

"Perhaps stumbling on the persons social media account (as I did this week and bawled my eyes out - and I’m four years down the line), or when someone else dies, such as the tragic passing of Sarah Harding. 

"Even if you have not known that person, it can reignite your own loss and pain."

File photo dated 30/04/2015 of Sarah Harding holds Sydney, a domestic short haired cat from Guildford, during the auditions to find Britainv�s Happiest Cat and the new face of O2 Refresh, the network's Pay Monthly tariff, at the Pineapple Studios in Covent Garden, London. The Girls Aloud star has died at the age of 39, her mother has said in a post on Instagram. Issue date: Sunday September 5, 2021.
Sarah Harding's Mum wrote a loving and moving tribute to her daughter on Instagram, calling her 'a shining star.' (Getty Images)

For Stacey MacDonald, founder of The Modern Storyteller, grief had to be navigated around parenting. 

 "I lost my husband of only 62 days to a sudden heart attack on 19th Dec 2013," she explains. "The bottom dropped out of my world.

"The only way I was able to get through was by thinking one baby step at a time - it was a very real case of making the choice in each moment. 

"The first few weeks were so hard, as I had to be Mum to a 12 year old who had just lost her dad."

She goes on, "It was as if someone had pulled a rug out from underneath me. I was suddenly falling into a deep black hole. I went on autopilot for a number of weeks because the reality was too hard to open my eyes to."

She then decided she had to grieve in her own way. "Just as there’s no instruction manual for bringing up children, there is no instruction manual for losing a husband. So I set out on a path of doing things authentically ‘Stacey’.

Stacey learned to grieve her way. (Supplied, Stacey MacDonald)
Stacey learned to grieve her way. (Supplied, Stacey MacDonald)

"I burnt some bridges, I upset some people, and I moved through a period of huge grief for the first six months after losing Chris. It was challenging, cathartic, painful, even joyous… the number of emotions I could list are endless.

Every single day, I also had that moment when I came to and remembered what had happened, and the life I had been dealt. I had to make the conscious decision, every day, to put one foot in front of the other – the decision I still make every morning."

Stacey found solace in the power of talking. "if you can talk about the person that you’ve lost, if you can name them and remember them, if you can regale people with the stories, then there is some part of the process that becomes easier."

There’s honesty, vulnerability, and cathartic healing that happens when you tell that story."

Close up women holding hands, middle aged mother support grown up child showing love and care.
Telling stories, remembering and even laughing about the past can help people though grief. (Getty Images)

One of the biggest problems reported by those who know or love the bereaved person is simply not knowing what to do or say. Some may find it easier to avoid the person altogether for fear of hurting them further, or say the 'wrong' things due to nerves. But, says Stacey, the best thing you can do is listen. 

"Talk, talk and talk a bit more! Talk about the loss, name the person often, talk about how you feel, talk about what you miss, talk about the memories, talk about the fun times, talk about the low points too.

"As the person who has lost someone you have to talk. As the friend or family member, ask questions. Silence can be worse than deafening."

Read more: Meet the grief guru who helped guide Oprah and Prince Harry’s new mental-health documentary, 'The Me You Can't See'

Holly Matthews adds, "People mean well with the things they say about grief but you don’t know how to say the right things till you’ve walked through your own painful grief - then you realise how ludicrous some of the things you previously said were."

Instead, she advises, "Acknowledge the rawness of it and to be direct: ‘ I hate that you have to go through this’, ‘although I don’t understand fully, I know this must be so painful and I’m here to listen’. 

Delivery yellow chrysanthemums bouquet and reusable paper bag with card at home entrance white door in a daytime
Practical help cn be a godsend when you're just not sure what to say. (Getty Images)

She also recommends practical support.

"Grieving people in those early stages particularly might not want to cook, do washing or function, so take this task away for them. Bring food, take their washing, do their ironing."

And for the bereaved themselves, she adds, "Be kind to yourself. Know that even though your person isn’t here, you will feel joy again. 

"I believe that I honour my husband by living fully. He may not get the chance, but I do - and truly at every stage he is with me and I think about what he might think about things (he would be horrified by how I stack the dishwasher - definitely not how he liked it!)."

"Sometimes these moments make me cry, but often now, they make me smile."

Watch: Richard E. Grant hit by 'tsunamis of grief' after death of wife