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Mistresses grieve like wives, but their pain is hidden: Grief therapist

By Kelvin Kamau | June 17th 2021

Amid fear of a rising wave of Covid-19 related deaths, KELVIN KAMAU asks MUENI WAMBUA, a grief therapist and pastor, about discovering the death of a loved one on social media, why women cope better with death and the confusion of mourning an estranged partner, parent or child.

You are a grief therapist. Isn’t it depressing, hearing about death every day?

We forget that the leading cause of death is life! Being a Grief Therapist is a daily reminder to be grateful for the gift of life and to live in the awareness that life happens.

Many people discover they have lost loved ones on social media. What do you make of that?

Do not rush to be the first to break news of the death of someone on social media. It is not your news to break even if it involves a public figure, because they have family and we need to respect that. Death of a loved one is hard enough, let’s not make it harder.

What do you make of the increasing use of social media, where grief is shared with total strangers?

We must learn to define who our support system is. Having 10,000 followers on social media does not translate to having 10,000 friends.

What is the best way of breaking news to someone about the death of their loved ones?

There is really no formula to do this nor a script to follow. However, as much as possible, do it in a private place and a safe space. Show compassion. Use clear language and avoid euphemisms or jargon. Allow time for absorption and reflection.

The quest for giving loved ones befitting send-offs hardly allows the bereaved time to grieve, don’t you think?

True. In the days following the loss of a loved one, there are many errands to run and not enough time to actually sit and grief. The person is probably in denial. Everything, including the funeral, may feel like an “out of body experience” and one feels like an observer in a bad, distant dream.

 Society doesn’t expect men to grieve. What are the consequences?

Boys are taught from an early age that emotions are a form of weakness and to express them is an admission of the same. And since boys grow into men, we end up having men that are not in touch with their emotions. Most men, therefore, do not know what to do when emotions show up.

In your experience, widows and widowers, who handles grief better?

Widows process grief better because they have better support structures — from family systems, churches and chamas.  Look around you …. There are not many churches that have a Widowers’ Fellowship, but literally every church has a Widows’ Fellowship or ministry. That said, women are more vulnerable when the husband dies as opposed to men when their wives die.

Children whose parents or siblings die when they are sitting national exams are often not given the news until after the exam. What is your professional view of this?

My personal opinion is that exams can always be taken another time, but the death of a parent is a watershed experience and, therefore, a child needs to be given the opportunity to be present for it. I have seen, in my therapy sessions, adults who harbour anger and feelings of isolation or disconnection from the family as a result of having been denied this opportunity to grieve a parent or sibling.

Say you have a spouse whose illicit partner, with whom they had a tight and long-time bond, dies. Can one grieve secretly?

This is Disenfranchised Grief; a grief that cannot be acknowledged openly. The loss is not recognised, the grief is not recognised. So, much as you have lost someone you were intimate with, your grief has to be private because it is considered illegitimate, shameful or even disrespectful.

What happens when a parent, spouse or sibling with whom one is estranged dies?

The short answer is that we grieve. Death is very final and with it comes the death of the possibility, the hope and even the dream of a reconciliation. There are conversations that will never be heard, explanations that will never be received and even forgiveness that will never be sought.

Which grief hits hardest? Losing only child? A still birth? The death of a young child?

All grief is hard because we grieve over relationships and not titles. Grief is always about love and where there was great love, there will be great grief. All grief is unique and we should resist the temptation to compare grief, but allow grief to flow naturally from the wound that has arisen.

Still, some loses can be awfully painful, don’t you think?

Of course, some grief is really traumatic because factors surrounding deaths such as suicide may be more difficult to process than the death of a 99-year-old person, who died peacefully in their sleep. There will be grief in both, but the intensity will vary as will the accompanying emotions.

Not many people bother seeking counselling to deal with grief. Why?

A misunderstanding of what therapy is. The illusion that seeking therapy is a statement of weakness or that it is going to expose your or family secrets.

How much does therapy cost by the way?

The better question is, what does it cost to not receive therapy? One is in danger of adopting unhealthy coping mechanisms such as addiction to substances or unhealthy behaviours, putting their lives and relationships at risk. Can we put a monetary value to all that?

Can one die of grief?

While grief in itself is not a disease, unhealthy coping habits such as alcohol as a means of escape will see one engage in drunken driving or even risky sexual behaviour. Unprocessed emotions always find an outlet such as anger outbursts and things have been known to spiral out control to even suicide.

Women who lose husbands are shamed when they get into relationships “too soon”. When is soon enough?

There is no timeline to grieving and individuals grieve differently. What is critical is the emotional capacity to enter and manage a new relationship and other dynamics at play. There is also a cultural dimension to this kind of thinking because men are encouraged to remarry soon “to get help to take care of the children” while women are encouraged to not remarry soon “to focus on taking care of the children” because our society is predominantly patriarchal.

Which are the wrong things to tell people who are grieving?

Do not correct their emotions so that they can be more “palatable.” Let them mourn how they wish. And don’t offer platitudes that minimise, invalidate, rationalise or even spiritualise their pain and loss.

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