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 “Transitioning” is an unlovely word much in use on the other side of the Atlantic by counsellors and corporate consultants who claim to be able to identify universally experienced processes and turning points as people adjust to new situations. We are sceptical about that: in our experience people vary enormously over the time it takes, the things that help, the nodal moments along the way. Actually we think it can do harm to lead people to expect , look for, even long for key events that mark “progress” in the puzzling and often painful process of adjustment. So rather than a guide to transitioning, what we offer here are some random observations on adjustment which we hope you may find helpful.

You may well be in shock immediately after the death. The fact that you have been expecting it for months and even that the end of the suffering is a relief seldom means that you will be spared the shock of the event itself. The fact is that this dear person is no longer here. You will never see them again. You will never exchange another word. What is shocking is not the death as such: it is the finality. “She had been dying before my very eyes for weeks, but when it actually happened….well, it was like I could not take it in”.

This unreality may persist quite some time. “Even now, if I hear a funny story, I find myself thinking: “I must tell Arthur that one”. Then it comes to me. Arthur has been dead for months.” Possibly associated with the difficulty we experience re-processing data is the occurrence and recurrence of dreams that, as it were, represent to us the unreality we cannot yet internalise. “I keep dreaming she is still with us. Sometimes it is the same scene - her preparing the breakfast; sometimes it is something quite other. But in them all, she is very much alive and, as she always was, at the centre of the family’s life.” Now it is impossible to predict how long these dreams will persist. It is however helpful to recount them to someone you know and trust. If no one is available, try writing them down. Both can sometimes be upsetting, but in a way that is the point. By facing the upset, the anguish, we are retuning our minds to the present reality, and thereby hastening the day when we will no longer be disturbed by these dreams. Another feature of shock is that we may find ourselves bursting into tears at inappropriate times or places. These spasms of tearfulness seem to come from nowhere and are not necessarily triggered by a specific memory or mention. “I was laughing one minute and the next tears were pouring down my cheeks and I could only wish Jim was there - here, right beside me.” Such experiences can be alarming, both for the mourner and for their companions. People develop their own way of managing the situation: it is made easier if everyone comes to accept that it is a normal, healthy reaction to a severe shock, and, as such, will pass - usually quite quickly. (Certainly more so than distressing dreams.)

Perhaps the most widely reported aspect of shock, even if the least dramatic, is a certain restlessmes, an inability to settle to anything for long. “I can’t get into my book. I can’t watch even favourite TV programmes for more than a few minutes. I don’t want to knit or do my tapestry. Even if I make the effort - and it is an effort - to do a room out, I seldom finish it. I’ll drift off to something else and come back to it days later. It’s not like me at all….” In the jargon, this is sometimes called “routine displacement” for we have lost, temporarily, the patterns or rhythms of life that normally shape our behaviours. Some people fight this, forcing themselves to stick as closely as they can manage to what they recall of their normal habits. We are not sure this is very helpful - and will certainly be very tiring. Perhaps better to “go with the flow”, while being aware - in a non-judgemental way - that this is not your usual mode of operation. Like all the “post-shock” reactions, it will pass: you may even be able to laugh at it eventually. And perhaps that is the best treatment of all.

Less obviously a shock reaction but one that most people experience quite soon after a bereavement is awkwardness with friends and acquaintances. This is not a uniquely English phenomenon: but it is one at which we Brits seem to excel. The basic problem is that we know our friends do not know what to say - and we know we do not know what to say back. Some people (amazingly) say nothing - and we may be hurt by that. Some people have a stock phrase they trot out - and we wonder if they mean it or even know they are saying it. Some people think we expect them to rabbit on about the virtues of the deceased - whom they perhaps did not even know very well! Each of these can be embarrassing and even painful - so no wonder we dread meeting them or even take steps to minimise contact. “I started shopping really early so I didn’t see people I knew. It just seemed safer that way.” (That same person then told me how lonely she felt!)

It takes a very confident and socially competent person to steer any of these conversations into quieter waters - and by definition we are not at our most confident or socially competent when we are in deep mourning. Probably the best we can do is to have a few well rehearsed stock phrases up our sleeves and to hope that our friends will help us out. “I am still finding it hard but may be it will soon begin to get better each day.” “People are being very kind but they all know there is nothing to say that will bring him back.” “Grieving is never easy, is it? I’m doing my best.” “Thank you for asking. Let’s just say I hope it will soon get a bit easier.”

As you do begin to recover - as you will, dear soul - you will find that you are less anxious about these encounters and there will come the happy day when you actually enjoy hearing your friends and acquaintances reminiscing about your beloved. Encourage them. There are few things more therapeutic than swapping stories about the deceased - and the funnier and more outrageous the better! When you can do that, you are - magic word - transitioned. You are well on the way to healing. Enjoy it. Enjoy life. Now live it,