Grief: A pain that will never end

By Kieran Campbell, Teuila Fuatai

Soap opera psychobabble or serious psychological stage? Kieran Campbell of APNZ examines whether closure on grief is achievable - or desirable.

The grieving family of murdered Scott Guy. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The grieving family of murdered Scott Guy. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It might have been the final phase of the legal saga, but Ewen Macdonald's sentencing yesterday was not the end for the family of the man he was acquitted of murdering.

Scott Guy's father, Bryan, issued an emotional statement explaining why Macdonald's five-year jail term for other crimes brought neither "satisfaction" nor "closure".

"It is simply a reminder that there are consequences for the decisions that Ewen made," he said.

The Guys aren't alone.

Closure might be a word bandied around in soap operas and watercooler conversations about everything from failed marriages to family tragedies. But it's not used by people at the sharp end of those situations.

People tell Gil Elliott he will eventually get over his daughter Sophie's murder. Others implore him to forgive.

"The thing is, you cannot forgive," Elliott says.

"You're not going to forgive a person for murdering your daughter, for God's sake. That's such a silly thing to say."

Sophie was stabbed to death by ex-boyfriend Clayton Weatherston in Dunedin on January 9, 2008.

Elliott says the days following her death were a confused blur.

"It's very bewildering. You've got to organise death notices, you've got to organise a funeral. And all those things you don't know about and don't want to do.

"It's very hard to describe but it's heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking. The grief is so profound."

Elliott has found peace in his new reality. But there is a word he never wants to hear, two syllables that prompt an exasperated sigh: closure.

"There's no such thing as closure. It's not a word I would use. There is no end, you see."

GRIEF, SAYS Tony Paine, is a natural part of human life. The chief executive of Victim Support says the organisation is in contact with 50,000 grieving New Zealanders a year.

"There's a really wide range of ways of dealing with the shock and impact of losing someone that we love - and that changes over time. People have good days and bad days."

Victim Support works with grieving families from when the news is broken and through the aftermath.

Grief, he says, is a tough emotion and something some people find "a little bit naked and embarrassing".

It is why onlookers are so quick to glibly throw about the word "closure", he says.

It's a word Victim Support won't use either.

"It kind of implies that these things come to an end or you can close a door on it. And of course that's simply not true," Paine says.

IN BERNIE Monk's garden is a one-tonne granite rock that features a photo of his son, Michael.

It can be seen from many windows, including the one in Michael's still mostly untouched bedroom.

It is almost two years since he and 28 co-workers died in the Pike River disaster. And much has changed for Monk.

After the mine explosions in November 2010, families were hurled into grief.

"I can't even think back now to what it was like," Monk says. "There was the disbelief of it even happening and you just wanted to disbelieve everything."

As the town began to mourn, some families struggled with the intrusion on their personal grief.

Monk coped by starting a fight for justice for the dead.

"I've moved on and I still cry a lot. And then my wife and I'll be talking about it while we're cleaning his room and we'll both be crying. That's just part of grieving."

MARIA BRADSHAW pulled into her driveway the day before Easter 2008 to find her 17-year-old son Toran had killed himself.

She remembers clutching her son in a vain attempt to keep him alive, 15 minutes screaming for help, watching paramedics try to revive her boy, covering her ears when she was told it was too late, and being asked to let her son be taken to the morgue.

"I wouldn't let them take him. I just sat beside him. I wanted him home," she says.

The coroner was called and the phone handed to Bradshaw.

"He explained to me that Toran had one last story to tell the world ... and that it was really important that I let Toran tell his story so that we could stop this happening to other people."

It would be a long journey to the coronial inquest, where it was ruled Toran committed suicide due to a sudden psychosis induced by an anti-depressant drug he had been prescribed.

It was a small milestone in the years of grief.

"I've heard it described as the worst injury a human being can suffer. And I think that's right.

"For many months or years afterwards you wake up in the morning and you have that split second before you remember it's true. And that's devastating."

Bradshaw says dealing with her son's death has become easier. She helped establish Casper, a group that connects families who have lost loved ones to suicide.

"This is about me doing something for him, to give him a legacy."

A legacy is important - but people talking about "closure" is not, she says.

"We don't want to close anything or move on from the lives that we had with our kids. We just want to find a new way to live."

PEOPLE WHO do not face their grief become buried in emotions they cannot deal with, says Suzi Wallis.

The Auckland counsellor sees scores of people every year facing grief on different scales.

Wallis says dealing with grief means re-establishing your reality.

In the beginning it is important to care about your wellbeing and surround yourself with people you trust.

"You're going to be scattered in your thinking, you're not going to be able to work out which way is up," she says.

And dealing with the initial pain, another wave of grief often washes over people six months after a tragedy, Wallis says.

The immediate support has worn off, people have returned to their lives, and something as simple as an anniversary or song can trigger despair.

"There will be some things that will take you by surprise.

"It's really common with losing a person to see them around and see people who remind you of them ... or having something great happen in your life and want to tell them and you realise you can't pick up the phone and call them.

"At that point they can be questioning themselves, saying 'come on, it's been all this time, shouldn't I be better?"'

The concept of closure often causes more pain.

"Closure - where did that term come from? That's like saying ... you're never going to get to experience your feelings about this event anymore. You may as well stop breathing, because it's not realistic."

Accepting your life has changed forever is probably the nearest thing there is to closure, says Ric Church.

The psychotherapist says people need to remove the pressure of chasing closure after suffering a loss.

The Guy family's statement about closure and satisfaction suggests they may be looking for a quick fix to heal their pain, he says.

"Satisfaction tends to indicate hate - and it's a fire that can burn a person and those around them. They are obviously still hurting and still grieving."

As someone who deals with loss and grief on a daily basis, Church says many people do not understand there is never a point of closure.

"Until you've had that experience yourself, it's still a bit hard to empathise with people ... and maybe that's when you hear people talking about closure or moving on.

"Acceptance is a better word."

- NZ Herald

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