Bereavement is unthinkable and the grief overwhelming. Leonie tells her story and explains what she learnt about the grieving mind, what helped her get through the worst times, and where you can find help here in the Netherlands.
My Life Turned Upside-Down
On the night of July 8th, 2005, my boyfriend suddenly died. I was 28. We were about to move flats.
The day before I was planning which color to paint the bedroom wall. The day after, I suddenly had to plan his funeral. It was unreal.
The week between his death and funeral went by in a haze. It was a gorgeous summer, I recall vaguely. I had to decide what to do: move to the new apartment on one salary? Or stay in the old one? I decided to move.
Reaction of my Friends and Family
Two good friends and my mom helped me sort his stuff. They held up items one by one and all I could muster was to shake my head (throw), nod (keep) or shrug (store). They were a lifesaver that day.
I was lucky to have the financial and practical support of my parents, enabling me to move into the new flat. I was happy to have my parents around me, helping me to cook, paint, hang up lamps and just listening to me.
In the months that followed, good friends stayed over for the night, keeping me company in my too-big new flat.
Other friends did not know how to act around me and stayed away. Some told me I could always call them. But I never did. I did not have the energy and besides, what was I going to say? In hindsight, I found that to be one of the most unexpected challenges of death and grief: how people around me reacted and how to deal with that.
Facing my Grief Alone
After a few months, the support and sleepovers started to dwindle. Now I was on my own, and my personal process started for real. Or to be precise, my resistance process started.
It turned out I did not know how to grieve.
It turned out I did not know how to grieve. I buried myself in work. But my head would fog up by noon on Monday. I found I could barely process email content or conversations. I did not know what this was. In November that first year, the company doctor invited me into his office, took one look at me and said: "You need to go home. Sit and stare at the walls until the tears come".
So I went home. I spent over a month doing every single leftover task in the new house I could find. By the end of that month, the curtains were shortened, the walls painted, clothes mended. And I had nothing left to do but stare at the walls. It was awful. I felt like sitting at the bottom of a dark pit, in a deep depression. I needed some level of distraction from this! So I begged to come back to work. The company doctor reluctantly allowed me to 'reintegrate' part time but urged me to see a therapist, who diagnosed that I was frozen and unable to grieve.
Understanding What Was Happening to Me
Back at work, I was given small planning and organizing tasks. This was well-meant and the idea sounded fine, but somehow I found it a huge challenge. It was as if my memory failed me constantly. It happened at the supermarket too: I could not go shopping without a list, and even then, I would find myself in the veggie department wondering what I was looking to get there.
Years later, when I started working in the field of stress neuropsychology, I spoke to an expert who explained what I was experiencing in the following way: Our brains function similar to a computer. Bereavement is like having different programs open running in the background on your computer: it slows down the capacity of the ‘processing memory’ (the one used to short-term save or keep open what I am doing right now). She advised clients to ask for 1-2 bigger, longer-term projects at work (tapping into the ‘long term memory/hard drive’) to keep functioning at the office.
I began to see a bioenergetic therapist. She would have me do exercises like come sit on her lap and allow her to comfort me. Or reach out to be picked up like a baby. It did something, but I could not surrender to this technique. So I decided to look elsewhere. What started was a long search for the right therapy and therapist. I tried a Gestalt therapist, but this technique did not suit me. I started to feel very lonely.
What helped was getting a regular massage. I discovered Koan Float and started to go there every Sunday to satisfy my 'skin hunger' and feel like a baby floating in a dark tank. Then another therapist handed me a book called Illusions by Ingeborg Bosch (translated in English too). I read it over the holidays and I had a big AHA! I suddenly saw myself and my behavior clearly. The book explained how to let go and turn towards where it hurt. This therapy suited me. It was called PRI, similar to Mindfulness, which I use today in my own counseling.
Each time I caught myself starting to grasp outside myself for a quick fix, I would catch myself and stop. Slow down. Breathe. Let the reality of the moment sink in. And in doing so, I finally hit the grief stage.
Slowly, I let go of my avoidance behavior. Each time I caught myself starting to grasp outside myself for a quick fix, I would take hold of myself and stop. Slow down. Breathe. Let the reality of the moment sink in. And in doing so, I finally hit the grief stage. I hung out at our old favorite coffee places. Walked in the parks we used to walk. At last, I really mourned.
And just when I felt I was truly coming to terms with my life as it was, I met my husband-to-be. Of course, we lived happily ever after, but that's a different story.
They say it takes two years to start enjoying life again after losing a loved one. And so it did. And it didn't. The experience of bereavement changed my life: It helped me realize what’s important in life and guided me towards the work I do now (mindfulness training and counseling for life events, work, and burnout).
As a friend of mine recently said, "Being bereaved taught me so much; it woke me and opened my heart to life". And strange as this may sound to some, I could not agree more.
Resources and Tips for Coming to Terms with Bereavement
- Find a good therapist specializing in grief.
- If it suits you, consider a bereavement group, such as Humanitas.
- Find physical consolation. Koan Float on Herengracht 321 was great. I also recommend Corinne de Graaf who offers grief therapy and massage. She ‘gets it’.
- Learn how to step out of avoidance/resistance patterns and be with where it hurts. Mindfulness training is a great way to learn this. See my article for Amsterdam Mamas or Mindfulness International for English spoken courses around Amsterdam.
- Find ‘role models’: people in your network who have gone through grief years before you and came out well. They will understand you and give you comfort.
- Talk about your feelings, but try to spread it across friends and a good therapist so that the weight does not come down on a handful. People can get triggered into fear or denial by what happened to you; few will naturally know how to listen in a healing and compassionate way.
- At work, scale back your hours, if you can, to make space and time for conscious mourning. Ask for 1-2 bigger, longer-term projects at work rather than various smaller shorter term tasks. This will reduce stress, alleviate your ‘running memory block’ and allow you to contribute.
- Get the little advice book Wat kan ik voor je doen? by Karin Kuiper. Find someone to translate it and hand it out to friends and family. This way, they know how to help, and you don’t have to say it.
Leonie Stekelenburg changed her work path since that day in July 2005 towards Mindfulness-based training, life-coaching, and burnout prevention/treatment. For more info see www.leoniestekelenburg.nl.