Feature Story

Grief is a phoenix

Life after death is a thought bound to cross everyone’s mind at some point in their life, but what about life after grief?

Sal Blakemore says after losing both their mother and ex-partner within two years of each other, grief is an emotion they are familiar with.

“It never goes away, that feeling of loss. But we learn to pick ourselves up and keep moving forward. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about them every day.”

According to the Australian Journal of Grief and Bereavement, Australians often associate grief as a negative emotion, and many try not to fully experience the feeling to avoid discomfort.

Yet, an international study shows people who choose to acknowledge and talk about their grief are better off long-term in how they manage and regulate their emotions.

Learning to accept support when grieving can be one of the hardest obstacles. Photo: Imogen Wilson.

According to the national health directory, Healthdirect, grief often involves intense sadness, and sometimes feelings of shock and numbness, denial and anger. 

“Grief is the natural physical, mental, and emotional response experienced in correlation to a loss which can be both minor or monumental.”

Grief is a unique experience for every individual in how they are affected and impacted by it, as well as how they choose to handle it.

Any form of emotional trauma stemming from losing a loved one or pet, ending a relationship, becoming terminally ill, or changing careers can act as a pivoting transition into grasping our own sense of time and how we want to spend it.

The good side of grief

Director of the Australian Association of Psychologists Sahra O’Doherty says grief is often a catalyst for change.

“Grief makes us reprioritise what is important to us in life,” she says.

“It helps us deep dive into who we are as people, engage with our values, and witness our own morality.”

Sahra O’Doherty

Sahra says people experiencing grief usually struggle to accept how unpredictable it can be.

“As a professional, I can tell you the five stages of grief we usually see within society don’t exist. When grieving we must be gentle on ourselves and on those around us. We need to look at the positives and heal together,” she says.

Grieving around others

Disenfranchised grief is when someone’s grieving doesn’t fit in with their society’s attitude about dealing with death and loss.

Research by grief expert Professor Kenneth Doka, outlines that the experience occurs when a person experiences a significant loss and their grief is not openly acknowledged, socially validated, or publicly mourned. 

Psychologist Bronwyn Milkins uses this visualisation tool with her clients. Infographic: Imogen Wilson.

“Although the individual is experiencing a grief reaction, there is no social recognition that the person has a right to grieve or a claim for social sympathy or support.”

Perth Psychologist Bronwyn Milkins says she often helps people who are struggling with grief.

“I see a lot of people who experience so many different emotions. They experience sadness, anger. They really just don’t know what to do with themselves afterwards,” she says.

“Getting through grief can be a long-term process and there is almost no plan, ever. We’re just going to see what unfolds because it’s about meeting the person where they’re at in their grieving process and what their needs are.”

Bronwyn says she shows this graphic to her clients experiencing grief to help visualise the process and work towards feeling at peace.

Hear from Perth Psychologist Bronwyn Milkins in Episode 1 of the Phoenix Podcast. Podcast: Imogen Wilson.

Sal Blakemore says finding professional support that validated their grief, and the confronting emotions that came with it was the best thing they ever did.

“I had so much loneliness and I felt so isolated because I was really young when my mum died,” they said.

“Grief feels so personal and so intimate, but grief training was one of the most validating things I’ve ever been able to do for myself and my grief.”

Sal Blakemore

Grief rituals

Sal says with the loss of their mother, they are now able to look at themselves and the world in a positive light.

“For me, something that was really important was learning to ritualise. I have my mum’s ashes with me here today, and I bring them with me everywhere. I leave little bits of her in places that I think she would really love,” they said.

“I have learned to use the term ritual so loosely, but it’s about having time I have carved out for myself to do whatever I need to do, to interact with my grief in a way that is going to help me process it.

“It can be anything from throwing something across the room, to taking a hike, to crying, to journaling, to reaching out to a friend, or making my mum a cake on her birthday, it’s just kind of anything I need it to be.

“Our brains are not equipped to process what it means to lose somebody, and for me rituals are a way for my brain to slowly pick apart my loss, and interact with my loss in a way.”

Sal Blakemore shares their experience after losing their Mother in Episode 2 of The Phoenix Podcast. Podcast: Imogen Wilson.

Annique Lee lost her husband in 2020 and became an end-of-life doula to use her grief in assisting others experiencing the loss of loved ones.

Annique says becoming an end-of-life doula enabled her to harness her bereavement in a positive way.

“I had never heard of an end-of-life doula, so I did some more reading on it and I thought that is amazing, I would love to do that,” she says.

“Considering the experience that I had gone through, I felt I could serve others.”

Annique Lee

The Australian Doula College runs courses on becoming an end-of-life doula, a non-medical figure who provides support, compassion and education to people dying, or their loved ones.

“I was ready to give, to give something, says Annique.

“I was searching for something meaningful in my life because I had lost my husband, and with my grief journey I just felt like becoming an end-of-life doula was the perfect experience that I could offer.”

In episode 3 of The Phoenix Podcast, Annique Lee shares what it means to be an end of life doula. Podcast: Imogen Wilson.

Nikita Woolley split with her partner in 2022 after the sudden loss of his father.

Nikita says the grief her partner experienced was heartbreaking in its intensity and how it infiltrated every part of their life.

“It was hard for me. I had no idea how to help him. I was expecting tears and sadness, but instead, it was anger. Everything was anger,” she says.

“I have never embraced my own grief, let alone someone else’s.”

Nikita Woolley

“The death of his father brought out so much ugliness, and I was lost in the storm of his emotions.”

Nikita says the process of grieving and its intricacies need to be frequently addressed and normalised in society.

“I didn’t have the tools to help him. How do I help him? How do I make this go away? It’s not as simple as just hugging it out, and I wish I knew the answer.”

“Seek help, seek support, and seek the light at the end of the tunnel, the pain won’t be unbearable forever.”