Grief can take us to the darkest of places - why don’t we take it seriously?

The day after my dad’s funeral, in August 2020, I got a text from my manager asking when I was coming back to work. I stared at my phone and felt bile rise in my throat. They weren’t being intentionally callous. In fact, my manager had been supportive and empathic throughout my dad’s short illness. But my two weeks of discretionary bereavement leave were up. My choice was to go back to the office or use up my remaining holiday allowance. Something inside me threatened to snap.

I wasn’t ready to go back to work. I wasn’t a functioning human at that point: I had severe brain fog, I felt numb and apathetic about everything, I was awake all night and lethargic during the day, I was barely eating. There were hours or full days when I physically could not stop crying. If you described these symptoms to a medical professional, they would probably diagnose acute mental illness, sign you off work, and prescribe medication or talking therapy. But grief is different. Despite the fact that it is a universal human experience, something we all have to go through at some point in our lives, grief is still not taken seriously enough.

The actor Angus Cloud
The actor Angus Cloud. Photograph: Chris Delmas/AFP/Getty Images

There is no statutory requirement for an employer to offer bereavement leave (unless the person who has died is the employee’s child or a dependant – and if the latter, there is no stipulation that leave must be paid). Many of us are simply expected to dust ourselves off and return to normal with alarming speed.

But our collective cultural incompetency in supporting the bereaved has consequences. I felt sick reading the shocking news that 25-year-old Euphoria star Angus Cloud had died just a week after attending his father’s funeral. A statement from his family revealed that the young actor had “intensely struggled with the loss”.

Related: Anyone who’s lost a loved one knows the pressure to visit shrines to the past. But it doesn’t always help | Kat Lister

I know how grief can tip you into the very darkest places. In the days and weeks after losing my dad, I experienced flashes of this darkness. There were moments when life no longer felt worth living. I was lucky that these thoughts were fleeting, and didn’t recur. I was lucky in being supported by my partner, friends and family. I was lucky that the hospice where my dad was cared for offered free bereavement counselling. I was also lucky I could afford to pay for more counselling when this service ended. I was in a privileged position as I worked through my grief, but not everybody is.

For those without strong interpersonal networks, safe home environments or financial stability, grief can be much more difficult and even dangerous to navigate. According to Mental Health UK, people who experience “prolonged” or “complicated” grief are at higher risk of suicidal thoughts, a stark warning against the backdrop of increasingly inaccessible mental healthcare provisions. Research from 2022 found that nearly one in four mental health patients have to wait more than 12 weeks to start treatment on the NHS. And going private is simply not an option for those who are already stretched by the cost of living crisis – the average price of a single session of private bereavement counselling is £60.

But, crucially, grief is not a mental illness. It is a natural response to loss. There are justified concerns about labelling grief as a mental health disorder. A decade ago, the American Psychiatric Association proposed prolonged grief disorder as a new illness – and was criticised for medicalising a natural condition, which allowed pharmaceutical companies to make money by prescribing drugs to treat it. Describing grief that persists after a certain period of time as a “disorder” is stigmatising and implies that there is a right or wrong way to grieve.

But there has to be a middle ground, where the support available for grievers is nuanced and proportionate. In some cases, that means medication. I have two close friends who were prescribed antidepressants in the months after a loss; both tell me that the drugs made a huge difference in helping them to get back on track. Some grieving friends swear by talking therapy, while others have told me that going back to work was the best thing for them.

This is the point. Grief is not one thing, and it is not linear. It looks and feels different for everyone, and it can hit you at any point – even months or years after the fact. Despite popular reliance on theories such as the five stages, there is no clear roadmap for grief. There is no time limit or cut-off point. Some people will come through it relatively unscathed, the pain becoming more bearable with the passage of time. But some people will need much greater support. Support that our systems of care are currently failing to provide.

I was lucky to get two weeks off work. Bereavement or compassionate leave is up to the discretion of employers. They can choose to give a week, two days, or no paid time off at all. Statutory bereavement leave would be a good start. We also need affordable grief counselling made available for those facing long waits on the NHS. But beyond that, collectively, we need a better grasp on the messy realities of grief. We need better language to help us understand and support each other, and an awareness of the warning signs that tell us someone is slipping towards the darkness.

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