Grief

Coming to terms with loss the homeopathic way by Dr Bob Leckridge 

We all grieve. It’s part of life. The fact that it is a universal  exper­ience raises the question of whether or not we should consider  griev­ing to be normal and, if not, when is it not normal? In other  words, when would it require treatment? That question, in turn, raises  fundamental questions about the purpose of homeopathic treatment. After  all, why would we want to treat normal life?

Let’s begin by addressing that. The first principle of homeopathy is  the treat­ment of like with like. Every remedy is described in the  standard materia medica which collate the information from sources such  as provings and clinical experience. These remedy descriptions are like  stories or patterns. Homeopathic treatment involves selecting the remedy  whose description best matches the stories or the life patterns of the  patient. In orthodox medical practice we treat pathology – disturbances  which we call diseases or illnesses.

However, the homeopathic approach is both deeper and more  encompassing than the orthodox approach. It involves a full  consideration of the person who has the disease, the human being who is  experiencing the illness. This means that pretty much anything and  everything the patient tells of their experience is poten­tially usable  in the process of remedy selection. What this doesn’t mean, how­ever, is  that every aspect of a human being or their experience can be changed  by a remedy. We need to make a judge­ment about exactly what we’re  hoping to change. Let’s consider grief in the light of that perspective.

The grieving process 

Grief is well recognised to be a condi­tion, or a process even, with  several dif­ferent aspects. It’s often described as having distinct  phases. The best-known description of phases came from Elisa­beth  Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying : denial, anger,  bar­gaining, depression and acceptance. Most people now agree that this  descrip­tion helps us to understand that grief can have many different  forms and that as time passes these forms can change. However, it’s also  now widely accepted that not everyone who experiences grief goes  through all of these stages, and that those who do experience all of  these stages don’t necessarily do so in that sequence.

Most of these phases can be distres­sing and uncomfortable and as  healthcare is about the relief of suffering it’s no surprise that  doctors get involved in attempting to help people who are grieving.  Orthodox drug approaches such as a sedatives, painkillers and  anti­depressants may have a role to play in helping people who get stuck  or over­whelmed in the process of grieving, but the main drawback in  using that approach is that it frequently simply numbs the patient,  suppressing the whole process and carries with it the danger that the  stage of acceptance, of coming to terms with the now altered life, is  either never reached or is unsuccessful.

The homeopathic approach to suf­fering is different. Homeopathic  medi­cines don’t suppress symptoms. Rather they stimulate the processes  of repair, of recovery and even of growth. From a purely theoretical  viewpoint therefore homeopathic medicines can play a more useful role in  grief than drugs can. However, just let me add one word of caution here  because although a remedy can facilitate the process of grieving, it  cannot replace it. In other words, homeo­pathic remedies cannot make  grief go away. Nor can they enable someone to avoid grief. Coming to  terms with life without your loved one and coping with the impact of  their death will still take time, care and attention. The best way to  deal with grief is to come to terms with this massive change in life  con­sciously with the support of loved ones or professionals who can  listen, advise and care.

I personally don’t find the Kübler-Ross stages of grief very helpful  but as a GP I found that patients commonly asked for help when  particularly dis­tressed or stuck in one of four common states.  Initially, in the first few hours or days, there is often a state of  shock. In the following weeks two states frequently cause trouble – a  state of irritability, anger or even rage and a state of emo­tional  upset (sadness and tears). Beyond the first few weeks, it’s common to  exper­ience profound sadness, loneliness and a deep sense of loss, and  at times this can develop into a real depression.

Homeopathic teaching has two insights to offer. The first is the  process of healing and recovery. We know from our homeopathic principles  that every­body is unique, so we accept that there is no “right” or  “wrong” way to deal with grief. The second is that what Hahne­mann  referred to as “vital force” has a kind of intelligence. What that means  is that our healing system deals with what’s most important first and  attends to more superficial, or minor problems later. We often  experience this as an initial rise in energy or well-being before there  is an improvement in specific symptoms and we also commonly find that  “inner” problems resolve before “outer” ones. This is important to  understand because some physical diseases, for example eczema,  psoriasis, arthritis, can undergo flare-ups during grief, but might not  improve until the underlying mental dis­tress settles.

A further insight from homeopathy can be gleaned from the materia  medica. The descriptions of the remedies show us common patterns of  disorder as well as help us to understand what differ­ent people need to  help them cope. Let me give some examples which I hope will make this  clear.

Immediate phase – shock 

When someone witnesses a death they might experience acute shock.  This cer­tainly occurs commonly in traumatic sit­uations such as road  traffic accidents and other violent deaths, but can also occur when  someone who is ill suddenly collapses and dies. The shock reaction is  one we all know. When shocked by something we feel a bit stunned, a  strange combination of both numbness and feeling everything more  intensely – every little noise startles us, lights seem too bright and  so on. Shock has elements of fear, agitation and even panic. This is a  state well recognised as an indication for Aconite. It’s that high  adrenalin wide-eyed flight or fight response where the person feels  shaky, afraid and rather stunned. Shock is an acute, intense, sud­den  state. It usually occurs at the time of the traumatic event and the good  news is that it doesn’t last long.

Acute instability 

Whether or not shock is felt, what most people experience next is  usually a period of great instability. This is a time of tremendous  emotion and mood changes can be dramatic, swinging wildly from deep  depression to hyster­ical laughing within minutes. The pic­ture of  Ignatia is typical of this period. It can show itself through rapidly  chang­ing, intensely mental states with out­pourings of tears and  distress one minute and silent closing down the next. This instability  can lead to what appear to be inappropriate behaviours: laughing when  others are serious and sad, or re­fusing to speak when spoken to.

The person in the Ignatia state has a strong tendency to sigh big,  deep sighs and they will frequently complain of the sensation of a lump  in the throat which makes swallowing difficult – a symptom relieved more  by the swallowing of solids than by liquids (quite contrary to what  you’d expect). It’s no surprise that this intense and unstable state  most com­monly appears in the first few hours and days after the  bereavement but it’s also a very common pattern to appear dur­ing  funerals.

The angry phase 

Anger will emerge to a greater or lesser extent depending on both  the character of the individual and their prior feelings towards the  deceased and the extent to which there is some sense of whether or not  the person experienced a “good” death.

For example, the Magnesium salts, Magnesium carbonicum and Magnesium  muriaticum both share the character­istic of rapidly flaring anger which  dis­appears as quickly as it appears – flashes of anger. Both also  share the character­istic of intense feelings of emotional sensitivity  and loneliness. Kent describes them as being the remedies for the  orphans and Jan Scholten, the Dutch homeopath, describes how they are  fre­quently indicated in children whose parents have separated or  divorced. Jan also suggests that Magnesium carbon­icum is more indicated  when the patient has strong feelings of anger towards their father and  Magnesium muriaticum more indicated when the anger is felt towards their  mother. This anger might have been present before the death of the  partic­ular parent or it might emerge only after­wards.

If the person’s dying has gone badly then often the relatives and  loved ones have strong feelings of injustice, feelings that the deceased  was not well treated in their last illness or final days. That state of  anger and indignation is com­monly seen in the indications for  Staphy­sagria which is another intense and unstable state characterised  by the expression “it’s not fair!” Colocynth, which we associate with  abdominal colic, is also indicated in these angry, indignant states.

Loss 

It doesn’t take long before the bereaved feel a profound sense of  loss. In the old materia medica, the language used to describe this is  “forsaken feeling”. There are quite a number of remedies which include  this feature but let me just high­light a couple of very different  patterns which share this common feeling. Pulsatilla is a remedy well  indicated for people who have intense feelings of loss. In particular  where people have a sense of loss characterised by feelings of  aban­donment. They don’t just feel alone, they feel as if they’ve been  left alone.

The response to this deep feeling in the Pulsatilla patient is to  seek com­fort and support. They feel emotional, weepy and distressed and  they need the company and sympathy of others. A person in such a state  can come across as very needy and, it’s true, they do need a lot of  care, support, and attention. They want to be hugged and held. The  Pulsatilla state also has the feature of instability which we considered  in the earlier phases of grief. Their moods may swing wildly and this,  of course, makes the experience all the more unsettling, both for the  person experiencing the grief and for those around him or her.

A very different way of dealing with the sense of loss is seen in the  typical Natrum muriaticum picture. In this case, the person really  needs to be left alone to deal with things. They absolutely hate fuss  and feel much worse when people express their consolation towards them.  To try to help them the same way you try to help someone who is in a  Pulsatilla state will not bring any success. In fact, it will make them  feel worse. The per­son who needs Natrum muriaticum really does need  time alone and, whilst they don’t want to be ignored or for­gotten  about, they do need people to be aware of their need for personal time  and space.

Getting stuck 

When does grief ever need to be treated? Well, there’s a judgement  to be made at every point. To what extent is the per­son’s distress not  bearable? If some dis­tress can be eased, then shouldn’t it be? And to  what extent is the picture chang­ing and evolving? In other words, is  the person stuck? Or are they still pro­gressing? These are not easy  questions to answer but in answer to the first I think it is helpful to  consider the ques­tion “is the person coping?” not “is the person  suffering?” because suffering is an integral part of grief.

If the person is coping then there is little need to intervene. But  if they aren’t coping, then the next question has to be “what would help  this person to cope better?” And the answer to that ques­tion is highly  individualistic. I hope these simple examples I’ve given here already  show how people may experience grief in different forms at various  times. And how we all cope in our own ways. It’s important not to judge,  not to assume that we know better than the bereaved but, instead, that  we care about them and that we show that care through helping and  supporting in the ways which help them best. 

Learning from the movies 

Grief is a common theme in film. Let me just mention a couple of movies  which you might find helpful. They show dif­ferent ways of experiencing  grief and different ways of coping with it.

First of all, in Truly, Madly, Deeply with Juliet Stevenson  and Alan Rickman, the scene where Nina (played by Juliet) attends her  counselling session is one of the most striking examples of the  “Ignatia” state I’ve ever seen in movies. It’s hys­terical, dramatic,  swings wildly and ends abruptly with a total shutting down, like closing  a lid. The whole movie deals with the wide range of emotions  experienced by someone who has lost their loved one. It’s a bit surreal  of course because Alan Rickman plays Jamie who most of the time appears  in the movie as a ghost.

However, that kind of experience, where someone experiences exchanges  with their dead loved one, is really not at all uncommon. Secondly, In America tells the story of an Irish family com­ing to terms with the loss of  one of their children to leukaemia. Little Sarah Bolger who plays  Christy gives a stunning por­trayal of Natrum muriaticum at its best.  She keeps her feelings to herself, spends time alone with her memories,  resents consolation but ultimately is the one who heals the whole  family.

And finally, take a look at The Mother for an amazing,  realistic and ultimately heart-warming portrayal of a grieving widow.  The fact that she has an affair with her daughter’s lover (played by  Daniel Craig, the current James Bond) gives the story quite a different  edge from other such tales. In homeopathic terms, I think she shows many  of the fea­tures of the remedy Conium, which I haven’t mentioned so  far, but which is a common remedy in the medium to long term for those  who have lost not just their loved one but their lover.

All of these movies are weepies. You’ll need your tissues. But all  three confront the hard realities of grief and portray a healing and a  growth in the bereaved.

Bob Leckridge MBChB FFHom is an ex-GP, former President of the Faculty of Homeopathy & author of Homeopathy in Primary Care published by Churchill  Livingstone.