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Learning to live around our grief

Grief is very much part of our lives – it’s not something separate and it’s not just about dying or death, it’s around endings, according to psychotherapist, Dr Stephanie Thompson.  

“There are lots of endings in our lives, within our relationships, at work, or different life changes,” she says. 

Grief, loss, and bereavement support are among Dr Thompson’s clinical areas of interest. She is based at the Tasmanian Specialist Palliative Care Service in Hobart and has a private practice with the Hobart Counselling Centre where she is also a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, registered music therapist, mediator, clinical supervisor, and researcher.  

“When you are recently bereaved, it’s the shock that there can be a way forward, when at the time it feels like there isn’t, and when it feels like life will never be the same again,” she explains.  

“Life won’t be the same again… it’ll be different.  

“What we do is we learn to live around our grief.” 

“The grief is very much part of us, but we have to go through these grieving experiences, not discount them, or get rid of them, or bury them somewhere.  

“You still have a relationship with the person who’s just died. It’s a different relationship. They’re not gone from our lives completely. We can still talk to them, we can still include them, but we include them in our mindset. 

“Suddenly, it’s dealing with the empty chair that’s at the table. It’s very different, so we learn how to start doing things differently… cooking for one, going to things on our own, and it’s coming to terms with loneliness. 

“The most important thing is to still savour the routine. We still have a routine, we’re still getting out of bed every day, still having breakfast, still having lunch. It’s maintaining that routine so we’re maintaining ourselves because it can feel like we’ve died as well, but we’re still here.” 

Dr Thompson describes grief as a wild tiger – “some days we feel okay and other days, we think goodness, where did that come from?”.  

“There’s always a memory, and memories can be triggered by scents or images or music. 

“We feel like we’ve seen the person we love in the street, and it can take our breath away.” 

Dr Thompson says that life also can feel very slow, as if it’s almost stopped a bit because everything’s just changed. We’re not sure how things are working again and what it’s going to be like. 

She emphasises what helps is acknowledging ourselves in some way every day, whether it’s having a hot bath or going for a walk or buying a bunch of flowers or having a nice meal.  

We may have lost someone we love and we may have done a lot of caring during their treatment, which is exhausting. We don’t have to be the carer anymore, we become the person that we need to care for. 

“Often when we’ve been caring, we’ve ended up having to take a back seat because there wasn’t time for anything else. We need to put ourselves in the picture if we can,” says Dr Thompson.  

“That can be quite a hard thing to do, to suddenly make ourselves a priority.” 

Dr Thompson said people who are grieving are feeling “many complex emotions and are usually feeling quite stuck, very lost, or trapped, and sometimes they’re not sleeping”.  

“They may have tried many different things, and music therapy may help because it’s so different. 

“It can be beneficial as a form of psychosocial emotional support because it’s such a creative process.”

To find out more about the healing power of music therapy, read our Expert Series article in which Dr Stephanie Thompson delves deeply into how music is used to actively support people of all ages to improve their health, functioning and wellbeing, to manage their physical and mental health, and enhance their quality of life.