Former nurse believes death is both spiritual and clinical

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Grief is automatically associated with the death of a loved one yet it can be prompted by a loss of anything we have an emotional connection to – from our health, finances, relationships, dreams, or ‑ in light of the pandemic ‑ normality.

“They’re all forms of grief, like mini deaths in our life, and can trigger a grief process,” says Northamptonshire-based author and podcaster Shelley F. Knight who’s written Good Grief: The A-Z Approach of Modern Day Grief Healing.

“I suspect the world is grieving now and many people are unaware, just pushing down the signs and symptoms, like disturbed sleep, anxiety, weakened immune system, and lack of focus.”

Twenty years ago, when Knight was a student nurse, she was told there are three forms of grief ‑ normal grief, absent grief, and delayed grief. 

Now there are 17 different recognised types of grief, and she believes there will be more as we recover from the pandemic.

When Knight left nursing in 2019, she recalls having a conversation with two women about the loss she had suffered in her own life, as well as the death she had witnessed at work. This is when it dawned on her how much her thoughts on life and death had changed, and how she had come to believe “we are more than just our physical body”.

She said: “The women were astounded I’d never written a book about my journey from the clinical to the spiritual, and that’s how the book came about really.

“It was a chance to reflect on my own grief journeys and also help people keep moving forward in life, especially when they feel stuck.”

Although it is a book about how to process grief, it initially examines the concept of life, the definitions of it, as well as its stages and lessons.

“A lot of what happens to us in life, and what we’re exposed to, can help how we cope with death and loss. If we have a lot of positive talk and openness around life and loss then we can grieve more openly and heal quicker,” said Knight.

“In the past, when people were ill or dying, they were nursed within the home, but over time, through medical advancements and innovations, it’s become very clinical and detached. We go into hospital for medication and to be artificially ventilated, so almost have clinical death over natural death.

“But when we’re not regularly exposed to something, we start to develop this fear, or awkwardness, even though death remains the only certainty in our life.”

One of the questions she tackles is whether there’s such a thing as a good death.

Having seen death “many, many times”, Knight believes there is.

“The key to a good death is to have a good life. By that I mean you’re not dying with those regrets and what-ifs still inside you. If you have a good life, then you don’t die feeling unfulfilled,” she says.

“Another life lesson I learned from the dying is to connect with something bigger than yourself, whatever that might be.

“I know, some people are cynical about spirituality or certain religions, but life, as much as grief, is about finding something you believe in. When you believe in something, it’s the reason you get out of bed in the morning.”

Towards the end of the book, Knight includes a chapter titled The Grief Voice Box to aid communication after loss and death. 

She said: “We all experience loss on some level, but we don’t know how to handle it.” This chapter provides a list of practical tips, from A for Acceptance through to Z for sleep, to help people move on.

“I worry about becoming stagnant, and so I’m a huge advocate of trying new things, however short or simple, as these things have an amazing ripple effect in our lives.

“It’s about creating time for yourself each day, and most of the tools are things you can try within your own home because it’s a safe space and often we’re so afraid to ask for help.”

Movement, in all its forms, is crucial on this grief journey, whether it’s going out for a walk, yoga, or even smiling, as the brain cannot distinguish between a real and false one.

“Just move. And not just yourself. If you’re living in a home where there’s been loss, either of a loved one or a relationship, move the furniture around. Break up that energy and how you expect things to be each day,” says Knight.

“We have a saying in our family, ‘if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll only get what you’ve got and while we’re alive we should truly try and live’, which means trying something new, each and every day.”

Good Grief: The A-Z Approach of Modern Day Grief Healing by Shelley F. Knight is out now.

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