The reality of grief: No one size fits all, everyone mourns in their own way and Nene Leakes has shown how true this is

NeNe Leakes and Gregg Leakes. Picture: Bang Showbiz

NeNe Leakes and Gregg Leakes. Picture: Bang Showbiz

Published Sep 11, 2021


Amid the pandemic, dealing with grief is a reality and for many people saying their last goodbyes and dealing with loss is a process that must be managed.

The mourning period is amplified when you are a public figure and have to remain in the spotlight during this difficult time.

Social media and the expectations that strangers have can make the situation even more difficult to deal with.

It was on social media platforms that Real Housewives of Atlanta star Nene Leakes was judged when she decided to continue working during her husband Gregg’s last days and also after he passed. She continued working at her restaurant, The Linnethia Lounge, where she revealed that Gregg was on his death bed. He was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2018.

When racing driver Gugu Zulu died, his wife, Letsego, continued her fitness regime. She received backlash for posting images of herself in a training bra and gym tights, instead of black clothes.

Actress and producer Connie Ferguson has also done things her own way and is leaning on Bible Scriptures to deal with the passing of her husband, Shona. She is also active on social media, which some have frowned upon.

Grief can be experienced before the loved one passes, which may be common with a loved one who had a terminal illness or has been sick for a while. Anticipatory grief is the deep sadness that is often felt during the last days of life. It is often experienced by the loved ones of someone who is nearing death, and the person who is dying.

A 2010 study, “A comparison of spousal anticipatory grief and conventional grief”, found that 40% of widows found the grief before death to be more stressful than after death. Furthermore, when compared with conventional grief, anticipatory grief was unexpectedly associated with higher intensities of anger, loss of emotional control, and atypical grief responses.

Life-coach and wellness educator Yvette Ratshikhopha says: “Everyone embodies grief in different ways, some may react with shock, anger, sadness, numbness and anxiety and others may respond with relief and confusion. Others may retreat into isolation, others may continue and others may reach outwards.”

“Others may have a spiritual response where they lean into their faith and beliefs, others may feel disconnected from their faith due to grief or loss.”

Durban counselling psychologist Rakhi Beekrum says: “Where we once logged on to social media for entertainment to catch up with family and friends, or to de-stress after a long day, logging on to social media is currently very depressing,”

She notes that “the funeral notices, tributes and messages of condolence makes the reality of Covid-19 difficult to ignore. By this time, everyone knows someone who either survived or lost their lives to the pandemic.”

Yes, it’s an overwhelming feeling of loss and despair, but Beekrum suggests that sometimes sharing that grief with others online can provide some solace amid physical distancing in times of Covid.

“They may seek comfort from the tributes, prayers and words of comfort from others,” she says.

How should we view people who choose to grieve on social media?

“They should be viewed with less judgement and with more compassion,” Ratshikhopha says.

“Everyone is allowed to grieve in a way that serves them. Some people do not have support in their home environments and find it easier to outlet on social media, others have a community of people they engage with regularly and find solace in their digital community, and some find it easier to share or express themselves with people who they are not close to.

“Whatever the reason, as long as they are not harming anyone then people need to let others grieve in their own way and understand that we all deal with grief differently.

“Grief is not linear, it does not have one approach. We should try to be more compassionate with ourselves and others who are grieving. We should also get professional support when we see that we are struggling or overwhelmed, there is nothing wrong with reaching out for help.”

Cape Town - 160308 - Thousands of friends, community members and strangers arrived at Gate No. 5 of the Tokia forest to take part in a solidarity walk in remembrance of Franziska Blöchliger, 16, whose body was found under fynbos in the Tokai forest, where she had been running with her mother. It is believed she was strangled to death. Reporter: Zodidi Dano Picture: David Ritchie

Vivian Warby, a grief, death and transformational counsellor, agrees that grief isn’t a linear process.

“There aren't strictly different stages we can tick off and then move on from.

“Someone once described grief as carrying a backpack that never comes off. In the beginning, it is tough and heavy but, as time goes on, you build the muscles to carry it and so, it is not as painful as in the beginning.”

In a situation when someone develops a terminal disease or is dying, you may find that those around the beloved person begin the grief process from the first diagnosis.

“You may mourn what the diagnosis may mean, then the loss of the person you once knew as their health deteriorates, and then the loss of the life you knew with them as perhaps you become their caregiver. And finally the ultimate loss –when they die, although this may be accompanied with some sort of relief if your loved one was suffering.

“People have their own ways of grieving. Some we are taught culturally, and others we make up as we go along. We do what we have to, to get by.

“The old five stages of grief we’ve been taught has stuck because it gives us some sort of hook to grab on to in the wild forest of grief.

“Knowing that we will get to the stage of true acceptance and ultimate freedom from pain is a path that can keep us going.

“As psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who introduced us to the five stages herself, says: ‘It's not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world.’”

Warby urges anyone who is not coping to seek professional help.

For those who are dealing with the loss of a loved one, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group suggests:

Cape Town - 160308 - Thousands of friends, community members and strangers arrived at Gate No. 5 of the Tokia forest to take part in a solidarity walk in remembrance of Franziska Blöchliger, 16, whose body was found under fynbos in the Tokai forest, where she had been running with her mother. It is believed she was strangled to death. Reporter: Zodidi Dano Picture: David Ritchie

Get support

Support from others is important in the healing process. It’s important to express your feelings with people you trust when you’re grieving. Accept support; don’t try to grieve alone, no matter how strong and self-sufficient you are. Sometimes people want to help but don’t know how to – tell them what you need.

Take care of yourself

The stress of a loss can deplete your energy and emotional reserves very quickly, so look after your physical and emotional needs.

Face your feelings

You may be able to suppress your grief for a while but you can’t avoid it. Healing means facing your feelings and acknowledging your pain. Unresolved grief can also lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and health problems.

Express your feelings

In whatever way makes sense for you, express your feelings. Write about your loss in a journal; write a letter saying the things you never got to say; make a scrapbook or photo album; get involved in a cause or organisation that was important to him or her; or allow yourself alone time to mourn in your own way. Keeping your pain bottled up doesn’t help you heal.

Plan ahead for the ‘empty chair’

Anniversaries, holidays and favourite music can reawaken memories and feelings. Be prepared for an emotional thump, and know that it’s normal.

For grief counselling, contact Sadag’s 24-hour hotline 0800 456 789.

This article first appeared in Saturday Insider, September 11, 2021