Archive for pain

Death the Avoided Topic: How to work with Loss

During the past year, I have experienced two close deaths (ok, one was a pet). It’s taken time to fully appreciate the impact this has had on me. I’ve learned some fundamental lessons throughout this process, and how some of my narratives about death have been informed by my background, and society’s expectations of the expression of death. Most importantly, it has allowed me to see that everyone’s experience of death is different, and there is not a right or wrong way to express grief. 

Working with recently bereaved clients has sometimes been a challenge for me as a therapist. Of course, I feel their pain, the pain that loss brings, and I hope I have been sensitive and compassionate. But, the truth is, my personal experience with death has been limited. 

It was only when my young cat died last summer followed by my mother in September that I started to fully appreciate the expression of grief. It is a complicated process, often confusing and sometimes very messy with no right or wrong way to express emotions and feelings.

It’s hard to write this, but my experience at the time was I felt more upset over my cat’s death than my mother’s. It’s not because I didn’t have a good relationship with my mother, in fact, we had an excellent relationship: I adored her, and she adored me. Was there something wrong with me? No. She was 93 years old, and she died; I accepted this fact and was grateful that she died quickly without any prolonged illness. 

Obviously, I felt sad and missed not seeing and speaking to her, but that’s it. That’s all I felt, and it holds true to this day. I mention this because after her death I had letters and conversations with friends saying how sorry they were and how upset and devastated “I must be”. This caught me off guard because it wasn’t how I felt, and I began to feel as if I was experiencing death ‘in the wrong way’. It was only when I was able to take accept my feelings that I was able to say “actually I don’t feel that way, I felt this way”, and this felt far more aligned to how I was feeling. 

This has undoubtedly helped inform me to think differently when working with individuals and couples. It reminds me to stop assuming anything and allows me to create more space with clients to encourage them to say what’s in their hearts or the unsayable. It has also taught me to know when it’s better to steer away from and when to gently push forward more difficult conversations. Most importantly, it’s taught me to honour one’s own process and never to judge or think there is a right or wrong way to get through grief.

Useful things to say/do after someone has died:

  • Be physically present, unless you are specifically told: “I don’t want you here”. 
  • Be attuned, be there to take care of the tedious things like cooking, cleaning, helping in what’s needed. 
  • Don’t ask for instructions (that takes energy); see what is needed and do it.
  • If you’re unable (for any reason) not to be supportive or present, address it with the person.  It’s never too late to talk about it and to heal painful and complicated feelings between friends or relatives. 
  • Talk about the person who has died. Tell amusing or meaning stories that you remember. Also, don’t compare your own experience with death but do say what was helpful to you at that time. 

As time passes, help bring them slowly back into life. Invite them out and understand if they need to cancel but always continue to ask. Do not expect them to be ok until they are ready to be ok. No judgement, just acceptance to, however that person needs to be.

Shirlee Kay

We’ve got to go through it….

There’s a wonderful children’s picture book by Michael Rosen, ‘We’re Going On A Bear Hunt’, that I think has a message for us all.

We wake every morning preparing to face the stresses of the day. We take a real or metaphorical deep breath, look for the positives, remember our skills and abilities, and search for resilience. We can even understand life as an adventure.

‘We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We’re not scared.’
We can all feel the thrill and excitement of risk. There can be an adrenaline rush that comes with sport or travel. Stepping outside our comfort zone can be exhilarating.

But then, of course, the unexpected can happen. Life throws a curve ball and we feel shaken by the challenge of unexpected adversity.

The children in the book, buoyantly setting off on a country walk, are suddenly faced with a number of ‘Uh-uh!’ obstacles that stop them in their tracks. A river, deep mud, long grass, a big dark forest means they have to make a decision as to what to do next.

If they are not to abandon the walk they realise that, ‘We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh, no. We’ve got to go through it.’

And that is true for us all too. We have to endure and find a way of surviving unexpected and overwhelming events. The ending of a relationship that breaks our heart. Redundancy and sudden financial insecurity that hits like a sledgehammer. Facing gruelling treatment after a frightening medical diagnosis. The loss of a loved one that feels unbearable.

The wonderful illustrations by Helen Oxenbury show the children looking more daunted and worn down by each obstacle. Their energy levels lower as they stumble in the thick forest and struggle through the snow storm. They draw closer and cling on as they try to help each other get through.

Then the children discover that, unlike the fantasy, the reality of an actual bear is terrifying. They race back to the sanctuary of home and leap together into the bed and under the duvet.

When we are facing a devastating situation, or the sheer number of difficult incidents has worn us down and we are peering into the abyss, we all need a sense of a safe haven. At the very time we feel we are free floating, with nothing to ground us, we need to reach out and clutch on. No one can take away the pain, but we need support until we find the resources to manage and cope.

In Jerusalem’s trauma centre, when there has been a catastrophic occurrence, they have found it is essential for the victim’s recovery that close family and friends are immediately brought to the bedside.

We will all have different ways of coping and managing the turmoil. In her book ‘H is for Hawk’ Helen Macdonald describes training a hawk when overcome with grief at the death of her father.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10989164/H-is-for-Hawk-Helen-Macdonalds-intense-relationship-with-her-goshawk-Mabel.html

Sometimes it can be the counselling room which offers the safe place to begin to let out the pent up agony and find a way to breathe again.

Kathy Rees