Feeling it is disloyal to move on

I often see men and women grieving the loss of their long term partner. By long term I am talking several decades. Several decades in which the two of them have raised a family and are now at the stage in their lives where they are looking forward to a future with the two of them growing old together. Except it doesn’t happen. That much cherished partner, the other half of you, dies.

Losing half of yourself is hard. Unbelievably hard. Not only are you having to relearn who you are, you are having to live each day without the person you love.

For all, that is a challenge. For some, it feels disloyal. Years after the loss they are resisting moving on. It feels disloyal to live when the other half of you has died. Maybe they were still relatively young. Maybe it seems so unfair they died when there was so much living to do. Maybe you carry guilt feeling you should have tried harder to keep them alive, you should have said goodbye with more passion that day they left the house for work, never to come home again. Maybe you feel they deserved to live longer. Whatever the reason, you are left with the feeling that it is disloyal to keep living. Disloyal to enjoy life despite their absence. Every grandchild feels like a betrayal because that other half of you would have loved grandchildren.

It is hard. There are plenty of pat responses. The classic one is “how would they have wanted you to live?”. That isn’t a bad question, but it is not overly helpful when you feel this way.

The important thing to know is that a lot of surviving partners feel this way. One thing that people find helpful is to be able to find a place for their grief. By finding a place I mean find some meaning for what has been lost. That meaning is different for different people. Some find it through connecting with others who knew and loved their partner. Others find it by accepting a belief about what happens to those who die. Others reach out to help other people. Some just learn to accept what is and decide punishing themselves for living, while their partner is dead, is not going to bring them back. They give themselves permission to enjoy life and realise there are moments they can enjoy.  

Whatever you decide. It is okay to have those bad days and it is okay to have days where you feel happy. And neither of those days is disloyal to the person you have loved.

Mindfulness and self reflection only work when accompanied by self compassion. So where does that leave the traumatised person who has trouble with self compassion?

You may have noticed a lot of buzz around mindfulness over the past few years. With many studies that show how effective mindfulness is, it is heavily promoted. But it is not the quick or perfect fix many have suggested. Nor is self reflection, which is often paired with mindfulness. More recent neuroscientific studies have shown the mindfulness and self reflection are only helpful to a person if the person is able to use self compassion when practising mindfulness and self reflection.
Self compassion may seem easy but it is actually very hard. For a long time our society has encouraged judgementalism and shaming as acceptable ways of interacting with children. This is even worse when a child is traumatised by those who cared for it. Similarly, many people traumatised in adulthood are lacking in self compassion. Adults who have been through experiences where they have felt shame also experience a loss of self compassion. A good example is that of a soldier who may have being involved in fighting that involved civilian casualties. That soldier will often feel they have committed a terrible atrocity. Another example is that of a firefighter who feels she has let her comrades down when the fire rapidly worsened and other fire fighters were killed.
Even sadder are the many people traumatised in childhood who have successfully negotiated adult life, have been loving and productive, but are stuck in early childhood where they were made to feel unwanted and unloved. When a child grows up in that situation, she will feel it is her fault she is unloved.
For this reason, I teach my trauma clients to have compassion for themselves. When they are judging themselves harshly for things that go wrong, or they feel they have done wrong, I encourage them to look at themselves with the same compassion they may show for a close friend.
It is only when a person has mastered the art of self compassion that they can safely and beneficially practice mindfulness and self reflection.

Living a full life

What is living?

What is surviving?

In today’s world, survival has become a dominant theme. This theme applies to the individual and to society as a whole.

When your focus is on surviving, that becomes the dominant activity of your life. Survival becomes more important than living and the quality of life. This happens because survival is about the body surviving. But we are more than just bodies. We have minds and we have a spirituality, our connection to our self. Survival does not care for our minds or our self. Living creatively is what cares for that. And it is creativity that allows us to live fully.

There is a belief that we have to work harder. We have to fit more into our days. We have to be everything to everyone. But that is survival, not living. More and more people yearn for the peace of living. It can be seen in lifestyle programs where people hanker for the house with the beautiful furniture and décor and the perfect surroundings. But in today’s world, people often acquire a home like that and never have time to sit and enjoy those perfect surroundings. They are too busy surviving.

Living is enjoying those beautiful surroundings. Living creatively. Living creatively is about making connections with your self, with your surroundings, with your community. It is about allowing those connections to form. This takes time and time is needed. Valuing time is needed. Not valuing it in monetary terms, but valuing it in the amount of time you are prepared to give to it.

When you allow time and value it you are able to experience your emotions, your experiences. If you have unresolved trauma this may be scary. But with a trauma trained counsellor it doesn’t have to be. Time allows you to heal and reconnect to creative living, to the fullness of life.

The Shattered Vase

People who are grieving come to see me for many different reasons. Some just need someone to share their confusion with. Others have decisions to make and need someone objective to bounce ideas off. Some are angry. Others confused. Then there is despair. And there is often fear. There can also be reluctance. Not everyone who comes to see me is ready to move forward into the future. Some people are so tired from the journey they just want me to wave a magic wand and fix things. But I can’t do that. But what I can do is accompany you on your journey for a little way from time to time.

There are a number of metaphors around grief and what is happening for the person who comes to see me that I use.

One of the most powerful is the metaphor of the shattered vase. In the aftermath of the death of a loved one, your world can feel as though it has shattered. Everything that was part of your life is changed. Your trust in the world has changed. Nothing is the same anymore. You are left with shattered pieces of your life that need to be picked up and put back together again.

That can feel like an impossible task. If can feel like a task you don’t want to do. But there will be a time when you will venture to do it. Sometimes being supported by a counsellor through that process is the way you get through it.

When someone comes to see me, I do not rush them through their grief. I do not believe that is helpful. So if you come expecting to be given quick fix solutions, I am the wrong person to see.

Another powerful metaphor is that of the space between what was and what will be. I have spoken of this space before in my blogs. We often visit it at turning points in our lives. It is the space that is bewildering and confusing. Nothing seems the same. What once was certain is now confusing and unclear. The path we thought we were following is not there anymore. The space is trackless. There is no map, no guide book. The space is not comfortable or familiar. It is a wilderness. We stumble in that space until we learn the way out.

When I see someone who is grieving, I see someone caught up in that space. I don’t have the map for the way out. Each person’s map is unique and only that person has ability to find the way out. But I do have the ability to sit with you as you journey through that space. I may even be able to help you find your way. Sometimes it is helpful to just be with someone, even for an hour.

When I feel you are ready, I can share ideas with you. You can reject them or go further with them. But that is a long way down the track.

One thing I will tell you. I will tell you to be kind to yourself. To not expect to have it all together. To allow yourself time to cry, get angry, despair, be overcome with feelings of disorientation. To give yourself the space you need to grieve.

Vulnerability is emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty and it fuels our daily lives.

But what happens when emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty are the very things that hamper our daily lives?

For the person who has encountered trauma, the sense of safety in the world is lost. So that person no longer feels safe. When you do not feel safe, you are not able to be vulnerable. Any risk or uncertainty is going to cause an unmanageable feeling of danger. It is important that the person with a trauma past first learn how to feel safe before allowing vulnerability into their life.

This is where a qualified trauma therapist is helpful.

Dépaysement

This French word has no English translation. It describes the feeling of not being in your home country. Many people apply this word to the feeling of being travellers in another country. The feeling of not being home. Of being in another country. Of being surrounded by people from that country and the unfamiliarity of that. Of being in a place where the people possibly speak a different language. Of things looking different. It is a scary feeling, but also exciting and novel. Your senses are fully attentive to your experience. You feel nervous. You feel apprehensive. But you are somewhere novel and exotic and that is exciting. Those alert senses and the excitement of the exotic make you feel alive.
Your senses are alert to help you navigate this different and strange place. Where do you need to go? Is it safe here? You may have heard of pickpockets or muggers in this place. How do you keep yourself safe? How do you detect danger? Your body is on full alert. The adrenalin is pumping. But the experience can be quite exhilarating. The feeling of mastery when you work out how to order a cup of coffee, when you find your way across town, when you buy food in the local supermarket.
Now imagine you have arrived in this place to take up residence. Imagine that no matter how long you stay you are still the foreigner. You are still identified by others as the foreigner. They know it every time you open your mouth. So you become hesitant to open your mouth and shatter the illusion you hope you have created that you belong here. You hesitate to answer the phone because you are not confident at being able to communicate in this new language.
You may obviously not be a local. You may have a different skin colour. You may hold yourself differently and react to things differently. Your style of clothing may not be that of the locals. Even if you wear the clothes you see others wear, you will put the outfit together differently, or hold yourself differently. Dépaysement still exists in your feelings. You may be more familiar with the situation but there is that knowledge that you don’t belong here. That when you open your mouth it will be obvious. No matter how hard you try to learn the language, your accent will give you away. You will always have that sense of not belonging. Your culture will be different.
After some time living in another country you will begin to observe the culture. Research has found people react differently to living in a different culture. Some embrace it and totally reject their old culture. They are often described as ‘going native’. Others will refuse to accept anything of the new culture and will stick rigidly to the old culture. Most sit in the middle. All will, for the first time in their lives, see their home culture more objectively. Instead of being that automatic way to be, they will realise it is not the automatic way to be for people in the new country. Over time people question their own culture. Those who take the middle ground will often adopt aspects of the new culture and reject some aspects of the old culture.
Through all this dépaysement is the feeling you most often experience.
Now imagine you return to live in your old culture. It has been some time and you have changed. When you return to the old culture it has changed too. You cannot slip what you once had back on and expect it to fit. Now you are in another culture and that sense of dépaysement again hits. But you are in your home country and that is not supposed to happen! It is disorienting, frightening. You long for the seeming familiarity of the country you just left. This new country, the one that should have felt like a comfortable old shirt, feels as strange and unfamiliar as the country you just left once felt. The person you became in that other country struggles for acceptance back home. The skills people recognised you had there are not appreciated here.
This is the life of the expat returning home, the repatriate (repat). It is a struggle to fit back in. There is a lot of pain, grief and loss. So much of the familiar has gone. It is like you don’t belong anywhere anymore. When I returned to Australia after 8 years away I found it hard adjusting to life back in Australia. There was the initial excitement, common to all expat postings. The novel and new is exciting. That excitement sustains you for a few months, despite all the logistical difficulties you may be encountering. But then reality sets in and you hit rock bottom. If you have moved back to the same area you may find your old friends no longer fit as well as they did. You have changed, and so have they, but in different directions. You may find yourself constantly talking about your old life overseas. This is your only reference point. Others may not appreciate that. They may think you are big noting yourself. Your experiences may be outside the realm of their understanding.
When I moved back to Australia I moved to a different state. There was no one familiar. I wasn’t worried, I had so much confidence that I would be able to find new friends. I was so used to having to do that and did not find it hard. But now it was a nightmare. People in their busy suburban lives were not interested in making new friends. I joined so many activities to meet people but found the people there had little in common with me. I found it hard to get a job. Being away for 8 years meant I effectively had no work history, despite all I had achieved while living overseas. My previous career was closed off to me because I had been away from it too long. At one stage I became really depressed. Everything was so overwhelming. I had lost my friends, who were all overseas, and my career, and no-one would give me a chance at a job. Eventually I found a job as a shop assistant in a large store. The staff were treated badly, which did not help my state of mind. Eventually I took the scary step of going back to university to gain new qualifications. It took a long time to establish friendships (my university cohort was where I finally found like-minded people who were interested in making new friends). It took a long time to learn to accept the new Australian culture. I still don’t totally like it, but thanks to my now two degrees and a lot of study I have been able to put this new culture into perspective and learn to find the like-minded people I feel comfortable with.
I still miss my life overseas. There were wonderful things I did there that I have not been able to do in Australia. I still love Australia. It is a difficult act of balancing what I had, have, lost and gained. Dépaysement is a beautiful descriptive word to summarise my feelings as an expat in a foreign country and as a repat in a strange new Australia.
Dépaysement can be a different experience depending on your circumstances. I chose the expat life and I chose to return to Australia. But if you are displaced due to war or oppression, then dépaysement will be clouded by the traumatic nature of your displacement and the journey to find a host country willing to take you. There will also be great loss at what you had in your home country, what you unwillingly had to give up and what you cannot recover. Then there will be the difficulties of trying to establish yourself here and find work. Life will often seem a lot harder in your new country. Rather than the headiness of the challenge of fitting in, there will be the fear of how you are going to survive.
A migrant will have willingly chosen to move here, and there will be great hopes of a new life to come, but this will be tinged with the memory of what has been left behind. And there will be the inevitable heady honeymoon period, followed by the thump of reality and wondering if you made the right decision.
If you are experiencing the strangeness of returning to your home country, or coming here as a foreigner, or just moving states or areas and finding it all different and difficult, I can help. If you would like help, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au.

Waldeinsamkeit – The feeling of being alone in the woods.

Waldeinsamkeit is a German word that is not translatable into English. It describes the feeling of being alone in the woods. Many who speak English would consider that to mean scared, worried, or happy. Depending on your view of the world, being in the woods alone can either be a blessing or a curse.

Waldeinsamkeit is used as though it is a physical place. It is a little like the English phrase of the feeling of being at one with the universe. Solitude, meditation and contemplation may be aspects of Waldeinsamkeit. But none of those things accurately explain the word.

Earlier I mentioned that the word could be viewed as a blessing or a curse, depending on your world view. Some may find the idea of being alone in the woods as being quite frightening. But in the German usage it is seen as being positive. It evokes the sense of a calm, contemplative atmosphere in a beautiful setting. If you are a person who views the idea of a solitary walk in a forest, then you would view it as a blessing. Many people use a walk in a forest as a way to clear their minds. In the forest there is a connection with nature and a comfort in that connection. There is a sense that in the solitude of the beautiful, peaceful forest a person can get lost in their own thoughts.

If you have experienced trauma in your past, getting lost in your own thoughts, having nothing to distract you from your own body and feelings, can be frightening.

For someone who is grieving, that solitude that allows such introspection can seem overwhelming as thoughts of your loss are encountered.

Being in your own thoughts, having an awareness of your own body, can be really hard. It can cause a person to want to escape. Escape can be busyness. It can be alcohol. It can be avoiding reminders of past events and people. This avoidance of feelings has a disabling effect on your ability to function well in life. It results in difficulties coping well with life.

If you are affected in this way, counselling by a trained trauma counsellor (in the case of trauma) or trained grief counsellor (in the case of grief) can help you regain your ability to live life fully. I am qualified in both areas and am passionate about helping people be able to take control of their lives again.

If you would like experience Waldeinsamkeit as a blessing, contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au to arrange an appointment.

When emotions threaten to overwhelm, always think of your feet on the ground

One of the first things I do with someone who comes to see me about their trauma is ensure they know how to ‘put their feet on the ground’.

I will teach people to find a safe place they can go in their mind when things start to become overwhelming. That safe place is usually a happy memory of somewhere where the person felt safe.

But what happens if the person becomes overwhelmed before I can teach them a safe place?

This is where other grounding techniques are used.

One technique is to draw attention to the person’s feet. I may ask “what size shoes do you wear?”

That may seem a strange question to ask, but it stops the person thinking the overwhelming thoughts long enough to answer the question. Another impact of that question is that, while the overwhelming thoughts relate to childhood, the size of a person’s shoe relates to adulthood. This is a strong message to that person that they are an adult. Therefore what they are feeling is in the past. Makes a big difference.

So thinking of your feet on the ground is not such a silly thing to do. It is in fact a very helpful thing to do.

What do you say to someone who has lost a baby

People experience a lot of difficulty around how to talk to a person who has lost a baby. I use the word person here, because fathers experience the pain of miscarriage or stillbirth as well as mothers.

In my experience there are people who ignore the lost baby. This was demonstrated strongly recently when I saw a friend who had experienced a miscarriage. I told her I was sorry about the miscarriage and I was so sad for that little life lost. Before she could respond to me, one of the other people present cut in and shut down the conversation. A short while later the other person took me to one side and told me I was uncaring and insensitive for mentioning the miscarriage. I was shocked. Later I asked my friend if I had hurt her with my words. Her response was that it meant a lot to her to have her miscarriage acknowledged. To have someone acknowledge her pain. To have someone acknowledge the existence of that precious little baby. What had hurt her was the person who shut the conversation down.

People refuse to talk about the death of a baby for many reasons.

One is that they feel uncomfortable talking about it. In our society death is hidden away in hospitals and rarely discussed. Death of a baby is even more uncomfortable. Many minimise what a couple who have experienced miscarriage are going through. After all, the baby wasn’t a person yet, was it! As the mother of four children I felt each one of those babies was a person, my child, from the moment I knew I was pregnant. To lose one of those precious little lives at any time in the pregnancy was a terrifying thought. As a nurse I nursed many women who had lost their baby before or at full term. It doesn’t matter when it happens, it is devastating.

Another reason people won’t talk about the death of a baby is a misguided belief that “one doesn’t talk about such things”. I remember when my mother died and I had to see my friends again. My friends were all saying sorry. That was hard to be reminded of her death, but it was comforting to know they cared and acknowledged her life. One friend avoided the subject. That really hurt. I felt as though my pain was not valid. Imagine how a woman who has lost her baby feels if that is how she is treated? It is hard enough to lose a baby early in pregnancy when people may not even know you are pregnant. But to have that precious life ignored and minimised by not talking about it is even harder. Some women want it kept quiet, and that must be respected, but other women want the comfort, support and validation from other people that this little life mattered, their hurt matters and they don’t have to grieve alone.

I was once in a position where a woman I saw occasionally was pregnant. I saw her just before the baby was born then didn’t see her for some months. When I next saw her, I congratulated her on the birth of her baby, which I knew by then would have been born. She told me her baby had died shortly after birth. I was mortified. No one spoke about her or her baby so I didn’t know her baby had died. I apologised for the hurt my words caused and told her how sorry I was. She talked for some time about how hard it was and then said she was glad we had talked because not many people wanted to know how she was feeling and the lack of discussion about what had happened to her was like some shameful secret. She was grateful that at least one person was prepared to speak openly about her baby and express compassion for her as she grieved.

After the death of a baby so many people offer platitudes like “it was for the best” or “you can have another one”. They are not comforting. They hurt and minimise what the parent is experiencing. Those platitudes are offered all the way along pregnancy from the first trimester miscarriage to the still born baby. All hurt terribly.

I have always considered myself blessed because I had four healthy pregnancies with four live births. I have never had to experience the devastation of miscarriage or stillbirth. But that blessing has always made me so aware of how devastating the death of one of those babies would have been. I am sure I am not alone in caring deeply for other women whose pregnancies end in miscarriage or stillbirth. It is also important to consider the needs of the father as well. He is also grieving. So many men are told to support their partner, as if they have no feelings about this. But they hurt too.

If you care, then you can best support the mother and father in the death of their baby by saying how sorry you are and being willing to listen if they want to talk. Acknowledge the baby. If it was given a name, then use it. You don’t have to solve anything. There is no need for platitudes. You just need to listen and care. That is what a grieving parent needs and wants.

Vulnerability is the most accurate measure of courage

In western societies there is a belief that to be tough, to show courage, you have to be “strong”. It is believed that to be strong you have to hide your emotions and not be upset about things.

But this belief is a lie.

The truth is that the strongest and most courageous people are those who are prepared to show vulnerability. If you can have the strength and courage to acknowledge that you are upset, or angry, or not sure what to do, then you can attend to those emotions and move on. Failing to acknowledge those things causes them to be trapped inside you and never dealt with. But they do not go away. They stay there until they become too much and you fall apart.

Whether it is dealing with the grief of loss, or the aftermath of trauma, being vulnerable is the best way for you to heal.

Being vulnerable involves acknowledging the emotions you feel.

Being vulnerable involves admitting you need help and reaching out to others for help.

Being vulnerable involves seeking the help of a counsellor when you need it.

When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you will discover the truth of vulnerability as the most accurate measure of courage and strength.