Why Counsel children and adolescents in grief and loss?

Children need opportunities to process grief and loss.

In the past, it was always believed that children weren’t aware of what was happening in the family. They would not be allowed to go to the funerals of dead family members because they “would be too distressed about it”. The departed family member would never be discussed. Children would often form faulty beliefs that they had been responsible for the death of their family member. Even now, it is hard for grieving family members to attend to the needs of the children in the family. Frequently, children benefit from talking to an outsider who can focus on them and their needs.
Below is the story of “Anna”. As with all my blogs, I never use real names and usually use a composite of several clients, removing anything that could identify the clients. I also print people’s stories only with permission. In this case, Anna asked me to print her story with just her name changed.
When I was 11, my year group were taught to perform CPR. We were told our actions would mean the difference between life and death for someone we loved. I took that very seriously. A year later, at the age of 12, I was visiting my grandparents when my grandmother collapsed. She had no pulse or respirations. I worked on resuscitating her for what seemed like hours, but was probably no more than fifteen minutes. When the paramedics arrived, they took over and I went and sat in the back room while my family gathered around the stretcher as my grandmother was wheeled out to the ambulance. Nothing was said to me. My brother and I went home and my parents and grandfather went to the hospital. Later they returned and said my grandmother had died. What I did was never discussed. My brother made a passing comment about not knowing how to perform CPR, but no one ever talked about what I did. My mother told me my grandmother would have been happier to have died, rather than become an invalid, but this did not help me. All my mother did was reinforce the faulty belief I had about my part in my grandmother’s death. I was devastated and full of guilt. When we learned CPR we were told all we had to do was perform CPR and the person would live. I believed I had killed my grandmother because I must have done something wrong or she would not have died. I also believed that if I told my family what I did they would reject me. My grandmother’s death was never discussed and I never had the opportunity to talk to anyone about my belief and be reassured that it was not true. We forget as adults that children think differently and will often hide the things they most fear, and that often children form faulty beliefs about their culpability in events. It is so important children are given a safe place to talk so that those faulty beliefs can be expressed and corrected.
When I grew up I became a nurse and used to dread the call to attend a cardiac arrest, something that, working in Intensive Care and Coronary Care, I had to do frequently. Eventually I was working in Aged Care and one of my residents choked on a sandwich. I found myself in the same situation as when I was 12. I worked on this woman, but despite my efforts she died. This time, there was someone to talk to about it, as my employer was serious about debriefing people. I realised that I still carried the guilt of my grandmother’s death into every resuscitation event, fearing that I would kill those people too. Every time there was a cardiac arrest, my brain went into fight or flight mode and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

It was many years before I heard the statistics of how few people are successfully resuscitated. I persisted in the belief I had killed my grandmother until that moment in the CPR refresher course when I heard those statistics and was finally able to realise I needed counselling to shift the belief that I had killed my grandmother.
All the years I tormented myself with guilt could have been prevented if my family had talked about what had happened, instead of never mentioning my grandmother or the events around her death again. Or, if my parents had not felt able to talk about her death, if they had sent me to a counsellor or to a grief and loss group. My parents were not bad people. Their behaviour was due to their inability to deal in a healthy way with loss.

We live in a society that discourages openness about death. Frequently in families the death of a loved one is never discussed. Children will often report that it is like the person they loved never existed. It is heartbreaking when children feel distress that their family never talks about the person who has died. Those children never get a chance to properly grieve for their dead loved one and learn an unhealthy way to grieve that will impact on their grieving as an adult. Children are also impacted in other ways by their feelings. Anna internalised her guilt so no one thought there was anything wrong, but many children act out their feelings and are seen as being naughty. The pain is never properly resolved and continues to cause problems into adulthood.
My aim in counselling children is to give them the chance to talk about what has happened. To teach them that it is okay to feel a great range of emotions, it is okay to talk about how they feel and to show them that they can reach out to others for support. It is also an opportunity for the child to express those common false beliefs he or she holds about being responsible for what has happened to them or others. In this way, the child can grow into a healthy adult.

“The wound is the place where the light enters you” Rumi

The wound is the place where the light enters you

In the swirling darkness of trauma’s legacy, it seems nothing can every tame the uncontrollable tangle of emotions. It seems that the cries for help disappear into the darkness of trauma. You step out into the day, hoping today will be a good one. Hoping that there will be no triggers to send you back into that darkness. Hoping that today you will be able to be you. Fearing that you is actually this tangle of emotions when you want you to be this person who is able to function normally … most of the time.
You want the truth? You is the person who can function normally. There are also trauma networks in your brain that occasionally take over. When the right trigger presents itself. When they take over, there is no escaping them. You seem trapped, unable to stop the swirl of reactions taking over your body.
How do you get out of this darkness? How do you escape?
Rumi is quoted as having said that where we are wounded is where the light enters us. It is often that triggered reaction that is the source of healing. Taking that triggered reaction to a trauma qualified counsellor is a way to start disentangling and controlling those emotions. It is a way to take those trauma networks and change them from dead end streets you get stuck in into memories that no longer control you.
I have the training, experience and skills to help you.
I can see you face to face or via Skype.
Please feel free to contact me today to arrange an appointment.

The individuality of grief

Grief is an individual thing

I often have clients tell me they want to find people who have suffered the same loss so someone can understand them. But the truth is you will never find someone who is grieving the same way you are. You are an individual. The person you have lost is an individual. The relationship you had with the one you have lost is individual. Your experience in unique.
Finding another person with the same type of loss is not going to help. There may be similarities but there will always be differences. There is also the danger you may both want to tell your stories and the other person may not necessarily hear your story.
This is not to say that people in grief shouldn’t talk to other people in grief. It can be very helpful to share with others. Just don’t expect the other person/people will meet the needs you want met. If you expect them to solve all your grieving problems, you will be disappointed.
Grieving is hard. Unbelievably hard. It is also a lonely path. You can reach out to others occasionally to share the common ground, but you will never find someone who experiences your grief in an identical way.
So draw comfort from fellow travellers and know that there will always be parts of your experience that are unique.

Healing is coming to terms with things as they are.

This may not be true about all things. For example, someone who suffers from trauma is not going to find healing by coming to terms with the difficulties in functioning that trauma causes. But for someone who is grieving, this statement is true.

Ten words that are so hard to achieve. Easier said than done!

If I was to say those words to someone who was recently bereaved, I wouldn’t be surprised if they responded angrily. These words may be true, but healing is not instant. Healing is not meant to be instant. It takes time to work through all the feelings associated with losing someone – or in the case of the loss being a country, job, house, marriage, body part etc. something.

There has to be time to grieve, to feel the pain, the loneliness, the emptiness, the total devastation of life as you know it. There has to be time to be able to put all that has changed into a different perspective. There has to be time to assign meaning to all that has changed. That time is not a matter of days. It is more likely to be months and years.

As time passes there will be many moments of coming to terms with things as they are. Things as they are will change over the months and years and that will always need to be accepted.

Each step of healing is a step onto unchartered ground. You need to step carefully. To feel your way. To ensure you are stepping on ground that can support you. That cannot be achieved at a running pace.

Allow time to heal. Allow reverses. Allow for the occasional misstep onto ground that cannot support you. Allow yourself to be miserable, or lonely, or feel lost.

In the long term, expect healing.

A victim identity is the belief that the past is more powerful than the present. This belief is the opposite of truth.

A victim identity is the belief the past is more powerful than the present

When you have been abused, ignored, marginalised and traumatised as a child it is hard to move on. There is a need for someone to acknowledge what was done to you. A need for someone to be appalled at the way you were treated. Someone to care that a little child did not receive the love and nurturing he or she deserved.

There is also a need to heal those wounds. To find your voice. To claim your power. To be the person you were born to be.

It is easy when you have suffered in childhood to feel like a victim. To identify as a victim. But a victim has no power, has no voice, and does not heal. And yes, a victim sees the past as being more powerful than the present. But the truth is the present has more power than the past.

It can be hard to grasp that truth when the traumas of the past won’t go away. When there are constant triggers. But if you are still alive, you are not a victim. You are a survivor. A wounded one, but still a survivor.

The path of healing is long and hard work. It is not a happy skip through a pretty field of flowers. It is hard work and there will be many emotions to face during that time. I think a difficult climb up the side of a dark, wet chasm, your fingers grabbing the rocks as your feet slide on the slippery path, is a more apt description of that healing journey. But there is one thing to notice. As you edge up that path, there is a blue sky above. Every time you look up, it is closer than before. Every time you look down, the floor of the chasm is further away.

One day, you will reach the top of the path and you will find yourself in a beautiful place. And when you do, if you look back at where you have come, you will realise what a long way you have come. You will see the strength it took to climb out. What a sense of achievement. What a glorious victory.

That victory can be yours. Most people who come for counselling have struggled for years to climb out of that chasm. But it is virtually impossible to do without assistance. In this life, we all need help from time to time. Asking for help is a sign of power, not weakness. The greatest among us know that they need others to achieve. When you are ready, find a trauma qualified counsellor to help you climb out of the chasm.

Life with the triggers of Childhood PTSD (CPTSD)

Life with the triggers of childhood PTSD

You are living your life and all seems well. You know how to live your life and function well … most of the time.
Today is one of those “most of the time” days.
It all started well, but things have been going distinctly downhill. You have felt uneasy, on edge. You are trying to discuss the things that are unsettling you. No one will listen. You feel on edge but do not necessarily realise how on edge. After all, this is how your childhood felt. You have no measure of how bad it was in your childhood. How scary. How out of control.
Then the event happens. To others it seems innocuous. You are hard placed later to identify what it was. But it has happened. You are spinning out of control. You can’t reason. You can’t even talk to the people who are trying to get you to do what they want. To get you out of the physical location you are in. All you can do is stay. You are frozen. You couldn’t move if you wanted to. You can’t even will your legs to move. It feels like moving is dying. It is a dreadful, terrifying situation.
Later someone takes you aside and has a ‘talk’ with you. You can’t explain what just happened and they do not have the insight to recognise a PTSD flashback. To understand you are in a crisis situation. That you are beyond even fight or flight. You are thrown into a freeze. In all likelihood you have dissociated, so it is really hard coming back to the present.
So you are judged harshly. Maybe it is a work situation and you are threatened with losing your job. Maybe you car pool and the person you car pool with berates you all the way home while you cry uncontrollably and can barely drive. The person is so lacking in even a basic level of empathy or compassion they don’t even have the decency to shut up when they realise how distraught you are. Maybe you struggle to go back to that place. You sit outside and feel that to walk in there is to die. You have to muster so much courage to go in there. And you have so much courage to face what feels like death. But no one understands or recognises that because of their ignorance of trauma.
And maybe your work is in a place where the people claim to work with traumatised children. Yet they are so trauma uninformed they cannot recognise trauma in a staff member. They do not even adopt a trauma informed practice in the work place.
And you are shamed, and feel ashamed. You are told you are an awful person, it is all your fault. There is no understanding. You are left with the shame and the feeling of being defective.
And maybe you wonder if anyone will ever be able to help you. And you wonder when your life will stop being derailed by these triggers.
There is help out there. There are counsellors who are trauma trained. Counsellors who understand. Counsellors who have compassion for you and your situation. Counsellors who can help you heal and be able to live a life that is more manageable. Counsellors who can validate your experience and understand why you act the way you do.
And a lot of those counsellors will have experienced similar things in their own lives. They have been able to heal and now share what they have learned with those yet to heal.
I am one of those counsellors. I understand trauma, both from a personal and academic perspective. I understand how to work with individuals affected by trauma, especially the trauma that occurred during childhood. I know how to work safely, to teach the skills that you need to learn. The skills you never learned in childhood, through no fault of your own. I know how to help you heal from the triggers that send you spinning into a fight/flight or freeze response. I care that your experience is validated. I care that you heal and can lead a life that is not dominated by triggering moments.
If you would like my help you can contact me on 4049396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

Feeling it is disloyal to move on

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.