Demeter’s Journey

Demeter lost someone she loved dearly. At first it was so unreal that she didn’t notice where she was. She loved this person, and now they were dead.

How could this be?

Why hadn’t the world stopped at the moment of death?

How could people go about their lives as though something so earth shattering had never happened?

Her days were full of people, funeral arrangements, flowers and casseroles. The funeral came and was over. Everybody left. Then she noticed it.

She was no longer in that place that was so familiar to her. She was in the wilderness. An unruly forest of Beech, Maple, Birch, Oak and Elm trees. Of bushes and vines and no clear paths. The trees were tall and crowded in around her.

The wind through the trees was cold and bitter. The leaves of the trees were yellow, orange, red and brown. As she walked through the forest swirls of leaves blew across her path. They hit her face and became entangled in her hair. They seemed to mirror her own confusion and swirling emotions.

Everything was different. Where once she had wandered the clear, cool, shaded paths under trees replete with lush green leaves, there was now a barren wilderness of fallen, dead leaves and bone chilling breezes. The leaves swirled, an echo of her own jumble of emotions.

She pulled her coat tight and struggled on.

Every once in a while she came to a clearing that was vaguely familiar. There she did mundane things. Things that were once normal. but now felt wrong to do.

How could she get on with life when everything was so broken?

And then she was in the forest again struggling on.

One day she noticed the forest had changed. The branches of the trees were now completely bare. Their limbs were stark black, a contrast to the snow she now saw was on the ground. Every sound was muffled. She trudged through ever deepening snow drifts. She witnessed the silent snow falling without a sound. She heard no sounds just the crying of her heart.

The clearings, when she could find them, sat oddly in this winter landscape, and she hurried out of them. The confusing wilderness of the forest felt more comfortable than the appalling mundanity of the clearings.

Much further on she realised she could hear a bird song. Then she noticed the crunching of her feet on the ground and saw the snow had gone. As she looked out across the stark forest, she could see crocuses and snowdrops emerging from the dark soil. Up in the trees there was a hint of green across the tips of the branches. Her mood lifted slightly. She walked on through the forest. Some days she felt the hope of spring, others she was pulled back into the cold of winter. But as the days went on the winter weather gave way to more consistent warmth. The trees filled out with leaves and the ground burst forth with snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, jonquils, tulips and more flowers than she could identify. There was less contrast with the clearings she now came across.

She still found the clearings hard. The familiarity of them was comforting, but it felt disloyal to spend too long in them, so she hurried back into the trees.

Then one day she saw through the trees a very large clearing. The sun shining through the branches felt hot. She noticed the flowers were all gone and the leaves on the trees were fading. From the clearing she heard the sound of people. As she emerged into the sunlight she saw many familiar faces. It felt good to be amongst people again. She realised she didn’t feel as guilty about being out of the wilderness.

As she moved around the group of friends she saw Amy pulling some leaves out of her hair. She remembered Amy had lost the job she loved and had been struggling to find a new one. She told Demeter she had been in a wilderness but was pleased to find this clearing.

Joseph was a little further along. He was brushing snow off his shoulder. Demeter remembered he left his home country to move to her country to make a new home and had found the transition hard. He told her he had been in a forest wilderness and hoped this clearing was a sign of things improving.

Then she saw Phoebe picking at petals caught up in her clothing. Phoebe shared with her the difficult journey she had been on in a forest wilderness following the amputation of her leg. She was feeling more positive about her life now and was loving the clearing.

As she looked around, Demeter realised all the people there had experienced some sort of loss. Ryan had his house broken into and lost his sense of safety in his own home. Peggy’s marriage had ended and she had found it hard trekking through her wilderness. Abbie’s dog had died, Max had moved interstate, Jim had lost his house in a fire. The list went on.

Demeter stayed for a while in her summer clearing. Seeing how her friends had lost things too and struggled helped her to feel less crazy. It was good to sit in the warmth and be with friends.

At the end of the day she left the clearing and moved into the forest of her life. It wasn’t the forest she had lived in before her loss. Neither was it the wilderness forest. This one seemed more manageable. Some days were full of swirling, multi-coloured leaves and bitter winds, others were stark snow filled vistas. There were ones that were full of leaf buds and baby animals. And there were ones where she caught up with her friends. And there were always clearings to enter.

Demeter understood that this forest was her life now. It wasn’t the forest of her old life but it was the forest of her future, of her new life walking with grief, and it was okay.

I feel miserable, is this loss?

If you see someone who has just lost a loved one you may say “I am sorry for your loss”.

But what do you mean?

Loss is a word that has so many meanings.

Loss applies to more than the death of a loved one.

You can lose a job, and grieve over it.

You can lose a relationship, and grieve over it.

You can lose your grandmother’s engagement ring, and grieve over it.

You can lose your pet, and grieve over it.

You can move to another country and lose your identity, community, family, friends and grieve over it.

You can lose your house, and grieve over it.

The list is endless.

All these losses are valid reasons to be miserable.

So what is loss?

Loss is something you feel that is caused by an event in your life that you consider to be negative. The event also causes long term changes in your life. The changes continue over a period of time. You also have a personal response to that loss. Others may respond in a similar way, but your way of responding to it is unique to you.

This means no one will ever fully understand your loss. That experience is your personal experience.

The biggest aspect of loss is change.

You will experience change in your social situation, your relationships and the way you see the world and interpret events.

As the result of loss, you will be changed forever.

Change is always a part of life. We change daily in response to our environment.

But some things in life result in bigger changes. Changes that may mean we no longer fit in in the same way.

Changes that may mean we move, or change friends, or change job.

Changes that may mean we no longer want the things we once wanted.

One of the biggest mistakes to make when processing a loss, is to think we can go back to the way things were.

That is not possible.

Life is a one way street.

There is no doubling back.

There is only forward.

That is something you may not want to do.

You may decide at some point that you need to see a counsellor.

That can be really helpful.

A good counsellor will listen and allow you to express your feelings and explore what has happened.

With a good counsellor you will be able to make sense of your loss and start being okay that life continues in a forward direction.

What a counsellor will not do is make everything the way it was.

A good counsellor will not fix those unpleasant feelings.

What the counsellor will do is help you process those feelings. Help you learn how to live now. Help you come to terms with the new life you now have.

It is so easy to get stuck in the pit of loss and the longing for what was.

In those times you need help to get out of the pit.

This is where counselling is helpful.

When you are struggling to make sense of the changes.

When you are struggling with people telling you what you should be feeling and doing.

When you don’t want to keep going because it hurts too much.

These are times when counselling is helpful.

If you would like to learn more, I write a regular newsletter with links to my blogs, interesting information, tips, information on courses, and the occasional freebie. At the moment I have a free mindfulness meditation for anyone who signs up to my newsletter. This meditation offers a way to safely explore your feelings and learn to be okay with them. If you would like to subscribe please click on the link here: http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz

The wrong formula

Most people have a formula for grief that they believe all people should go through. It is based on their own grief experiences and those taught to them by society in general. The trouble is that when you don’t fall into that formula it can be even more isolating than the “normal” grief experience.

One thing I have noticed in my work is that so many people experience the death of a close family member and never know what that person thought of them. Their grief becomes entangled in never to be answered questions about their relationship with the person. Often grief unleashes unresolved issues in the relationship and the grieving person finds themselves having to deal with issues they cannot discuss with their dead relative and thus find difficult to put aside. Dead letter offices around the world are full of letters written to dead relatives expressing thoughts about them that the expressee cannot say to their faces. Many famous people have books written about them by their children damning them for all the things wrong with their relationship that the child was never able to express while their famous parent was alive.

In a session one day Jody shared: “When my mother died I found myself in this situation. I lost my mother, the chance to hear her say she loved me, my family, most of what I had (wrongly) used to define myself. My family had a taboo on touching and discussing emotions. My parents didn’t say ‘I love you’ and were super critical so I doubt any of us grew up feeling loved or good enough. We were never taught how to conduct a relationship so never learned how to develop relationships with each other or even notice if one of the family was excluded. I had an occasion when living interstate where my father had written a terrible letter to me abusing my husband and generally using words and thoughts that were inappropriate. After much consideration and discussion with my friends I wrote to him telling him his language was inappropriate and I did not like him speaking of my husband like that. I also mentioned that I did not feel part of the family and his attitude to my husband only served to feed that feeling. My father’s response was to totally avoid mentioning the letter but at the end he signed off with “Your family” (underlined) as if that was going to suddenly make me feel like a member of the family! I notice one of my brothers does the same thing. They just do not know how to have a relationship. The person who should have known, the relationship counsellor, my mother, didn’t teach anyone. She seemed to possess either an extraordinary inertia or incredible laziness and she never taught anyone how to conduct a relationship nor did she make any effort herself. She seemed to believe in free range relationships. Consequently I find myself in this terrible situation where I am excluded from the family relationship but those of my family left believe they have a relationship with me. They believe this despite the fact they never communicate with me, are totally disinterested in anything I do, never contact me and never express concern about me or have any interest in my children. They never come to visit or ask us to visit them. When I try to talk to them about this they think I am being stupid. It is so frustrating and demoralising and strips me of self worth.”

Over the past few years there have been a lot of social media posts circulating about people at the end of life regretting the time they failed to spend with family and regretting the words of love they felt for their family. There is a need to communicate our love for others to them. People don’t magically know they are loved. As for the toxic family with its fractured relationships. That is something to be dealt with in another blog.

Do not use your pain body for identity. Use it for enlightenment instead.

For the past few hundred years the mind and the body have been considered separate. The idea that our emotions can be expressed with physical pain has been dismissed. But in more recent years, this has been challenged. Research has shown that emotional pain lights up the same pathways in the brain as physical pain. It has also shown that the pain experienced with emotional pain is as severe as that experienced with physical pain. The evidence shows that our “minds” are not in our brains but in our bodies. We store our memories as sensations which use all our senses (touch, smell, vision, sound, taste) as well as our thoughts and emotions in our bodies. It makes sense when you consider our five senses are functions of our bodies.

If you consider that physical pain and emotional pain are felt in the same area of the brain. Then emotional pain is going to hurt. If you add to that, the fact that that emotional pain is stored as a memory in the body, the it is not hard to understand that the memory of an emotional pain is going to hurt somewhere in the body.

Much of the pain we feel in our bodies is due to stored painful memories. I am not saying that every pain in the body is caused by a painful memory, but a lot of pain is. The memories also affect the way we use our bodies. We may walk and sit differently because of a memory. We may move differently because of a memory.

If we have a painful memory and we are able to resolve that memory, then it does not leave pain or restriction in our body. It is the memories we cannot resolve that cause the problem. The memories of painful times in our past. The memories of trauma we were unable to process. Most of these memories are from childhood and just get added to by things that happen in adulthood.

Physical pain is hard. It restricts what you can do. Ask anyone with chronic pain. When the pain in your body restricts what you can do, it is easy to begin to identify with that pain. It becomes easy, without realising you are doing it, to hide behind that pain. It protects you. It protects you in many ways. It stops you hurting that part more. It also stops you experiencing any emotional pain that may be part of that physical pain.

Therapists who work with client’s bodies, both the feelings in the body and the way the body moves and is held, know that releasing painful memories can reduce or remove bodily pain.

If you take a group of children and give them a body outline, then ask them to colour the parts of the body where they feel angry or sad or other emotions, they can do it. They will colour in areas of the body and use colours to express what that emotion feels like. Children know that they feel things in their bodies. When they are taught to make that link they can become really good at understanding their feelings and the impact on their bodies.

A lot of adults never learned in childhood to feel and locate their emotions in their bodies.

Being able to sit with a pain or discomfort in the body and explore it is very helpful. I teach this as part of my teaching on mindfulness. I teach people to ask that part what it is feeling. To explore the feelings that are attached to that pain. It can be very enlightening. Once those feelings are identified it is possible to work with them and release them.

Many people report that when they use their pain to identify hidden memories and are able to resolve them, then their pain reduces or disappears.

If you would like a simple, mindfulness meditation to assist with this exploration you are welcome to sign up for my email list here http://eepurl.com/g8Jpiz. When you sign up, I will send you a link to a mindfulness meditation for exploring the pain in your body.

Learning to live with your scars

Learning to live with your scars

There is a belief that grief ends. That we go through some process of grieving and emerge at the end with our grief ended.

My question to those of you who are grieving is: Do you want to come to a day when the person you love does not matter any more?

I don’t know anyone who answers yes to that question.

The reality is, if we loved someone we will always miss them. There will always be pain at their loss. They will always be part of our life. They will always matter. For that reason the pain will always be there.

But I also know people who want the pain to end.

I can tell people that the acute pain will some day be transformed into something more manageable. There will still be pain, especially on special days and times that remind us of the person we loved so much. But the acute pain will subside.

As for the other aspects of grief:

Life will never be the same. There will be a new normal that includes the loss of the person you loved. You will live your life with the memory of what you have lost, with the memory of the person you loved and the grief at them leaving. They will always be part of you and anything you do will be experienced through the lens of that person’s loss.

I have heard people describe the sadness of their loss, their yearning for a day with the person they loved so much and the pain of that loss.  I have also heard people talk about their love for the person they lost. I have heard them speak with gratitude of the relationship they had with that person. And I have heard them talk about the happy memories they have of time with that person.

People love to reminisce about the good times. Those reminiscences are important. It is important for families to share these memories too, especially when there are children in the family. Family stories are important for children to learn about themselves and to connect to past generations. Those stories help children feel connected with life and are an important template of connection with society.

Remember the scars on your body that are always there. Grief is like a scar. It is always there. But like a physical scar, it fades over time and you learn to live with it.

Each person has their own way of grieving

The first time I encountered the death of a person was when I was 12 and my grandmother suffered a cardiac arrest while my brother and I were visiting. I had just been taught how to perform CPR and no one else knew what to do, so I stepped in and performed CPR on her. The only problem was that when I was taught CPR someone decided children should not be told that the person they work on may die. Instead we were told that all you had to do was bounce on someone’s chest and give them rescue breaths and they would be fine.
So what does a 12 year old believe when instead of being fine the grandmother she just performed CPR dies?
My family did not discuss things. This is despite the fact my mother was a school counsellor. She was woefully inadequate at attuning to or meeting the needs of her children. She didn’t even have the understanding that her 12 year old daughter was not fine, but was actually full of guilt, believing she killed her grandmother because she must have done something wrong. She obviously thought that telling me that “Nanna didn’t want to continue living if repeated heart attacks were to be her life” was somehow comforting. All that told me was that my mother knew I had done the wrong things and I felt even guiltier
Apart from my brother making a comment that he was glad I knew how to perform CPR because he had no idea what to do other than call an ambulance, there was never any mention of what I had done. Further proof to me that the family knew I had done the wrong thing and weren’t going to talk about it. We didn’t talk about Nanna. We didn’t talk about her death. There was an impersonal funeral run by a chaplain who did not know my grandmother. No one cried. My mother prided herself on not showing emotion and we were expected to do the same.
Fast forward seven years and I was a student nurse working on a busy medical ward. There was a woman there with a blood clot in her leg Despite being on treatment for this, the woman developed another blood clot. And then it started spreading. Both legs suddenly were blocked by blood clots. Her veins were full of them. Then they spread to her arteries. Her doctor visited with a look of great concern on his face. This woman was really ill. She was moved to a private room. She was in agony with the blockages of blood flow in her legs.
I arrived at work one sunny Sunday afternoon to find her very ill. She was being given drugs to dissolve the clots, but they weren’t working. The woman’s legs were swollen and a terrible array of colours. Her entire body was turning yellow. She was in terrible pain. Her shocked family were hovering around her bed. We needed to change her sheets and asked the family to wait in the visitor’s room next door. As we changed the sheets on a bed in disarray the registered nurse I was with suddenly told me to get her family in. She recognised something I had never seen before. This woman was about to die.
So the family came in and spent her last moments with her. Then they waited in the visitor’s room as the registered nurse and I washed her, put her in a fresh nightie, and changed the sheets. Some nice flowers and gentle music were the final steps in transforming the room into a peaceful place. We then left the room so her family could come and spend time with her.
It was so wonderful to see that her family’s last memories of her would be looking clean, fresh and peaceful. I learned that day how precious the act of washing the body of someone who has died is. How precious leaving them in peace and in a tranquil setting is. How much a blessing that is to their family.
I left the room to continue my work with a feeling of joy at the precious gift I had been able to give that woman. As I walked down the ward, I saw the woman’s bed room companion walking down the hall. I smiled at her. Her response was a total shock to me. She burst out angrily and abused my lack of caring about this woman’s death. I was shocked. I cared very much that this woman was dead, that is why I was happy. I was happy because she was at peace. I was happy because I had been blessed with the opportunity to do something special to her.
I have never lost that feeling at caring for a dead person. I have the deepest respect for those who have died and am grateful for the opportunity to show that respect.
Not everyone feels that way.
Not everyone grieves the same way.
The woman’s bed room companion felt I was being uncaring because I smiled. For her grief is about crying and being sombre. For me death is just a stage in life. I was raised on the Celtic belief that we pass over to the next realm at death. For me death is not the end.
For me there are two responses to death. There is the love and respect at a person reaching the next stage in their life. Then there is the experience of those who are left.
As a 12 year old I had never encountered the death of a person before. I wondered what it meant. I eventually concluded it meant I would never be able to see my grandmother again. I would never hear her voice or answer the phone to a call from her. I would never be able to tell her things. She was gone and there was a silence where she had been.
By the time I was 19 I had learned so much more about death. I had spent the intervening years reading Elizabeth Kubler Ross and other people who wrote about death. I had taken to heart their observations that our society is removed from death. That we now ignore and sanitise death as much as possible. That most people die in hospitals, hidden away from the world. That we no longer learn to live with death and find meaning in the act of death itself.
At 19 I learned a new aspect of death. The sacredness. The dignity. I had learned that there is the experience of the person who dies. For most death is a peaceful passage from life. But in my years as a nurse I encountered the occasional person who fought death. Whose terror was palpable. In those years I lacked the understanding to be able to help them.
I also learned that there are those who love those who are dying. They are the ones left with the hole in their lives where the person they loved once was. There are the ones left to continue living in a world without their loved one.
Each person who has lost someone they love will respond differently. I noticed as a young nurse the pressure placed on people to follow a particular pattern of behaviour. I noticed how people were judged by their responses. How people would measure how much they cared by their adherence to societal norms around death. This still happens today, but fortunately to a lesser extent. People are better informed now than they used to be. But there are still expectations placed on people.
If you want to help someone who has lost a loved one the best thing you can do is just be with them. Let them know you are willing to listen if they want to talk, but you will just be there. Don’t talk. Don’t offer platitudes like “he is in a better place”, “It is all for the best”, “he is out of pain”, “you can always have another child”, “she wouldn’t have wanted to live with repeated heart attacks”.
In the support you give never forget the children. Children lack the understanding of life that adults have. They don’t know how to express their emotions. They don’t understand what is happening. Make sure you give them the opportunity to ask questions, but only if they want to. Give them space to talk. Demonstrate willingness to listen. Refer them to counselling if you think that will help. Don’t assume they are alright. When I was 12 I was not alright. As the years progressed and I became a Registered Nurse, I wondered why I shook uncontrollably whenever I took part in resuscitating someone. At 39 a patient of mine choked to death, despite my best efforts. In the debriefing I realised it was just like my grandmother’s death. Sadly there was no follow on for me to get help. Some years later I was completing an advanced first aid test and was given a scenario to perform. The scenario was finding a choking person on the floor. I froze. I was unable to do anything. I couldn’t move, talk or understand what was happening. I was thrown back into the death of my patient and further back to my grandmother’s death. Since then I have received my own counselling for that. Had I received counselling at the time of my grandmother’s death I would have been able to process what had happened and not been so impacted.
There are two take aways from this blog.
The first is that everyone’s experience of death and way of grieving is different.
The second is to make sure everyone gets support, including the children. Remember, just because someone appears to get on with life don’t assume they are coping.

What is the right way to grieve?

the tasks of grieving are many and varied and can spill over each other

I was reminded recently of this problem when I had a number of clients come to see me who were all experiencing difficulties with people telling them they “weren’t grieving the right way”.

I find it unbelievable that anyone could say that. I also think it is a terribly unsupportive and cruel thing to say to someone who is grieving.

We are all individuals and we all react to life situations differently. Just because we react differently does not mean we are reacting the wrong way. There are as many ways to grieve as there are bereaved people.

If you have a friend, colleague or family member who is grieving, don’t tell them how to grieve. Be there for them. Ask if they are okay. Listen to them without judgement and without trying to find solutions for their grief. Be there long after the funeral, when most people have lost interest and got on with their lives. Don’t set a time limit on their grief. That means let them be happy however early or late in their grieving they express happiness. That means let them want to hide themselves away from the world to lick their wounds. Just be there and check in on them occasionally. Invite them places but don’t force them to come. Just let them know the door is open should they care to step through it.

Some people want to cry, a lot, when they are grieving. Others cry when you can’t see them and appear happy and settled when you can see them. Some may want to keep the person’s room as a shrine, never touching anything. Others rush to give away all their clothing. Both are right ways to be. If that is what they want.

Some people turn their loved one’s clothes into soft toys, bed covers, clothing so they can remember them. Some people do that for their bereaved friend.

Some people take time off work and spend time sitting in the loved one’s room, or favourite chair, or visiting their favourite place. Others keep working.

The list goes on.

The main point of this is to remember that everyone grieves differently and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

Current research into grief shows that we have tasks we attend to when grieving. There are the tasks of everyday life and there are the tasks of grieving. We need to spend time attending to both types of tasks. Some will spend more time on the everyday life tasks whereas others will spend more time on the grieving tasks. Everyone will spend varying time on both sets of tasks and this will vary from day to day, from month to month. There is no magic formula on how much time is allocated to attend to these tasks. If you see someone going back to work a day or so after their loss, do not tell them they aren’t grieving properly. They are grieving, just differently to your expectations. Obviously, if someone comes back to work and they obviously are not coping, then it may be helpful to check in on them. They may appreciate the opportunity to go somewhere quieter, or even walk outside, and share how they are feeling. If they realise they need to go home that is okay. A person can only know what they can cope with if they try to do things.

Another thing research shows is that, as meaning making people, we need to be able to make meaning from the loss of a loved one. That can mean we do things other than sit around crying. Or we can sit around crying and then want to do what others may consider are very strange things. Grief hits everyone in different ways and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

So if you are grieving, seek out those who will sit with you and listen. These people are the ones that will check in with you to see if you are okay, who will sit and listen without offering solutions, who will be there long after the funeral. These friends will not ask if you are finished grieving yet, nor will they tell you you are not grieving enough. These friends will not set a time limit on your grief and will allow you to feel sad on your loved one’s birthday, anniversary of their death, and other anniversaries. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to have great days and horrible days. Most of all, give yourself as much time as you need. The pain will never go away, but you will learn to live with it and move forward with life.

What is dissociation?

Dissociation is when your mind disconnects from the present moment. It is actually a break in how your mind handles information. Everyone dissociates at differing levels. Everyone can report times when they daydreamed or their mind wandered. These are the “penny for your thoughts” moments when other people notice you aren’t focused on what is happening around you. You may be aware of feeling disconnected from your thoughts, feelings memories and surroundings.

Some people report it is like watching themselves from a distance. Sometimes this may feel like an out of body experience. While you are dissociating, your perception of time can be affected. You may forget things or have gaps in your memory. You may feel a sense of the world not being real. You may even feel you aren’t real. Dissociation has a big impact on your sense of identity. You may feel like you are a different person. You may be aware of your heart pounding, or of feeling light headed. You may feel emotionally numb or separated from what is happening around you. You may have no sensations from your body at all. You may have no memory of how you got to where you are.

Other things you may feel include experiencing tunnel vision, hearing voices, having intense flashbacks that feel like they are happening now, being unable to move. Or you may feel totally involved in a fantasy world that feels like it is real.

Dissociation is not a bad thing. Everyone dissociates at some time or other. Where dissociation becomes a problem is when it interferes with your everyday life.

If you have been through a traumatic event, you are likely to have dissociated. This could be anything from a child being verbally abused by an adult, where the child was unable to escape the abuse and was frightened, shamed and anxious. The child will usually dissociate to cope with the terrifying situation. Children who have been abused will often find it hard to remember events.

If you have been in an accident, such as a car accident. You may remember that time seemed to slow. You may also have trouble remembering what you did after the accident or immediately before. These are all due to dissociation.

Some people have had so much trauma in their childhood or as adults that they develop a dissociative disorder. They often do not know they have it. Some signs you may notice in someone who has a dissociative disorder include: rapid mood swings, trouble remembering personal details, forgetting appointments that have been made or things that have been said or done, changes in behaviour and capabilities from day to day, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, feeling suicidal, self harming, substance abuse, you may appear to space out a lot as well, the world may not feel real, you may feel disconnected from your surroundings or feel you are watching yourself from outside. As well as the symptoms already mentioned, children may have imaginary friends and have learning disabilities.

Why is trauma in childhood so damaging?

When a child is abused or bullied, they are in a powerless situation. Abuse and bullying, which is a form of abuse, are about power. The perpetrator exerting power over the victim. When you are in a powerless situation it is extremely frightening. For an adult, with all the brain development and skills of an adult, it is frightening. But an adult has skills to deal with that. For a child, whose brain is still developing and who has yet to learn all the adult skills, it is even worse. In a powerless situation there is a sense of helplessness, along with fear and pain. The pain may not be physical pain but emotional pain triggers the same pain centres in the brain as physical pain, so the impacts are the same. Shame is also a large part of the response in the victim of abuse. Dissociation is a coping mechanism. We have many ways of coping with things. One of those ways is to avoid the situation. If you are trapped in an abusive situation and cannot escape, the only way to avoid the situation is to dissociate. Disconnecting from the situation is a way of cooping with the terrifying feelings of helplessness, fear, pain and shame.

Some people dissociate more than others. This may be a learned response to previous traumas.

As I mentioned previously, we all dissociate to some extent. It is only when the dissociating interferes with our lives that we need to do something about it.

Many people who have suffered past trauma and dissociated manage life fairly well. They just know that they don’t handle things as well as they should. They may need a lot of alcohol or drugs to cope with life. They may find themselves behaving in ways they don’t like, but feel powerless to stop. They may find they go along with things others want them to do, even though they don’t want to. They may find certain behaviours in others, places, smells, colours trigger feelings and reactions in them but they don’t know why. They may be aware of something wrong with their childhood but not have any memories of anything wrong. They may have a sense of not knowing who they are. They may wonder why they keep finding themself in the same terrible situation with an abusive person and now know why.

So what do I do about it?

If you know or suspect trauma in your past, it is really important to find a qualified counsellor. A counsellor who is not qualified may cause terrible harm. The qualified person will have a counselling, social work or psychology degree. They will also have extra training in trauma and dissociation. One of the best training organisations for this in Australia is the Blue Knot Foundation. They have guidelines for trauma therapists on working with trauma and dissociation. They also run training for professionals. For you the Blue Knot Foundation also runs workshops for trauma survivors.

I am a qualified counsellor with a Bachelor and Master Degree in Counselling. I have also trained with the Blue Knot Foundation for the past eight years and continue to attend workshops annually. I follow the Trauma Guidelines and Dissociation Guidelines in my work.

Trauma work is not short. It will take time. Trauma tends to come in layers. You may work with a counsellor for some time, dealing with the outermost layer. You may then go away for a while and consolidate the healing you have achieved. You may then find more areas (the next layer) to work on. You may go back to counselling, either with the same counsellor or someone else. Healing is a lifelong thing.

If you would like to find out more you can contact me on 0409396608 or email me on nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au.

If you would like to subscribe to my newsletters and training offers, you can email me on nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au and include your name and the subjects you are particularly interested in. You are free to unsubscribe from my mailing list at any time.

Should I view the body of my loved one?

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This is a question I get asked a lot.

There are differing opinions about this.

Some say you should never view the person because you should remember them as they were.

Others say it is important to view the person to be able to realise they are actually dead.

So what should you do?

When I was a nurse I saw many people die and had the privilege of washing their bodies after death. Some people I never saw alive, they died before I was able to meet them. But I still washed their bodies with the reverence of someone I had nursed for some time.

I saw people die in terrible pain. In beds messy from their discomfort. I felt the atmosphere of the room as they died. Sometimes their families were able to be with them. Sometimes the end came so suddenly the family was not there.

One blessing I was able to give the families, was to see their loved one lying peacefully in clean sheets with a peaceful atmosphere in the room. That is how I wanted to see my loved ones who died.

When my grandmother died, no one looked at her body. That was my first encounter with death and I wished I had been able to see her looking peaceful. Instead I had a memory of her lying in her clothes on the floor with her teeth out as I tried to resuscitate her.

When my grandfather died I asked to see his body. I had not been there for his death and I wanted to see him. I was glad I did, although the funeral home had coloured his grey hair black and it did not look like him. It meant a lot to me and still does.

When my mother died I was able to see her in the palliative care unit before her body was taken away. I saw her again in the funeral home because other relatives wanted to see her. It was helpful to see her. And this time the funeral directors left her hair white!

When my father died I was not even told. So I never got to see him or say goodbye.

Different experiences and different outcomes.

My father was forced to see a dead relative when he was a child and he was traumatised by it. For that reason, he was not supportive of anyone in the family seeing a dead relative. He was opposed to seeing any loved one after death.

I saw many families come to visit their loved one in hospital and saw the comfort it gave.

I have seen beautiful things done at funerals when the children affected are encouraged to write or draw something for their loved one and put it in their coffin.

I have heard from people who do not ever want to see their loved one dead. I have also heard from people who found great comfort in seeing their loved one dead.

I have seen people who wanted to view their loved one and were talked out of it. I have heard their regret at not being able to see them and now it is too late.

Ultimately, it is your choice. The difficulty lies with those who seek to convince you that you should or shouldn’t see your loved one. It is important to remember that the arguments presented to you are about the person who speaks the argument and their feelings. They are not about your feelings.

If you are facing that difficult choice. It is best to seek time alone to connect with yourself. To think about what you really want and to listen to your instinct. If you feel it is important to view your loved one. Then do it. If you find it hard to do alone, then find someone who is supportive and bring them along too.

If you have children you would like to be involved in a viewing, it is wise to ensure they talk about their loved one before you go in. Be open. Talk about what the loved one meant to you and encourage them to talk about that to. It can be wonderful for them to draw or write something, or find some little memento to put in the coffin. They may want to put flowers, a picture, a drawing or some other item in the coffin. Model by your behaviour the respect you wish them to have for your loved one and ways to grieve. Give the children a chance to talk about the loved one during the viewing and afterwards. If a child decided they do not want to come in or approach the coffin, let them. Just give them space and time. They may decide after a little while to come closer, or they may be content just knowing they can. It is always important they are given an opportunity to talk about their loved one later. The first death a child encounters will teach them much about how to grieve. So be open with them. Encourage them to talk about the person. Reassure them that you are hurting, but that doesn’t mean they can’t talk to you. Let them see you cry. Let them see you happy. Reassure them that they may want to cry or may want to be happy too. Remember that children keep a lot of what they think hidden so it is important to allow them space to talk if they need to. For both you and the children, don’t be afraid to engage with a counsellor if any of you need that.

As for the viewing, remember, funeral homes have a room set aside for a viewing. These rooms are quiet and peaceful and the funeral staff are very respectful and very aware of your needs. There is usually somewhere quiet you can sit afterwards as well.

Whatever choice you make, be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to take time out to grieve when you need it.

COVID-19 and services

At Plentiful Life Counselling I am ensuring that I am up to date with any new developments and want to ensure the safety of clients, their families and the therapist. I have completed the COVID-19 Infectious Diseases training offered by the Australian Government to ensure I am putting in place the correct safety measures.

Counselling is currently seen as an essential service so I will be doing my best to continue to offer sessions. I recognise and understand the feelings of anxiety, distress and concern many people may be experiencing in relation to COVID-19. During this time it is important to look after yourself and engage your support systems.

I will be continuing to offer sessions. Where possible the sessions will be offered via Zoom Video Conferencing. However, I recognise that for some people video or telephone sessions are not possible or practical so I will continue to offer face to face sessions with the following precautions to minimise risks while I support you:

. There are more robust hygiene processes in place based on information provided by the World Health Organisation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the Australian Government Department of Health (www.health.gov.au).

. I continue to wash my hands between clients and sanitise surfaces.

. I expect clients will wash their hands before their session. There are bathrooms situated on the driveway (men’s toilet) and between the two buildings (women’s toilet). There is soap in the toilets but no paper towel as it keeps getting stolen. It is advisable to bring your own towel/paper towel for drying your hands after washing.

. If you are sick do not come to the appointment. Instead ring me before the appointment time and we can have the session over telephone or video conferencing.

. There will be no handshaking or getting closer than the advised 1.5 metre social distancing gap. I will be using Namaste as a greeting and goodbye instead.

. I will not be using the sand tray due to the difficulty of sanitising between clients. Instead the symbols will be used on an alternative surface. All symbols, including ones that are touched but not used, will be sanitised after the end of each session.

. I ask all clients to be open and honest in communicating about the following risks:

  • Any travel overseas or interstate since 1 January 2020
  • Any flu or cold like symptoms that are currently being experienced
  • You have been instructed to self isolate or self quarantine.
  • You have had contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Thank you for your understanding and patience during this time. I will continue to update you as changes happen and if further changes to sessions occur. Please feel free to contact me to discuss this further and let me know what your preference moving forward would be.

With Gratitude

Nan Cameron

0409396608