The impact of trauma and what happens when it is not treated by a trained trauma professional.

This story, as with all my blogs, observes the privacy of the individuals written about. Names are changed, stories are altered, and anything that might identify the individuals is changed.

Veronica, who prefers to be called Ronnie, is a woman around the age of 40. Her life has not turned out as she had hoped. When she was 15 her sister’s husband sexually abused her on a number of occasions. She was devastated and confused. Her family was one where unpleasant things were not discussed, so she kept quiet about it. It was only when she was 19 that she felt able to share and told her mother what had happened. Her mother’s reaction was not pleasant. She told Ronnie she had to keep quiet about what had happened.

Ronnie found herself without a voice. Having to maintain the family image and keep her voice suppressed was devastating to her.

This is one of the damaging aspects of trauma, especially sexual trauma. Having your needs denied. Not being given the comfort and support you need. Being denied the right to be devastated at the invasion of your body.

Ronnie learned to keep it quiet. She saw professionals to help her, and there was some help, but ultimately it failed her, because the professionals were not trauma informed and trained.

Today Ronnie is frightened of relationships. She lives with her mother. She dresses in a masculine way and maintains a level of obesity she considers safe. She thinks her trauma recovery is complete but it is far from that.

Adelle started working for the same company as Ronnie. She heard some of Ronnie’s story and offered her empathy. Adelle had her own trauma history of physical, sexual and emotional abuse throughout her childhood. Adelle offered Ronnie empathy and friendship.

During one project, Ronnie was in charge and gave Adelle a task to complete that was not in the project documentation. This put Adelle in a difficult situation, because her task was effectively non existent. But she was working on this task with three other people and Ronnie told her it was alright. One of the team was working on the main task as well. Over time one team member became ill and had to leave. Then the team member working on the main task left the company. The remaining team member was offered a role on the main task as well. This left Adelle as the only person working on a task that had become non existent. In all the time Adelle had been on this team she had never been given anything to do. It became obvious to her that Ronnie had no role for her. She needed clarification.

When Adelle attended to her trauma history, she saw high quality trauma informed and trained practitioners. She worked somatically with the trauma stored in her body. She learned to reconnect with her body and her spirituality (her sense of “who am I”). She found her voice and learned to express herself in a healthy way.

This was in contrast to Ronnie who was told by her family to not talk about the ‘nastiness’ and who had seen a psychologist who gave her CBT and told to adhere to the CBT principles.

CBT has its uses, but it is not useful for treating trauma in the first two stages. In those stages, the trauma is buried way below the level of conscious memory. CBT works on conscious memory. It can be useful in the third stage of trauma recovery when you are trying to change the script running in your head. But it cannot help earlier than that.

Ronnie was unable to express any feelings/emotions, despite the fact she had studied drama through school and into university. Ronnie was actually terrified of any feelings or emotions. She also lacked empathy for other people because of her fear of connecting with other people’s feelings.

Adelle decided she needed to clarify her situation. Ronnie was a difficult person to communicate with and tended to tell Adelle things that she then forgot about later. Ronnie was also not in the office often, and when she was it was difficult to find her available to talk to. So Adelle decided to send her a polite email.

As the two had shared some of their difficulties, Adelle was honest about the emotions she was feeling. She used I messages, did not accuse Ronnie of any wrong doing, admitted she was upset and mentioned the emotions she felt, and ended with the statement that was not sure what she should do.

Ronnie’s response was devastating to her. Ronnie wrote back a cold, disinterested response. There was no empathy, no “I’m sorry you are feeling upset”, just a very cold if you want to talk about this I will be available in 5 days time. Contact me to arrange an appointment.

Adelle later told me that if she had included some statement of empathy it would have been okay. If she had said, for example, “I am sorry you are feeling upset about the changes, I can’t meet with you for another five days, could we meet at xtime in xplace and discuss this?” But there was none of that.

Ronnie’s disinterested communication left Adelle feeling invisible, worthless, hopeless and then angry. It fed into her childhood trauma. She left it a few weeks then contacted Ronnie again saying how disappointed she was at Ronnie’s cold unempathic response.

Ronnie replied that her psychologist had told her not to reply to such a “highly emotive written correspondence. These matters are best handled in an open and transparent way, this forum is not.”

Adelle wondered which message Ronnie was referring to. Her message was not “highly emotive”. She brought the message to me. It was not emotive. She stated the facts quite calmly and only mentioned her feelings in the format “when this happened I felt ….”. This is a healthy way to express emotions and own them.

I wonder if Ronnie’s psychologist said this at all. A lot of people hide behind “professional advice” when it is actually their fears driving them and they have not sought professional advice.

Ronnie behaved in the way her family taught her to behave all those years ago when she was told to keep quiet about the abuse. She learned to fear emotions and feelings and found it frightening when she encountered such emotions in other people. She was even frightened of people discussing feelings. This is because she has never attended to her trauma properly.

It is also likely that Ronnie had realised this extra task was impossible to work on and did not know how to tell Adelle that she didn’t have any work for her. It is sad, because Ronnie carries the guilt and shame of what she did, not Adelle.

Ronnie still has to work with Adelle. Adelle has dealt with the hurt, we worked on a meditation somatic technique I often use with clients to help them transform the hurt they feel.

Adelle is fine. But she will never have the same relationship with Ronnie again. She has no respect for Ronnie. She does not like Ronnie’s cold behaviour. She will continue to work with Ronnie but it will be on a very formal footing. There will be no warmth and friendliness, just formality. I think Ronnie will find that hard. Sadly, she will not know how to mend the breach and Adelle is healthy enough to have made a decision to not mind if the breach is never mended. Working with Adelle is going to be very uncomfortable for her.

In the next blog I will talk about how trauma counsellors should work.

New ways of looking at my grief

We all know that losing someone you love is devastating. Grief is often seen as being about coming to terms with that specific loss. But there is much more to grief than just losing the physical presence of someone you love.

There is the relationship that is gone. The companionship, the sharing, the mutual experiences and memories, the physical presence of that person.

You no longer hear their voice, their laughter, the sound of them breathing.

You no longer smell them or see the way their face crinkles when they are concentrating. You miss the way they greeted you when you had been apart.

You miss the feeling of them touching you. There are so many aspects of that person’s physical presence that you have lost.

There are also the unresolved issues. Maybe you feel guilty at harsh words you said to them. Maybe you feel angry at something they did. Maybe you feel you never got that chance to say goodbye.

Martha felt guilty that she had left her husband in the hospital when he begged her not to go. She was exhausted and the hospital provided no facilities for her to stay with her husband. She had also been physically caring for him for some time and leaving him in hospital was a necessary physical break for her.

A few weeks after being hospitalised, Martha’s husband died. Now she carried a terrible guilt at his death. Instead of recapturing the life she had once had, she became physically unable to carry out the simplest tasks. Her physical health deteriorated.

She believed she had no right to live a healthy life when she had left her physically disabled husband alone in his hospital room.

Allanah was angry. Her mother had manipulated and controlled her throughout her life.

As a child her mother had failed to provide her with the support she needed through all the important moments in her life. As an adult she had struggled to discover her capabilities ad believe them. She also struggled with her mother’s conditional love.

Now her mother was dead she found herself full of anger at the things her mother had done to her.

In loss there is also the future that is lost. The future you had together. The vision you had of that future. The expectations of life events and other joys you looked forward to.

Nella had lost her husband in their mid fifties. They had plans for the life ahead. Their daughter had just married and they looked forward to the time they would retire and enjoy travelling and being grandparents.

But her husband had died and now the first grandchild was due.

Nella wouldn’t allow herself to be excited by the imminent arrived of this grandchild. To her it felt like a betrayal of her husband. It seemed so unfair that he was missing all the excitement of being grandparents.

If she was prepared to admit it, it also seemed unfair that she had lost the future they had planned together.

There are the changes in your life. If the person you lost was a financial support then you have changed circumstances that may force you to move, or change employment. That is a loss that is not always acknowledged.

Hayley and her partner ran a business. He was a skilled tradesman and in high demand. She was the admin for the business. Now he was dead and the business was gone. Instead of continuing until retirement in business together, Hayley had to find a new job. She couldn’t afford the mortgage repayments on her new income and had to sell the house they planned to retire in.

Her whole future was destroyed and she faced the uncertainty of a future that was unrecognisable from the one she envisaged.

The worst thing was the loneliness of coming home to an empty house. If she was honest, she would admit she resented the changes her partner’s death had caused.

In loss there is also learning to live on your own.

Maybe you now come home to a new empty house instead of one your partner lived in.

Maybe you walk past your child’s empty room and it hits you how much you miss the noise that came from there.

Maybe you see something funny happen and your first instinct is to pick up the phone and call the person, then realise you can’t do that anymore. And that hurts.

Mark missed being able to share the events of the day with his brother. They always had a laugh together at things that happened. And when things were difficult, his brother was always willing to listen and offer support.

He felt so lost at the end of such an important part of his life.

These things I have mentioned are the most common other losses surrounding the death of a loved one.

There are more that are unique to each individual.

They can be difficult to recognise as grief.

If you are experiencing them, you may feel you don’t have the right to hurt this way. But all the things I have described are important aspects of grieving the loss of a loved one.

At this time it is so important to recognise the emotions you are experiencing. It is essential you recognise your right to feel those emotions. You are not wrong to feel the emotions.

It is also important to nurture yourself, to be kind to yourself. You are going through a hard time and you need compassion and support. The first person to give you that is you.

Feeling unsafe in your own home

Rachel came to see me because she had an incident where someone had parked on her front lawn and she felt threatened. Actually she felt terrified.

She had to do something to protect herself because this car was a threat. She didn’t know why, just that it was a threat to her safety and no one was going to defend her or protect her.

She rang council who told her she had to talk to the police. She was terrified to make a complaint but felt she had to. It was the lesser of two evils.

She talked to the police and was given an unhelpful response.

She felt frightened and alone, despite the fact her husband was in the house with her.

She couldn’t understand what was happening to her.

Her heart was racing. She was terrified to move out of a room deep in her house where she had gone for refuge.

She found herself crying uncontrollably.

She was terrified of the car on her front lawn.

She was terrified of complaining to council.

She was terrified of complaining to the police.

She was terrified of her neighbours abusing her for complaining.

She had just justification for the last fear. Her neighbours had threatened her in the past, and wrongly accused her of making complaints against them. These neighbours had brought all the other neighbours in her tiny street on side so she was abused or avoided by the neighbours.

When Rachel came to see me she was still shaking. She couldn’t understand her reaction.

As she talked I asked her if anything in the past came to mind.

She thought about it and said yes.

There was an incident when she was being sexually abused by a boy in her class. He kept touching her inappropriately and she had asked him to stop. She had even gone to her mother for help.

Her mother did not take it seriously and had told her she had to hit the boy to make him stop.

In classes he was in with her she sat at the front of the class in front of the teacher. No one was sitting with her so this boy would come and sit with her.

Eventually she got so desperate she hit the boy with a ruler. The teacher caught her hitting him and told her to stop.

Rachel courageously told the teacher she would stop hitting the boy when he stopped sexually touching her.

The teacher sent Rachel and the boy together, unaccompanied, to the subject master.

On the way there the boy told her she had to keep quiet about what he was doing.

Once there the master put them both in his office and asked them what was going on.

The boy started to say it was just nothing when Rachel courageously cut in and told the master what the boy had been doing to her for months.

The master sent Rachel out of the room and back to the classroom.

She never knew what happened to the boy, whether he was punished or not.

What did happen to Rachel was that the entire class and their friends in other classes bullied Rachel.

Every moment at school was full of name calling such as “Dobber” “C###” “slut” and threats to her personal safety.

At no time did her parents, teachers, or anyone else at the school debrief her, check in on her, or step in to protect her from the bullying or make sure she had help over the sexual abuse.

She was hurt, violated, frightened, ostracised and terrified.

She learned that her world was not a safe place.

She learned that she would always be on her own and no one would defend her.

She learned that everyone else was against her.

She learned that boundary infringements, whether on her personal body space or personal home space, where dangerous and reasons for terror.

So it was not surprising that Rachel was terrified.

We were able to work together to help Rachel heal the wound from the sexual abuse and the bullying.

We were able to work together to help Rachel reenvisage her world as a safer place.

We were able to work together to help Rachel reconnect with other people in a safe way.

We were able to work together to help Rachel learn that most people were for her.

Sadly for Rachel, her neighbours were frightened of getting involved in a disagreement with her neighbour. They thought if they sat on the fence and “didn’t get involved” they were being impartial. That of course is not true.

To the mouse being crushed by the elephant the fence sitter is siding with the elephant because they are allowing the abuse to continue.

Rachel realised most of her neighbours were too frightened of her neighbour to speak to her. It was only two sets of closer neighbours who were abusive.

Rachel learned to separate what was happening in her street from the past abuse and bullying.

It took a long time. But Rachel was able to heal that trigger.

When working with trauma there is no quick fix. It takes time and patience to heal trauma.

There are a number of different techniques to help heal trauma. These range from somatic (body) techniques through art and sand play to EFT and EMDR.

To heal trauma you need to see a properly trained counsellor who knows what they are doing. I am trauma trained and very experienced in helping people.

To heal trauma you need to know that it takes time. There will not be just one visit, there will be many.

If you would like to talk to me about how I can help you with your trauma, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au

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.