Why Counsel children and adolescents in grief and loss?

Children need opportunities to process grief and loss.

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

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

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

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

The wound is the place where the light enters you

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

The individuality of grief

Grief is an individual thing

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

Healing is coming to terms with things as they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the long term, expect healing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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