Coping with Mother’s day

Mother’s day is a poignant day and for those in grief it is a painful reminder of their loss.

As a Counselling Psychologist I am reminded of the difficulties in navigating such days.  This blog is written to help those who are dreading Mother’s Day and for those supporting a loved one in grief.

This may be a person who has just lost their Mum or someone for whom Mother’s Day is a reminder of the years that have passed since her death. Others may be Mothers who are coping with having lost their child and struggling with the gaping hole left in their life. Some may be Grandparents doing their best to get through the day whilst looking after their grandchild who is now without a Mum. And others will be Widowers who are navigating the horror of getting through yet another day without Mum.

The point I want to underline is that all suffering is equal and valid and all grief responses are personal and unique.

There is no doubt that this is a day that reminds all those in grief of the sadness that they feel at the loss of a precious Mum or a precious child. It is a sadness that does not go away and the poignancy of the day is unavoidable.  The tyranny of our obsession with happiness is impossible to avoid on Mother’s day and the antidote to it is to acknowledge the pain of loss, talk about it and invest our energy into meaningful acts of love and care.

We don’t much talk about loss in everyday life but research in grief suggests that unless we do, and unless we openly process the psychological impact of bereavement, grief becomes delayed or develops into Depression.

With this in mind, I feel it is important to recognise that this can still be a day to mark the value, the love, the care and the meaning of your Mother’s or your Child’s life and to celebrate them and their legacy.  This is a day for looking at the footprints of their life and bringing them into the here and now, in heart and mind.

The loss of a Mum or of a child has a rippling effect and it is always a family affair. Expressing what you feel and sharing it with the family is healing. You are not burdening them. They too feel sad and upset and human beings feel nurtured when their feelings are shared and understood. So trust in being authentic and allow the sadness to have a voice. It is appropriate.

Remind yourself that it is ok to allow the tears to flow. This normalises sadness (which is a good message for the little people in your life) and to openly share the loss. You miss them. You love them. And you are sad they are not here today. And you do want to celebrate their existence, their love and Mothering Sunday is still your day for appreciating them.

So in preparing yourself for Mother’s day, be kind to yourself and don’t feel like you are failing because you are not skipping joyfully through what is a devastating day for you.

After all, there is no right way to do this. What matters is your wellbeing and focusing on that which gives you comfort. It is all in the handling and you will get through it. You got this. But do not expect yourself to go through this alone.

When in grief, the feeling of alienation is profound and nothing feels quite normal. So with the dread of Mothering Sunday hurtling towards you, think about how to get through the day and take time to plan and mark the day in a personal and meaningful manner to you. Don’t bury your feelings about it. Share them. Talk about it and involve those who care to help you through the day.

Some people find it very helpful to mark the day with a ceremony, a memorial act of some kind (whatever that may be – visiting their place of rest, going on a long country walk, visiting their favourite place, writing a card to them and putting it into a memory box, raising balloons into the sky, lighting a candle, arranging a memorial gathering). Think about what would work for you and your family and perhaps (if you feel appropriate) together you can make a plan for the day.

If you need to have some time alone on this day make sure you have it. Spend that time wisely. But remember, isolating yourself won’t help in the long run. Bringing others in and leaning on them to share the day helps to cope with the sadness. So think about what would work for you and make a self-compassionate choice.

If you find that your feelings are spiralling out of control and you are finding it difficult to cope with everyday life, reach out to a professional who can offer you guided support and psychological help.

There is excellent help available. Cruse bereavement @crusecare offer free bereavement counselling nationally and at the @TheCounsellingDirectory you can see who your local counselling professionals are. It is completely normal and acceptable to get help through this. After all that is what resilience is. Allowing yourself to grieve, to share your feelings and to feel heard and loved by those you care about heals.

I am very happy to answer any questions. If you want to get in touch, don’t hesitate.

 

Overcoming Grief

Overcoming grief is a uniquely personal experience and how you cope is a result of:

(a) your own life’s journey

(b) the way in which the loss happened

(c) the degree of unfinished business between you and the person who has passed and

(d) your own relationship with your feelings and life

It is important to trust that you will discover who you are again and you will learn to experience your life in a new kind of normal, which permits you meaning and purpose. Don’t resist this because you are in pain, you are frightened and you are angry. You will need time. 

Grief, is incredibly difficult because our normal way of being is no longer possible, and most people have to renegotiate a new sense of who they are and how they will carry on living in the face of their new reality.

This experience is a psychological awakening to life. To what it means to live and to love. It is after all because we love that we feel the agony of loss.

In order to cope with grief and heal we must pay attention to what our body, heart and mind are saying. 

Often my clients come to me because they feel fearful. Grief does bring up fear in almost everyone. It is terrifying to know that you can die, your loved ones can die, and nobody is safe from mortality. Most of us go about our daily lives not really bearing this in mind at all until death comes into our life. I’m not suggesting that we ought to live in fear of death. Not at all. I am saying the opposite. The paradox of life is that when we learn to embrace the end, we can feel the urgency to make our moments count, our life matter. People at the end of life often talk about the depth of meaning death has brought to them. To live a fulfilling and meaningful life also helps face death.

Coping with grief is complicated and here are some of my suggestions to help you cope.

  • Don’t block out what you are feeling. Let the pain out.  Make time to feel the grief and express it. Weep, shout, cry, go on long stomping walks, dance it out, write. Do that which helps you process the pain.
  • Trust in your capacity to heal yourself. It may feel like it will never stop. It will. The longer you bottle it up, the more pronounced the pain becomes and it will find other ways to seep out. It will become Depression, Anxiety, Addiction. It is normal to feel waves of sadness, unexpected tears and crying at unusual times. This is your grief.
  • Don’t try being superman or superwoman. You are not. Accept that you feel vulnerable and let those closest to you know that you are finding it hard and that there will be days when you may need their practical support.
  • Lean on people who get you. Even if it is just one person, be kind to yourself like that.
  • Don’t expend energy on people who don’t understand you. Grief is exhausting. You must put your own needs first. It’s ok to stop being the pleaser, the life and soul of the party, the joker.
  • If you have to keep the show going, you have children or work demands, be kind to you and make sure you find some time for you even if it is a little bit of time every week. Do something for you. You matter and you can, in that time, let your feelings come out. It is healing.
  • Don’t forget the basics – look after your body. Walk. Sleep. Eat.
  • Turn to nature. The healing power of connecting with something bigger than you is not to be underestimated. Seek out places that nourish your connection to being in the world.
  • Find meaningful life projects and don’t forget that returning to work can be a great buffer to your sadness.
  • Spend time nurturing the relationships that matter to you. 
  • Manage your expectations. You will heal from grief when you have found a way to feel secure in who you are, how you are and in what gives you meaning. This wont happen unless you work at it. It cant be done in a certain timeframe. You will need lots of time to get there. That is normal.
  • If you are struggling to cope, seek help. You are human and help is available.
  • You can contact me, or your Gp. Get help to support you through this incredibly profound life changing experience.

Lessons in grief

Working with bereaved clients has taught me that a deeply enduring and difficult aspect of grief, is the complicated impact it has on time.  Most of us take time for granted. But in loss what time is and how it is experienced shifts disturbingly.

Not only has the bereaved lost a most significant and important person in their life whom they miss terribly but they have also lost their sense of how to be, their permit to be safe and fulfilled in time and their freedom to live out their happy days.

With the death of a loved one comes the disappearance of psychologically linear time.  Time feels weird, lost, disorientating, dislocating, confusing and fluid. People in grief find themselves in a seemingly stuck repetitive loop going over again and again what happened, how it happened. And longingly catching themselves remembering how they used to be when life was uncomplicated and everything was about having a decent enough time. The absurdity of what people say albeit in a well intended way, strikes hard.

“Oh time heals”  “life goes on” “you’ll get over it in time” “you’ll meet someone new in time”.  What a societal blindspot we have. The psychiatric and psychological professions have determined what is Normal Grief, what is Major Depression and what is Delayed or Complicated Grief and the timeframes allocated for each seem off. As a society we don’t have compassionate leave laws – how much time you have off depends on your employer and your GP – and we don’t discuss or help or prepare children to cope with bereavement when thousands and thousands of children across the UK will be impacted by loss. How strange. It strikes me that we as a society are heavily involved in pretending that life is always good. That in 2 years max everybody should be over their losses. Because we tell ourselves time heals.

Time doesn’t heal. People heal themselves if they learn how to exist meaningfully in time again. But this is hard and a lot of people get stuck, lost and frightened.

I feel that one of my jobs with grieving families is to help them step into time. Think about what matters. Think about how they matter. This is by no means easy. In a lot of cases, it is frightening, painful, enraging and totally exhausting. How can they give themselves permission to have time, to enjoy time, to make something happy and joyful of their time when their loved one doesn’t have this.

There is however a choice to be made. Bereaved people have not died. They still have life and with that comes the freedom to choose how to give time meaning or they can turn away, and just count minutes and hours. But what’s the point to that?

Learning to appreciate, nurture and take care of time is a healing step. To pay attention to that which nurtures purpose, nourishes self worth and builds meaning is a key aspect of grief work.

Choosing life. Appreciating that time won’t always be available and the choice to choose well is there.

 

World Mental Health Day – Recovery from trauma is about adaptation

It’s World Mental Health Day today and it is important to me as a psychologist, mother, wife, daughter, sister and friend to contribute to the debates about ending the stigma surrounding Mental Health and share some thoughts and guidance on how to cope with trauma. I am reading an excellent book at the moment by the wonderful Edith Eger. It’s called “The Choice” and I love it.  In it she advises that when we don’t allow ourselves to process and grieve our losses, our wounds and our disappointments the traumatic experiences of the past become like a prison and we keep reliving them. It is a psychological prison which locks us up in fear, anxiety, feelings of helplessness, panic, anger and frustration.

When a traumatic event impacts us we don’t have to choose to remain in a state of victimhood. There is nothing wrong with being a victim. What I mean is that there is a difference between victimisation (what others or circumstances do to us) and victimhood (which is about choosing to remain imprisoned by this event). I do appreciate that when you are thrown into this ontologically awake state of being in terror, it is really not something that feels like a choice. When I say choice, I mean it is an existential choice to invest your psychological energy into looking after you. Reflecting on what it is like for you to be you, trusting in the life processes and allowing yourself to heal. In my view taking an anxiolytic drug, or antidepressant drug won’t heal your pain. It will numb it. I am not against meds. They certainly help and can get people through the day. It is however, the reflective process – allowing yourself to trust that it is ok to look inwards and pay attention to your lived experience that is healing. We are not objects. We are beings and when a traumatic event happens we experience it in our core, through our beingness. Avoiding it makes little sense and healing comes from exercising the freedom to choose meaning. As Viktor Frankl said in “Man’s search for meaning” human beings have the capacity to face adversity and despair in a dignified and meaningful way.

Having said all that I do want to state that I do appreciate navigating trauma is tough and everybody experiences it differently. There is no right way to feel after a traumatic event. It’s personal. It’s unique to the circumstances of your life and what it’s actually like to have been you. The medicalisation of PTSD and human suffering has led to a pathologizing of what to me seems like an inevitable part of living. Is it possible to go through life without experiencing pain, loss, fear and some kind of trauma and mental anguish? I don’t think so.

What is important is the degree to which we allow ourselves to embrace our experience of the past.  Horrific, traumatic events happen but we don’t have to be imprisoned by them. We have a choice to face it, to share it, to process the emotional pain of it, to have it witnessed by others, to make sense of what now, to nourish our sense of who we are and how we matter. Everybody has the potential to adapt to traumatic life events. I am not suggesting this is easy. A lot of people need some guided support. But counselling does help with this.

A lot of people I work with in my practice, experience trauma as a devastating experience which rips their sense of who they are apart. They describe being caught up in paralysing fear. Anxious that life will never feel safe and normal again. Living with an impending or immediate sense of terror. It’s exhausting and invisible.

It’s important to remember that an unexpected, sudden, untimely and utterly devastating traumatic event is an experience that has a profound effect on the whole of your being, affecting how you think, feel about life, and how you continue to be in the face of such an event. Traumatised people find themselves going through a deep personal change that taps into all dimensions of their being.

When a traumatic event happens the first thing to happen is the embodied reaction. The physical dimension of trauma evokes a powerful bodily reaction which is completely normal. The body reacts by throwing the traumatised person into a state of arresting and paralysing shock, characterised by an intense feeling of disbelief and general numbness. Often people traumatized describe shaking, trembling, feeling numb, vomiting, crying uncontrollably, screaming, sitting stunned, silent, not feeling anything for ages, not crying but feeling a paralysing shock. All embodied reactions to trauma are normal.

The mind experiences a cognitive arrest, where the person traumatised does not feel that he/she knows how to be, what to say, what to think, and how to make sense of the new state of life. The overwhelming shock at the reality of the loss is imbued with a disorientating sense of being empty, blank and feeling alienated.

Many people suffering such a trauma, feel frightened by the intensity of their embodied response and get stuck in modes which are about pushing the anxiety of such pain away and down.

This doesn’t help. It builds and eventually pours out in other psychological disturbance. We are obsessed at the moment about productive recovery. Healing from trauma is about learning to integrate the experiences of the past into a coherent narrative about life, about our sense of self and about the future. Becoming engaged in meaningful relationships with others and nourishing our relationship with ourself is key. Finding a meaningful life project also is an excellent buffer.

If you are navigating such trauma – take pause, stock and get talking with someone who is prepared to listen. It’s vital you don’t expect yourself to go through this alone. If you need professional help invest in it. It is an investment into your life, your self. You matter.

To find a Counsellor, Psychologist, Psychotherapist take a look at the following websites:

http://www.counselling-directory.org.uk

http://www.bacp.co.uk

http://www.bps.org.uk

http://www.existentialanalysis.org.uk

http://www.psychotherapy.org.uk