Death, the Avoided Topic: How to work with Loss.
During the past year, I have experienced two close deaths (ok, one was a pet). It’s taken time to fully appreciate the impact this has had on me. I’ve learned some fundamental lessons throughout this process, and how some of my narratives about death have been informed by my background, and society’s expectations of the expression of death. Most importantly, it has allowed me to see that everyone’s experience of death is different, and there is not a right or wrong way to express grief.
Working with recently bereaved clients has sometimes been a challenge for me as a therapist. Of course, I feel their pain, the pain that loss brings, and I hope I have been sensitive and compassionate. But, the truth is, my personal experience with death has been limited.
It was only when my young cat died last summer followed by my mother in September that I started to fully appreciate the expression of grief. It is a complicated process, often confusing and sometimes very messy with no right or wrong way to express emotions and feelings.
It’s hard to write this, but my experience at the time was I felt more upset over my cat’s death than my mother’s. It’s not because I didn’t have a good relationship with my mother, in fact, we had an excellent relationship: I adored her, and she adored me. Was there something wrong with me? No. She was 93 years old, and she died; I accepted this fact and was grateful that she died quickly without any prolonged illness.
Obviously, I felt sad and missed not seeing and speaking to her, but that’s it. That’s all I felt, and it holds true to this day. I mention this because after her death I had letters and conversations with friends saying how sorry they were and how upset and devastated “I must be”. This caught me off guard because it wasn’t how I felt, and I began to feel as if I was experiencing death ‘in the wrong way’. It was only when I was able to take accept my feelings that I was able to say “actually I don’t feel that way, I felt this way”, and this felt far more aligned to how I was feeling.
This has undoubtedly helped inform me to think differently when working with individuals and couples. It reminds me to stop assuming anything and allows me to create more space with clients to encourage them to say what’s in their hearts or the unsayable. It has also taught me to know when it’s better to steer away from and when to gently push forward more difficult conversations. Most importantly, it’s taught me to honour one’s own process and never to judge or think there is a right or wrong way to get through grief.
Useful things to say/do after someone has died:
. Be physically present, unless you are specifically told: “I don’t want you here”.
Be attuned, be there to take care of the tedious things like cooking, cleaning, helping in what’s needed.
Don’t ask for instructions (that takes energy); see what is needed and do it.
If you’re unable (for any reason) not to be supportive or present, address it with the person. It’s never too late to talk about it and to heal painful and complicated feelings between friends or relatives.
Talk about the person who has died. Tell amusing or meaning stories that you remember. Also, don’t compare your own experience with death but do say what was helpful to you at that time.
As time passes, help bring them slowly back into life. Invite them out and understand if they need to cancel but always continue to ask. Do not expect them to be ok until they are ready to be ok. No judgement, just acceptance to, however that person needs to be.