Ok, all my stars have aligned and I have some time to sit down and look at the work T2 and I did on grief this week.
I’ve written on here before about my difficulties around endings. I cope incredibly badly with them – all endings, not just ones with people I care about or places I’ve loved. I hate it when builders finish work on the house and leave, I hate it when TV series end… clearly there are some endings much worse than others, but it is a universal theme when something ends – that I have a bit of a meltdown.
This issue has become really important since I’ve been in therapy – I’m on my 4th and 5th Ts now, so there have been three endings already that have left me reeling. The ending of my degree, and thus the end of my time in the service, has been held up throughout my time at uni as a way to ‘do it right’. Unfortunately, the person who held such certainty that this was possible, we ended last summer – ironically, really badly! Ha. Since then, I’m into the countdown and have been trying to set it up to be perfect. So, I wanted to spend some time looking at grief (which it ultimately feels like for me – I have no differentiation between endings and death – and from experience, I find death easier because it is final. Endings are harder when their life continues, just without me in it. Wow, I feel weird writing that down).
For me, the overall problem centres around lack of control, an inability to accept ‘it’s over’, and also having no healthy and effective ways to manage the pain that inevitably comes around endings. When all these things come together, I either shut down from endings completely, appearing cold and unemotional, or I am overly emotional and have usually a couple of horrifically upset days where I cannot cope, followed by (what feels like) an unbelievably long period of ‘mourning’ – which knocks me for six for a long time.
I’m not naive enough to believe that I’m ‘fixed’ after one session talking about it. If anything, I’m probably less fixed than I was before I started – it brought up a lot that I wasn’t necessarily connecting before, and it has been an emotional week off the back of that. T2 had a big list of questions she wanted to talk to/with me about – she made notes but kept the sheet, I guess to dicuss more this week. So, really, all we did this week was talk about my experiences of grief, and then the theory surrounding grief. I find it much easier to accept what is happening to me if I understand the theory behind it. Saying it’s all we did is unfair – that’s loads! But it won’t be complete just yet.
The first thing T2 asked me is to tell her about a positive ending I’ve had before. I balked – positive endings? They don’t happen! I literally could not name a positive human ending – apart from one with my previous T (who left to have a baby) which was positive in the sense that our final session was positive – but I fell apart a few days later and it took a very long time to rebalance. So the only ‘positive’ endings that I can think of are endings that have, well, that have resulted in death. We’ve been unlucky enough to lose a few animals this year, it is very important for me to be there for the end as it gives me a real closure. But all our animals, I’ve been able to prepare, spend all the time I’ve needed with them, ‘said’ everything I’ve needed to say, and then been there to know that the ending was as quick and painless as possible. I always say what I need them to hear, after the end – for my darling dog, I told her everything she meant, that we’d never forget everything she did for us… it’s important to me that I feel like I’ve said everything I need to. But the bit that makes it easiest – their life doesn’t carry on – only mine. They don’t carry on to lead a life I don’t know about – that I’m not part of.
Which leads to the answer of T2’s next question – what makes endings bad, or in a more positive light, what would make an ending ‘perfect’? Endings are bad when I haven’t had time to prepare (or more likely, I don’t feel like I’ve had enough time) – I need to feel like I’ve thought everything through, I’ve understood and processed. I need time, ideally, for Little to understand, too – but the more painful the ending, the harder it is for Little to understand. I would ideally have had the opportunity to say everything I needed to say – not just what I thought was appropriate, but all my thoughts that I consider inappropriate – and so many of these thoughts are really Little’s. In my ending with my T who was pregnant, I felt we were close and because we’d had basically 9months to prepare, I’d shared everything I needed to. Our last session was a mixture of horrid and beautiful – we both cried, I was so open with all the irrational and silly thoughts as well as the logical, and it was so desperately painful but still, perfect. And if we could magic up a ‘perfect’ mixture, the people who I have to leave, or who have to leave me, would self-combust so that I would never have to think about their life continuing without me; I would never have to consider that they won’t be missing me, or that they’d be pleased to be without me, or that they’d have forgotten about me. Because when, in those awful few days, I’m missing them and thinking about them constantly, the thoughts that they would have moved on straight away, will kill me.
Despite all of this, the first thing T2 said to me was that endings are painful. They hurt – they’re meant to. They’re messy, they’re not ever going to be perfect because they’re MEANT to hurt. If they didn’t hurt, it means you never had anything good! So I guess the first, perhaps most important step is acceptance. If I can accept it’s going to hurt, accept that it will feel messy, accept that it’s normal to feel all these things, and thus let go of the control I am desperate to have over the situation, maybe the pain will be… a little easier to bear? Acceptance seems key.
I found throughout our session that I kept talking about forgetting – both being forgotten, and forgetting what we did, what I learnt etc. I think I sometimes forget as a protection mechanism – it hurts less, than constantly bringing a person to mind. But trying to squash all the emotion all and the good down into a smaller space… it doesn’t work, it’s like trying to squish a spring into a box – sometimes you can control it, but sometimes it pings out when you’re least expecting it, and when that happens it’s a horrible shock. T2 showed me a theory, written by a woman called Lois Tonkin – her article was published in “Bereavement Care” Vol 15 Issue 1, called “Growing Around Grief” – it’s hard to get hold of a copy without a library login, so here is my bastardised version (I would take a picture of the picture T2 gave me but I’m worried about getting into trouble!). Tonkin (1996) suggested that:
It used to be thought that grief would diminish over time, eventually becoming small and manageable. Tonkin suggested that the grief itself stays the same size – but life expands, so that the grief becomes less suffocating. If you imagine a tennis ball in a soup tin, there wouldn’t be very much space – the tennis ball would be stifling and all-encompassing. But if, as time went on, you moved that tennis ball to a biscuit tin, or something even bigger, the grief hasn’t changed size – it’s just become less intense, less overwhelming and less suffocating.
I really like this – T2 was careful to say it was only an opinion, just one theorist’s view – but I like it. It lets me believe that I can leave uni, leave this support, but I don’t have to forget it, or minimise it. I don’t have to pretend it wasn’t important, or at times the thing that kept me alive. And it lets me imagine my life as getting bigger and better from here – not smaller, or sadder. I really, really like it and though I understand T2 saying is it just one view, it’s a view that makes me feel less panicked just seeing this as a tennis ball in a soup tin.
The second ‘model’ T2 showed me was Stoebe and Schut’s “Dual Process Model of Grief” (1999). I don’t like this one as much, it’s a bit too academic for my poor brain 😛 but here it is:
As I understand it, they suggested that both the ‘Loss’ activities and the ‘Restoration’ activities are normal and very important for recovering from a bereavement. The zigzag in the middle is meant to suggest that it is also normal to bounce back and forth between the two – T2 described it as why you can have days where all you can do is sit and cry, but then days where you’re happy and outgoing and doing fine. I’m not sure I really understand how one is then meant to move forward from this – as presumably this constant bouncing is not helpful nor healthy – so I don’t ‘get’ this as a way forward long term. But I do love the acknowledgement that going back and forth between ‘wow, I’m ok!’ and ‘oh gosh my world is ending’ is normal and ok. It is comforting to hear that other people do this, too – that I am not alone in flying between a number of different emotions and back again. That’s wonderful to hear.
So, it’s just a start but it’s a good one. To believe that my reactions are normal (or, if not ‘normal’, at least there is more than one weirdo in the world reacting just like me otherwise these people wouldn’t have written a theory!), and that though it is going to hurt like crap, I don’t have to minimise it or ‘get over it’, but that I can hold what I’ve got and take it forward into something different but bigger and better and not only can it come too, but maybe what I’ve done here in this therapy can shape what happens next for me. Maybe, maybe. I’m really looking forward to carrying this on this week.