How to cope with difficult circumstances & how therapy might help
By now we have all celebrated not only Christmas and the festivities that go along with that, but also New Year which is a societally acknowledged line-in-the-sand for many cultures to recognise the passing of the year - to review our achievements and mistakes, things we might do differently - and any progress which we have made toward personal goals.
For most of us - at some point in our lives - this will also mean acknowledging the death of a loved one, be they a friend, colleague, family member or partner. Someone who touched our lives in some way (not always positively) and we observe how life is without them. Knowing that they will not see this year that we find ourselves in, and how we can move on doing justice to their memory.
For those who grieve for an individual who has had a positive impact on their life - for example a helpful parent, a faithful old friend, a pleasant work colleague who we might have spent years sitting next to in our office sharing our days - whomsoever they were, there is a sadness to their loss. We grieve not only for them as an individual, but for the plans which we might have had with them - or for the plans that they held for themselves.
I worked with a client recently who was working through the death of a family member who had their life cut short by tragic circumstances. The client had a busy life at the time of the tragedy with their own children and a partner who was very ill - they didn't have time day-to-day to grieve the loss of that person who had meant so much to them. And so they arrived at therapy twenty years later with a sense of unease and sadness in their life generally that they could not put a finger on. It took a short while for the client to tap into the source of their longstanding grief. And while we might be reticent to open up a wound that seems healed - it was necessary for this person to look into the box of memories that they held for this person, and to fully grieve the loss that they had suffered - before they could move on in their life.
I suspect this is a common thread for many of us.
But what if the person who has died was not such a benevolent influence on our lives? Worse - what if they did us harm? What if we hated them and - we may even be ashamed to say - we are glad they have died? The important thing to observe here that death is not the cloth with which the deceased gets to wipe the slate clean and be exonerated of any mistakes or harm that they might have inflicted on another. To feel relief at the end of engaging with someone who made us unhappy or feel bad about ourselves is a common feeling. It's a human feeling. And one that I don't believe we should be ashamed of. In this case - talking about the reasons why we feel such relief in the absence of a negative relationship can work to ease any shame or guilt that we might feel by holding these feelings. It's something that comes up in therapy a lot - where we can say the very thing that we fear might be too shameful for even our closest friend. To say "I'm glad that my mother is dead, she treated me terribly and I have never recovered from the abuse that I received from her all my life" is a sentence of such weight and importance that it might seem shocking to those who cannot empathise. But in therapy, these "taboo" feelings and how we process them are the very making of the work. And we should not underestimate the power of words when spoken aloud vs how they manifest in the secret space of our heads. That's part of the alchemy of counselling and talking therapy.
Grief is often terribly sad, perhaps even tragic. Sometimes it's a relief to those around the person who has died - or perhaps the person was suffering terribly with an illness and it feels like a kindness for them to be unburdened of it. Whatever way we process it, it is almost always complex and conflicting.
To end - one of the wisest, loveliest things I have ever read about death is as follows:
"Sadness is the price which we all must pay for love."
I do hope that if you are struggling with the loss of a loved one at the beginning of 2018, that this might be of some comfort to you.
If you decide that you need to work through your grief - whichever of the above circumstances you might identify with - I can be reached at email@example.com or via the contact form on my homepage here.
Laura is an online talking therapist and writer specialising in working with millennials and the LGBTQI+ community.