Being bereaved can promote personal growth
Many of us have experienced loss during the pandemic which may have caused anxiety, depression, trauma and fear - which often manifest once a crisis has passed. It is important to recognise this in the aftermath of such a prolonged period of stress and anxiety, especially for those who have been bereaved. It may be hard to pick up our lives again having experienced such a personal, emotional experience.
As my practice reopens, clients are returning to access therapy, many of whom I have not seen for over a year. It is interesting to hear how they have coped with their mental well-being during this period. For many, it has felt like a seemingly endless year along with a feeling of 'stuckness'.
Talking to these individuals, it seems that more work is needed in helping them cope with their losses and work towards a better (if different) future. These individuals have felt trapped in their own personal lockdown in terms of their own mental health and recognise the importance of ensuring their well-being continues to be looked after as they navigate their way ahead.
One client was a case in point. She returned to see me after an extended break. She disclosed how anxious she felt about returning to therapy and how she had told herself she had let me down in some way (I reassured her she had not). It seemed her old feelings of guilt and failure had returned, manifesting in physical ailments which were often a sign of her increased levels of stress and anxiety and interfering with her daily functioning.
Prior to the first lockdown, we were at a point where she had made the decision she wanted to help others. She had discovered she had something to offer to those who were in distress or felt as lost as she had. Despite friends and family being less than enthusiastic about her new goal, she steadily became focused on following her own path.
She had started studying and was doing well. This demonstrated to both of us she had discovered her self-confidence and belief in her own abilities whilst also learning to manage her emotions in a healthy way.
The one constant theme in our work was the relationship she had with her mother; a difficult, ambivalent relationship from which she'd found it hard to escape, both physically and psychologically. Many times she had tried to move on because she wanted to live her own life. Yet, time and again she found herself unable to let go, which created further turmoil and distress. She'd been told from a young age that "she did not matter" and she was "not good enough." Many subsequent relationships reinforced this belief.
Although the tension inherent in the relationship remained constant, through therapy she was learning how to manage her mum and there were significant chunks of time when she was able to cut off contact - and felt better for it. During these periods of respite, her confidence visibly increased. She made great strides in improving her own self-esteem and believing she could find happiness within herself.
Therapy was helping her to see that, once she had faced her past, she was able to find a way ahead.
So, when she returned to therapy, the client informed me her mum had been diagnosed with cancer, and she'd spent four months caring for her during lockdown. As her mum refused to go into hospital or a hospice, my client felt she had little choice but to move in with her mum and care for her in her own home.
My client spoke calmly about how single-handedly she cared for her mum until she died, how she had organised the funeral and wrote the eulogy. As it turned out, during her mum's final weeks, my client was able to say (for the first time ever and directly) to her mum how she felt about their relationship. Upon reflection, she said it felt like 'a release'.
As I watched and listened to my client, and heard her talk about how she cared for her mum whilst feeling conflicted (feeling both sad and relieved), I was struck by her calmness. She seemed ready for the next chapter of her life. She just needed help with working through this transitory phase which had stopped so abruptly 14 months ago.
Grief is complex
I would describe my client's grief as complicated, due to the ambivalent and complex relationship she had with her mum. However, we both feel confident she had grown as a person with her mum's passing.
Prior to her mum's death, my client achieved something she could never fully manage to do - engage with her mum on her own terms. Prior to this, there always seemed to be interference from family members who wanted to 'pick and choose' when they could care for mum - much as they had throughout her life.
My client had found the confidence to point out to her family that she was her mum's sole carer and, whilst the family could come and visit, she was not going to leave on their account (as the brother had requested). She was no longer prepared to be pushed to one side. She did matter. She was good enough.
Any death is sad, yet, I felt my client's loss was a good example of how our personal experience of bereavement can provide us with material for our own future path. My client's intended future as a 'helper' hopefully will prove useful regarding her skills and knowledge which she can draw on, empathising with those who find themselves in a similar position.
It is a rewarding way to process our own losses by helping others to do the same. Borne out of our own emotional experience regarding loss, each of us is in a privileged position to help if we feel able.
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