Some days I wake up thinking about death. This isn’t quite as morbid as you may think, although having typed it our I’m not so sure! Often my first thoughts are around how much I don’t want to get out of bed, but many days my thoughts go straight to the clients I am seeing in the day ahead, today was one of those days.
It’s an occupational hazard that my thoughts land on subjects like abuse, neglect, death, anger etc. However it is always with the question:
What can I do to bring space to breath and light into such a dark place in this persons life today.
I cant fix any of their situations or take what they are feeling away but I can help bring resilience, order to a chaos of thoughts and opportunity to process so that some thoughts can be left behind and the person can walk a little lighter or that person can make more sense of their world around them. Or at the very least a bit of space in their chaotic existence.
With any client be it a young person or adult I find that a lot of the way they see their situation is shaped by how adults around them try to support them with advice. Sometimes, no matter how well meaning the advice is it can sometimes be very destructive. The reason for this can be simple:
We say what we think the other person needs to hear, rather than asking them to tell us what they think they might need.
At this point it would be very normal for them to not have a clue what they need, so I then think the most important thing is that we slow down with advice and simply listen. Lets give them space to explore their own feelings by creating an environment for them to tell their story. As I have said before, Story is Everything!
In thinking around what the day would bring and how I would respond to it, I was led to remember my first experience of death.
I was 14 when my 1/2 brother died. He was 24 and had a deep sea diving accident. I had, for some reason, decided not to go to the funeral. I had been given the opportunity to choose to go and I had said “no”. I had gone to school and returned home alone on the bus. I have no recollection of the day at all but this had been my choice. Upon returning home the “party” was in full swing. I say party because to me this is what it felt like and was incongruous with my belief of what a funeral should be like. Of course I had missed the sadness and the chance to say my “goodbye” and what I was seeing what the emotion of the day being given a release. What I perceived though was people having a good time and this felt wrong. Very wrong.
People were laughing, drinking and having fun. I felt left out, confused and very angry. I disappeared into my room and stayed there listening to the chatter and laughter (It was the laughter that hurt the most. Did they not realise what had happened? How could they be so insensitive?)
Then, as I sat at the small desk in my room someone came in. I wasn’t aware of it happening at the time until I felt their hand on my shoulder. They started to speak. In conversations with my mum since, this wasn’t the first or last conversation around my brothers death I had but it was the only one I remember, to this day.
They started talking and the only sentence that I remember them say is this:
You must not show Mum and Dad that you’re upset, they have enough to deal with right now.
This made perfect sense to me. Why would I a 14 year old want the responsibly for their sadness. I must hide mine in order to protect them.
On reflection this one sentence turned out to be one of the most powerful sentences to have ever been spoken over me. It shaped how I, not only how I processed the grief of my brother, but shaped how I then experienced and “dealt with” 11 further bereavements over 11 years culminating with my Dad. I closed down, became a complete introvert to my feelings, internalising everything and became very good at building a very high walled maze around these feelings so that there was no way that they could escape! As I look back I had created the MAZE RUNNER for my emotions and I was not letting them out!
As I look back now and wonder what I, as an adult, would have done differently; first I get angry to start with them then, after taking a second, more balanced look, I realise that I am now viewing this interaction through the eyes of a professional, rather than through the eyes of someone experiencing their own grief and probably desperate to do/say anything that would help me not to cry.
What did I need? I think it was simply, someone to tell me what was happening in the day, an opportunity to find a language that expressed what I was feeling and a way into the room to share in the joy of by brothers life.
These words were powerful, they stuck with me and shaped me. Clearly they also shaped my for the positive and I now do what I do, in part because of that experience. But thats a story for another time.
We need to continue to be careful with what we say, our words have power and if in doubt, learn to listen. You never know, you might be the only person doing that.