This is my first post in a few weeks as I have been busy with work and research and have also not really felt like writing. Today’s post will have a personal element as I suffered a loss during the week and I am hoping this will be a way of both processing the event and achieving some learning for when I work with clients undergoing their own losses. Much of my work is centred around loss and these can be located on a very varied spectrum. The most obvious are the bereavements of family and friends, but loss can also take the guise of the breakdown of intimate relationships, loss of a job, changes in health or as more abstract losses such as when one loses personal choice, autonomy or liberty.
I have worked with some really excruciating losses with clients in recent months, the most difficult perhaps being the sudden passing of a child. It is easy to empathise and imagine how this type of event would cripple the most resilient of people. I think the underlying feeling expressed here is that it does not represent the expected natural order of the world. At some level we all understand that parents and grandparents will eventually die and that as you approach middle age this becomes normalised as peers experience the parental departure. Even though when it happens it can be devastating, there is a part of the psyche that expects and understands that this is an existential inevitability of being human.
When the bereaved is a child, this mechanism is disrupted and the loss intensifies by the natural order of the world being defied and the perceived proper sequence of events becoming disjointed. In these type of cases, clients often struggle to reach acceptance that the person has gone and they will often voice irrational bargaining narratives that they would swap places or that life will forever be contaminated and never as good as it was before the death of their child. These type of expressions are not usually heard when the loss is in line with the natural order of things. The function of the counterfactual expressions are often around alleviating guilt on not saving them, or simply that they are still here, yet their child is not.
Another loss that often affects men I work with is how ill-health of themselves or a loved one forces an aspect of their identity to shift. Many men, including myself define themselves by their vocation and we still have societal discourses that men are less masculine or emasculated if they adopt traditionally feminine roles of being either stay at home parents or a carer for those in need. I have worked with numerous men who occupy archetypal male personas and have strong and masculine jobs such as policeman, builders or financiers. When these roles are removed through circumstances such as declining health the individual suffers a catastrophic loss to a core identity component. This leaves men wondering what their roles are and places them into unfamiliar positions of marginalisation and disempowerment.
An interesting phenomenon that occurs here is that men will often fantasise about their previous life, which they view as empowered and idyllic. Similarly to the loss of a child, there is a real resistance to change expectations, to renegotiate their roles and decide what is now meaningful, rather than clinging to the memories of what they used to ascribe value to. I think that this type of impasse epitomises the position of not being able to reach acceptance, a position that is often seen as the successful resolution of grief. I often wonder that is this ‘stuckness’ related to the increased levels of atheism that are now prevalent in contemporary British culture. We may become isolated and helpless through our grief, as we no longer have the strong spiritual and religious beliefs that previous generations were able to use to sooth and re-balance perceived injustices and unfairness that often accompanies unexpected loss.
In comparison to the types of loss described above, mine feels inconsequential but as I always say to clients “We live the lives we do and that our experiences are valid”. This sentiment is explained by the idea that we cannot simply compare our situation hierarchically to others by looking at people who have undergone greater suffering, or at the other end of the spectrum seem to lead easy and charmed lives. I think that this type of rationalisation does not allow us to connect with our emotional state and can leave us with shame or anger as we try to suppress and resolve our own situation without being able to authentically process our emotional material.
My loss was of a pet bearded dragon, imaginatively named ‘boy beard’, I had been his owner for over 15 years and raised him and his mate ‘girl beard’ from small ‘moustaches’ to fully grown dragons. When he died on Monday, I was expecting it and was relieved, as he had been shutting down for a few weeks and was ancient by species standards. Yet, I have spent the last few days feeling tremendously melancholy. I have even had some bouts of uncontrollable tears and intrusive thoughts about missing him. I rarely cry and this has been a comfort to me, as it enabled me to understand that he was a hugely important part of my life. I have always been puzzled by the anthropomorphism of placing human emotions and traits onto animals, but I can say that I genuinely loved boy beard.
After much thought, I think I loved what he represented to me and that he had become internalised as a sense of security and safety. I have many friends, but have always felt distance and an innate feeling that I am able to leave human relationships and survive. This has probably been derived from the fractured and at times unsupportive family of origin that I hail from. I keep in touch with relatives, but I suppose that unlike many people they are not the place I go when in need or relationships that I greatly invest in. The fear of being vulnerable and exposed is too much and somewhere I do not trust that these relationships will be consistent and available. As a result boy beard had been a stable and constant ‘secure base’, that I had symbolically internalised as the ‘good mother’, a role that has been vacant for me for some time. He was always available and never questioned me or asked too much. He also had the fantastic ability to just allow me to be in his presence and feel content. This is much like how Bion describes containment or how Winnicott talks about the holding of the infant by mother, that ultimately allows the infant to just sit and be without tension or impingement.
This was vitally important as the last 15 years have involved family estrangement, my journey into psychotherapy, loss of relationships and periods of physical, financial and emotional instability and uncertainty. Boy beard was my transitional object, a symbolic entity that I was able to equate to reassurance and safety when distressed, and importantly was an object that I could take wherever I went and at some level represented home, safety and the feeling that things would be alright. This is perhaps why his passing has had such a profound effect on my sense of well-being, as it has disrupted my sense of safety in the same way a toddler is inconsolable when leaving his favourite bear on the bus. Like the missing teddy, I have fond memories of boy beard and will forever think of him as source of comfort when I feel that I am struggling.