Coping with Grief and Abandonment Part II
This is the second post in a two-part series on Grief and Abandonment, see Coping with Grief and Abandonment Part I.
I’m sure it will not surprise any regular reader of this blog to realize that BN was a huge part of how I coped, even between appointments. BN has a very generous contact policy, I am allowed to call him 24/7 including when he is on vacation. If I leave an emergency message with his service, he calls back within an hour. If he is on vacation and doesn’t answer the service in a certain amount f time, his backup (a wonderful, warm, empathic man) calls back, but always offers to have BN also call; it’s just a longer wait than usual. (I have higher standards for contacting him when he is on vacation but have done it. Earliest I have ever called is 8 AM and the latest is 10:30 PM although BN has made it clear that 2 in the morning is ok if I need). We very rarely do any processing during phone calls but when the grief threatened to overwhelm me, or the fears that BN would also abandon me, would rise up, then a short phone call would help to ground and reconnect me. Most of mine are under three minutes and it’s not unusual to keep it under one minute. BN once referred to my “patented one minute phone calls” when I was worried about calling too much. 🙂 Often it wasn’t what he said but just the sound of his voice and experiencing that he was there that would do the trick.
I am also able to email BN whenever I wish (again, it’s a privilege I try not to abuse) although I need to request a reply if I want to hear back and his response times can vary wildly. But over the years, I have built up quite the collection, so at times, just going back and reading our exchanges could serve as a reminder of his steadfastness and my not being alone in my grief.
I realize that not everyone has access to their therapist in between sessions, but if they are acting as an attachment figure, anything that aids in a sense of connection can be of help when facing grief. And when the fear of abandonment is really strong and painful, we need reassurance that our therapist is still there. I found several ways to foster a sense of connection. At one point when I was struggling to come to terms with some really difficult material, I asked BN if he would call my cell phone and leave a voicemail, so I would have his voice handy. He did it, and left an awkward, sweet, all-encompassing message that was very reassuring (yes, I still have it :)) The other thing that I did was to ask BN if I could give him a new blanket for his office and keep the old one. We had used it in several sessions when I got cold with the shakes, and it was a powerful symbol of BN’S care and protection. Wrapping myself in the blanket can provide a strong reminder of BN’s presence and help to contain me. I haven’t done so in a while but I would sometimes take it to session with me when I knew I would want to feel held. Full disclosure though, my family nicknamed my blanket BN’s name. once brought along little plastic eyes for it on one vacation and called me Linus, so be warned. 🙂 I still keep the blanket handy and its been on a lot of trips. Asking for any small object from your therapist, such as a pen, or a book, or a stone can serve to remind you of their presence. I have quite the collection of business cards scattered all around my existence (they also make handy bookmarks :)). BN’s business cards do double duty as an appointment card and I do not have a fixed appointment, so I get one at the end of nearly every session. (I even have a close friend who has one of his cards, because I mailed her a book and had left a card/bookmark in it, which may be taking this principle too far. :D) I have also given two gifts to BN which are displayed in his office, the infamous heart box and a custom counted cross stitch I made for him (that hangs on his wall over his desk). It can be comforting to know that there are parts of me with him to remind him of me when I am not there.
Another thing I found to be very effective in grieving was journaling. I would write to keep a record of my sessions, and in between I would write so that there was a safe, uncensored space in which to express myself (the only other person who knows what is in my journal is God, and only because I don’t know how to prevent it. :)) Allowing myself to just write my feelings out without need for them to make sense often let me make connections and gain new insight into how I was feeling and why. It was in journaling that I was often able to connect the feelings about BN to the events of my pass. I also took thoughts from my journal into sessions all the time. Writing can be very powerful, because it is an activity that engages both our cognitive abilities and our creativity, stimulating the connections between our right and left brains. For people who need access to their feelings, it can prove very effective. It is a place to be heard.
This next one may sound a little weird, but it really worked for me. I would often get exhausted from trying to hold all of the difficult emotions (anger, sorrow, loss) at bay until I could know that I would be safe again with BN. Letting the feelings in felt as if it would be so overwhelming, that I would disappear into the grief and never emerge. So I would find some private time to be alone, set a timer for 10 minutes and stop fighting. I would just let whatever feelings were there, come. Sometimes I would weep hysterically, sometimes I would scream or pound on pillows, but I would give way. But when the timer went off, I would stop and have a dialog with the split off self I was trying to integrate, explaining that this time was a safe place to express the feelings, but that there were other things that needed attending to; however, I wasn’t shutting them off forever, just asking her to wait until the next safe time. The pressure would subside because handling it that way felt like being cared for rather than stifled or silenced.
Which segues nicely into another important way to cope with grief. Practice self-compassion. If it helps, think of someone else going through what you are going through and dealing with the losses you are dealing with. How fast would you expect them to be done? Would you think their grief was self-indulgent? Would you see their losses as legitimate and worthy of grief? Would you see them as needing care and gentleness, the way we treat grieving people? You deserve all of those things. Our own feelings about ourselves, lies learned through the abuse, get in the way of seeing ourselves as we deserve to be seen. Thinking of someone else clears away the emotional fog and helps us to see how deserving of patience and care we are. And while you are being compassionate, recognize that grief is difficult, demanding work which taxes your resources. It will interfere and take time and energy away from other things. But think of it this way, would you look at a woman who lost her husband of 45 years, a few months after the funeral and think she is lazy or weak because she’s not getting enough done? Our culture recognizes that a period of grief is one in which less burdens and expectations should be laid on a person. Yes, this grief has to do with things that happened long ago, but the feelings and hurts and awareness of the loss were stored and kept fresh. This grief is old in time but fresh and immediate in your experience. Respect that you are doing demanding work and respect yourself for doing so. its ok for some things to slide if they need to.
This next one I found very difficult to do, but it was essential. Seek out support. I was safest as a child when I was alone, so when intense emotions arise, my instinct is to isolate. But humans are made to need connection, connection which brings comfort and strength and calmness when we have none ourselves. Find a friend who understands, a forum online, a support group for people who have been through what you have (can’t find one? considering starting one). But try to find some people somewhere who can grasp what you are going through and allow you to express it.
Another really difficult one? Trust the process. It really makes no objective sense, that sitting in a room with someone, digging up long buried feelings and losses and experiencing them in someone else’s presence would in any way be helpful. And when you are in the midst of dealing with overwhelming pain, it makes even less sense. (Of the “why the f*** are you just sitting there while i go through this @SShole!” variety). It is the mystery at the heart of healing. The most important thing for a human being is to experience attunement and be heard and understood. But it takes a long time, and a lot of repetitive experiences to change us. So when you feel like nothing is budging and this whole thing is pointless, trust people who have gone before, and your therapist’s belief, that you are doing what you need to do, and it will lead to healing.
And last, but not least, cry, cry and cry some more. There is nothing wrong, and much right, with letting these feelings flow through you. And if that means crying a lot, so be it. For me, sometimes it was crying in the car when the right song came on (I’m a big crier in the car, as it is often one of the few places I can be assured of being left alone), sometimes laying down and having a good long cry. And seriously, BN should add a kleenex charge to my bill. My first therapist told me something very important once when I said I spent too much time crying; she told me that crying was another way of speaking of my pain.
GE, thank you for asking and for your patience in waiting for me to write about this; I hope you find it useful on your journey.