Consider this client referral. They are recently bereaved, losing their mother in quite traumatic circumstances. They are considering counselling as they feel they are loosing their role in their family, and have a certain amount of anger and resentment at this. They suffered from a miscarriage earlier in the year, and it may be they never processed this loss.
Those who also follow the Archers will be aware it is Ruth I am describing. After not moving north to be closer to her mother, events I discuss here, she like so many in the “sandwich generation” found herself pulled between different caring responsibilities. She traveled between Ambridge and Prudhoe torn almost in two between being wife, mother and daughter, as well as her role running a modern farm. This culminated in her mother dying in a motorway service station, a traumatic death which came just as Ruth had seen light at the end of the tunnel. Her mother died as she was being moved to Ambridge, a solution which seemed obvious to every listener but had been resisted by her spouse for a number of months.
One of the attractions of soaps is they cover situations many people can relate to. Whilst shows like Dynasty and Dallas showed us glimpses of lives far removed from our own British soap operas have been far more about inviting you to sit down at the kitchen table and share time with people we have a lot in common with. Bereavement is perhaps the one life event everyone encounters, but our reaction is always unique, always based on those circumstances which make our story our own.
Self help doesnt always help.
Ruth has mentioned to a close friend that she knows anger is a usual reaction to death. She may well have read some of the many self help books written about bereavement. The most famous model used by these is that of Kubler Ross.
The 5 stages of grief have been incredibly helpful to many people struggling with a bereavement, especially in our modern society which has removed many of the traditional structures around mourning. Perhaps its most important insight is that grieving takes time, and if people are to heal they need that time.
Time unfortunately has been the one thing Ruth has been denied. Her spouse assumed that what Ruth needed was distracted with paperwork in the immediate wake of her mothers death, then wanted everything to be back to normal as quickly as possible. Instead of being, feeling, Ruth was doing, and expected to be OK as soon as possible.
There are problems many have identified with the Kubler Ross model, knowledge of the stages is meaningless without space and time to go through the stages. They can also sometimes be seen as a prescriptive script about grief, a right way to do it. Sometimes the anger does not end as the depression begins, life is not as neat and tidy as a self help book may make out. One of the great strengths of talking therapy after a bereavement is you can feel however you feel, and that is OK. When it comes to grief their is no right or wrong.
A model I prefer is Wordens 4 tasks of grief, which is based on the idea that feelings may have to be returned to, and not necessarily reliant on processing one before moving onto the other. The relation of these to the seasons provides a helpful metaphor, especially if there is guilt about ” moving on”. Winter is not forgotten simply because we are enjoying spring, and one cannot exist without the other.
Back to Ruth
This denial of the chance to process her feeling has led to a decision that she already seems to be regretting. Her mother in law, the person instrumental in the family not moving north to be closer to her own mother has moved back into the family home. Rather than saying (or having David say) it’s Ok to let the housework go and have a few take aways, during this period of loss and change, Jill has returned to take up the space denied to Ruth’s Mother.
Is it any surprise she is feeling angry and excluded? The fact Jill’s first act was to assert her territorial control by rearranging the kitchen spoke volumes. This was never a place Heather (Ruth’s mother) was welcome, and Jill was never going to allow herself to settle at anywhere else.
Whilst Ruth has to swallow her feelings, and daily be reminded of why her needs and her mothers came second there is a danger her sense of exclusion and isolation may deepen, and cause further rifts. If this were a real client, and counselling is indeed something I would very strongly recommend here, I would use a dual processing approach.
Dual Processing accepts that we live busy lives, that whilst pushing grief away or burying it under the distractions of the everyday is not healthy, most of us still have to go to work, make the tea, check the kids homework. Dual processing often works as simply as setting aside a time each day to grieve, to look at old photographs, to feel, to talk, and then to say it is OK to get on with life. Neither a betrayal of the loved one, or a complete collapse it would I think be ideal for someone in Ruth’s situation. We move between two different positions, and often simply need to be told that’s OK.
More than bereavement
There is a saying in therapy, that the presenting issue is never the presenting issue. Ruth’s miscarriage, her breast cancer, the way David cancelled their move north even her affair, which is one of those family secrets which festers, all may be part of her current feelings. Who is she if not a mother and daughter? What does she want out of life? After dedicating so many years to the farm how does she handle the fact it is not “her” farm. All life changes can make us reevaluate who and what we are, and a bereavement is one of the biggest changes there is. One of the advantages of counselling over working through a specific bereavement focused book or course is that it gives you the space to explore all of the issues you may wish to bring.
Its a question many ask as their children grow. Two possibilities, a new baby and a new farm have been taken away from Ruth against her will. A different avenue, of caring for her mum, of having a physical closeness she sees daily between David and his mother has also been taken from her. Her work on the farm she fears can be done by her daughter, so where now for Ruth? It’s a question only she can answer, but, like any of us, it needs honestly about desires, motives and feelings.
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