Annie, the first person I ever counselled, lived in London at the top of a high-rise block of flats, behind the Harrow Road. She was in her late 60s and had been devastated by the death of her daughter, Tracey, in a car crash. The cigarette smoke and boiling heat of Annie’s room, with its three-bar electric fire, combined with her furious grief, are as alive to me today as they were 28 years ago.
At that time, I was a volunteer for a local bereavement service, and I’d had only 10 evenings of training before I found myself sitting opposite Annie. I felt inadequate and frightened in the face of her loss.
Annie gave me an insight that has proven true for the many hundreds of people I’ve seen since: that we need to respect and understand the process of grief, and acknowledge its necessity. It isn’t something that can be overcome by engaging in battle, as in the medical model of recovery. To heal our grief, we need to allow ourselves to feel the pain; we need to find ways to support ourselves in it, for it cannot be escaped. I have regularly seen that it is not the pain of grief that damages individuals like Annie, and even whole families, sometimes for generations, but the things they do to avoid that pain.
A grey capsule
Cheryl had no pleasure in life – neither in her marriage nor in her work. Her mother had died two years before, of heart disease, but she hadn’t joined the dots between how she was feeling and her mother’s death. I asked her what she hoped to gain by coming to see me. ‘I want to feel better,’ she said. ‘I feel like I’m living in a grey capsule.’
I was aware of our similarities and our differences as she sat opposite me: a black, 55-year-old, well-spoken, well-dressed woman. Would I be able to reach across and connect to her? What lay beneath her greyness? She described this greyness as ‘a non-reflective hard mirror, or like a tumour. It’s where all the bad in me lives. I can’t stand it. I want to get rid of it’.
I asked her what, in particular, had brought her to see me now. Part of the difficulty was that she found herself being angry in her job. As a senior sister on a paediatric ward, she needed to be patient, and she could feel that her temper was becoming harder to keep in check. The day before she rang me, she’d had a dreadful experience with a child, who’d screamed ‘No’ repeatedly while she’d tried to give him an injection. She’d wanted to pick him up and shake him, and had only just managed to get herself out of the ward in time. It was the signal that she needed to change something, to do something different. When she’d spoken to her husband, Jason, he’d suggested she see a counsellor.
Cheryl’s vulnerability was concealed by a brittleness that could trigger a short, sharp attack. It is one of nature’s design flaws, and feels cruel, that often, when we are in pain, we give off messages that say ‘back off’, or we get angry and reject those around us, which just produces the opposite response to what we actually want, and most profoundly need – to be loved.
I asked Cheryl to tell me more about her grey capsule. ‘I don’t know – I wake up and feel so black. I have to force myself out of bed; the day looms so long in front of me. I have to just talk myself into each bit – tell myself to get dressed, to wash, to eat breakfast – because, if I looked too far ahead, I wouldn’t get out of bed. Look [she showed me a list] – I have to write it down: “Get up... get dressed...” The only thing that gets me to work is learning poetry. I got the idea from a magazine, and I sit and learn a few verses every morning on the Tube. It’s the only way I can distract myself enough to get to work.’
It was obvious how bleak her days were. But she had also shown me that she had an instinctive fight to keep going, and a capacity for discipline that would serve her well. The poetry reminded me of a Nietzsche quote: ‘Art takes an ice pick to the heart.’
Friends and family
Cheryl told me about the people she cared about, those closest to her who helped her get through life’s twists and turns. She hadn’t repeated her mother’s mistake of choosing a violent and unpredictable man. Cheryl hadn’t seen her father since she was six years old, when the family had fled from him. Cheryl was an emotionally intelligent woman, who’d made good choices for herself. Her husband Jason’s personality type was the opposite of her father’s: he was quiet and kind and very level-headed; he didn’t offer excitement, but she’d seen how ‘exciting’ could go wrong, and his presence was a centring one.
Jason was genuinely interested in Cheryl: when he asked her about her day, he actually wanted to hear what she had to say. He shared in their domestic chores, and was a much better cook than she was, she told me with a sweet smile, ‘humming as he made the supper’. She loved him for his stability: ‘He’s the best hugger in the world. I’m not really the hugging type, but he takes hold of me with such force that he gives me strength.’
Cheryl had met her best friend, Donna, at school. She was very unlike Cheryl: bubbly, chatty, an extrovert. They laughed together and met most weekends. Having only brothers for siblings, Cheryl thought of Donna as the sister she’d never had. Donna had loved Cheryl’s mum too; she’d been a big part of her life. But, after her mother’s death, there was a lot Cheryl hadn’t talked about – not because she wouldn’t but because she hadn’t known how.
I learned from Cheryl that her relationship with her mother had been a dutiful one: ‘We were a kind of show family that looked good from the outside, but with only occasional proper loving on the inside.’ Since their abusive father had left, Cheryl had had no contact with him whatsoever, and had almost no memories of his presence. Her mother was a churchgoer, ambitious for her three children, urging them to work hard at school. ‘She died quite sad. She was “old school”, and had that proud air about her all her life, but she died with stuff on her chest. When she was on your side, it was love – fighting love. It’s easy to forget now. But my mum had this view, when she got to England, at 18, that it was the “mother country”. She had great respect for it, but, when she got here, there was a lot of prejudice. She was so young when she married “the beast”, as she called him, but she wouldn’t talk about her problems; she’d say, “I don’t like people in my business,” and she’d just get on with things.’
Cheryl was quietly angry most of the time, and she rarely looked me in the eye. I told her about the dual messages I was receiving from her – ‘Take care of me’ and ‘Back right off’ – and about my sense that she was pushing and pulling with me, and then she shut right down. In as understanding a voice as I could manage, I let her know that talking about our relationship might be scary, but that I wouldn’t push her to do it; at the same time, if she were honest with me, I wouldn’t attack her. She looked up at me, and just for a moment we connected: the first foundation stone of our relationship. But, over the weeks that followed, she never really moved beyond this pattern, talking at length about her work, but not much else. I was aware that I was seeing a ‘show Cheryl’ who mirrored the ‘show family’ she’d told me about previously. Occasionally, however, there were revelations of what lay beneath her protective mask.
Gradually, I gained glimpses into her family history. When they had run away from her father, her elder brother had gone into care for six months, because the accommodation her mum had found wasn’t large enough for all of them. But her mother had worked hard in a biscuit factory and, after she’d saved enough money to move, her brother joined them. It had been a tough environment for her mum, who had suffered herself in childhood because she had not been brought up by her own mother. I was beginning to gain an insight into the causes of her mother’s toughness, which had been a necessary survival mechanism. In our sessions together, we recognised that Cheryl loved and respected the mother she’d had, but also grieved the more loving, sensitive mother she would have preferred.
Sometimes Cheryl would break out of her capsule with nuggets of vitality, particularly when she talked about Jackson, her 14-year-old son. Then she would smile into my eyes, and I could feel my chest expanding with her love for him. Like most mothers, she’d found it very difficult to witness his sadness about his grandmother; it had felt ‘intolerable’ to her. She had instinctively felt the need to shut down his sadness, to tell him ‘to be OK’, just as her mother had told her. We acknowledged that this instinct to soothe is often ‘hardwired’ into mothers, yet its negative underbelly is the suppression of difficult feelings in their children.
Cheryl was obsessed with the events that took place from the time of her mother’s first heart attack to her death. When she said, ‘I feel I should have done more,’ her words came with great sighs from deep within her chest. She had a tightness in her throat ‘like a block of stone’. As layer upon layer of anxiety about her failings was peeled back, a burning fury emerged. She went over every treatment and appointment in forensic detail, particularly those she had missed. As a nurse, she’d felt she should know more, but, as a paediatric nurse, she actually knew very little about coronary disease in adults. And she had never spoken to her mother about dying, for fear ‘it would bring bad karma’ – visit death on her mother. They had talked about future holidays, Christmas plans, never once even mentioning the possibility that her mother might die.
Cheryl would increasingly say things that showed a growing awareness of her new reality. I was beginning to see more of her, and beginning to see the strength that had been suppressed by her silent fury. Unable to visualise Cheryl’s mother or to picture them together, I asked her to bring in photographs or anything that would give me a clearer image. She arrived laden with a whole backpack of family material: sweet photographs of her and her siblings as children, her mother’s favourite brooch and her scarf. It lay innocently on her lap while she told me family stories of holidays in Jamaica with her powerful grandmother. I could feel her pride in her mother growing as she described the life from which she’d come, the opportunities her mother had worked so hard to give her. Her eyes glistened as she spoke. Unconsciously, she picked up the scarf and smelled it. She was completely overwhelmed. Tears poured down her face. She buried her face in the scarf, repeatedly smelling it and crying and wiping her tears in a rhythmic movement every few minutes.
Like a Proustian madeleine cake, the smell of her mother’s perfume had thrown her back in time to the days when she sat on her lap, singing songs, burying her head in her chest. The first thing we sense is the smell of our mother, before we can focus and see her clearly, and some believe it is the last thing we sense before we die.
From this point, our work unfolded more easily and remarkably quickly. Altogether, I saw Cheryl for only six sessions, but they were enough; it was as if she had been waiting to be unlocked. She had rediscovered the mother who had loved her as best she could. ‘I thought, if I blocked her love, it would block the pain... it’s stopped me living... The dark side I’m well acquainted with, whereas this, feeling happy, is like a new friend. It’s as if I’m breathing oxygen for the first time in ages, pure oxygen that isn’t contaminated with something else. I’m finding the me I’d lost for ages.’ When she laughed, the sun came out – she had a deep, shiny, vibrant laugh. She connected to herself both as a child and as a mother.
I hugged her and, as we both cried, I felt as if I were also crying for all the daughters who had tried to do their best and somehow failed.
Love and loss
Grief is a process that has to be worked through – and experience has taught me that it is extremely hard work. But, if we do the work, it can work for us by enabling us to heal. The natural process of grieving can be supported in such a way as to allow us to function effectively in our daily lives. Grief doesn’t hit us in tidy phases and stages, nor is it something that we forget and move on from; it is an individual process that has a momentum of its own. The work involves finding ways of coping with our fear and pain, and also adjusting to this new version of ourselves, our ‘new normal’, as we move towards daring to trust in life again.
We humans, and particularly in the 21st century, seem to be driven to seek perfection, order and the avoidance of difficulty – of which death and dying are top of the list. Yet, in continuing to deny death, we are inevitably denying the richness of life. In our heart of hearts, we know that the other side of love is loss, and we can’t have one without the other.1 Loss is intrinsic to the human experience, whether it be loss of youth or health, the ending of a joyous day, the finishing of a relationship, or, of course, the death of a loved one. But, in order to live truly, to experience life fully, we need to be able to accept that.
Julia Samuel is a grief psychotherapist who has, for the past 25 years, worked with bereaved families, both in private practice and with the NHS at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, where she pioneered the role of maternity and paediatric counsellor.
1. Parkes CM. Love and loss: the roots of grief and its complications. London: Routledge; 2008.