I was asked sometime ago if I would give a talk to a group of local bereavement listeners- I don’t think they quite see themselves as counsellors per se. I was asked to bring a specifically psychoanalytic perspective to this work. Blithely I agreed. Back in April , September seemed a long way away. In mid August it seems much nearer. So I thought I would write a blog piece about Loss and see if I could sketch out some ideas.
We are born into loss. Even earlier, the moment of conception is both a gain and a loss. From the moment the woman knows that she is pregnant, her life begins to change. Many women choose to give up alcohol , cigarettes and other potentially noxious substances when pregnant. (Not so the father!) This is the first of many losses-many of which are willingly taken on. Another loss is that the woman’s body is now shared by another -who makes all manner of selfish demands. From the moment the woman knows that she is pregnant, her view of herself begins to change. She is no longer “just” a woman. She is a potential mother-with a responsibility to a baby growing inside her. Her relationship with her partner changes as a consequence. It is no longer two adults. They are now “a family” seen differently to their previous childless state. All this before the child is even born! And since this is not a piece about having children, I will go back to my original statement that loss is an integral part of life.
Loss has many aspects. We learn that pets die .We have all buried hamsters, goldfish, gerbils etc. with some sadness. When a more important pet dies, like a cat or a dog who may have been with us a long time, we feel sadder, longer. When a family member dies our sadness becomes the more intense grief. We mourn and then move on. We hope. We grow in a different direction. (Fairy Tales are one early medium that can help us face loss and learn ways in which we can deal with it and ourselves. An idea explored brilliantly by Bruno Bettelheim in his book “The Uses of Enchantment”.)
There is a tendency to think of bereavement solely in terms of something physical, usually someone’s death. But this is too limited and limiting. Loss comes in the form of infertility; of unemployment and redundancy; of disabilty-physical and emotional; of divorce or an unhappy marriage.The list is long. (To digress for a moment. There has been much discussion in the counselling community about the role counsellors might play in helping people who are depressed due to being unemployed. Should we “counsel” the patient to accept their current role? Should their GP prescribe anti-depressants? Or should we be protesting at the socio-economic conditions that lead to high unemployment?)
Death is not only physical. It is moral, emotional, spiritual, societal. And that which has died needs to be mourned properly-no matter what or who it is that has died. It has always seemed to me that ghosts are simply those people or things who have not been fully mourned and thus allowed to be free.Philip Pullman in his trilogy “His Dark Materials” has a passage where Lyra goes down among the dead who are in a kind of Hades~ a place of shadows. They are afraid to leave their shadowland because of what might follow. Lyra says this to them “When you go out of here , all the particles that make you up will loosen and float apart, just like your daemons did… but your daemons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. All the atoms that were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. They’re just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you… You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open part of everything alive again.” I used this as a reading at my mother’s funeral. It seemed apt that she could now be free-a part of everything living.