Pillars of Strength 2/8: Relationship with Oneself
Psychotherapist Julia Samuel MBE has spent 25 years working with bereaved families. In this weekly blog series, the author of Grief Works is sharing her concept of the ‘pillars of strength’, which we can use to help clients grieve and rebuild their lives. Today, Samuel introduces the second pillar – our relationship with ourselves.
At the centre of each of us is the relationship we have with ourselves. It is the overarching relationship that influences every other one in our life: with our partner, family, friends and work. If we are to have honest, open and loving relationships with others, we need to know ourselves, be aware of the messages that are being transmitted into our mind (critical messages like “you idiot” and “you are always useless” which come from early childhood experiences), and take responsibility for our actions and responses. This requires our attention, time and discipline – it doesn’t just happen.
One of the cruel aspects of grief is that we often turn the pain we feel against ourselves, rather than finding ways of expressing it. We may notice how grieving clients increase their suffering through what I call our “shitty committee”, attacking themselves with constant self-criticism. It is vital to be self-compassionate, being as kind to ourselves as we would anyone else in our life.
As our relationship with the world and others is changed by grief, so our relationship with ourselves changes. People are often asked if they “feel better”. The usual response is, “I’m not better, I’m the new me – forever changed by my loss”.
The importance of support
The single biggest predictor of positive or negative outcomes for people who are grieving is the love and support of others. Some clients may struggle to allow those closest to them to support and love them. Often we are in so much pain we shut people out. Even if it is only for a small part of the day, encourage your client to feel the connection to someone in their life. Grief is lonely and isolating, and when love dies it is the love of others that helps us survive.
Recognising that feelings are not facts is important: feeling bad, for instance, doesn’t make us bad. There may be many different conflicting and confusing messages going on in our client’s mind. Keeping a journal can help clients begin to see what they are telling ourselves, and thereby clarify what is going on inside.
We all need defence mechanisms, and sometimes we may need to build new ones. But if our client tends to shut down when they are upset, it may mean they aren’t getting the support they actually need. We can help them become aware of this, and work on ways to tell those close to them how they are really feeling on the inside.
What we allow to be transmitted into our mind can influence our mood as powerfully as the food we eat impacts our body. It might be useful to think with your client about what they are watching, reading or listening to at this time, and how it may be affecting them.
Denial in grief is a natural and important part of self-protection. Knowing is incremental because, psychologically, we couldn’t cope with the full knowledge all at once. Clients may also worry when a new bereavement brings back previous losses. We can reassure them that they aren’t going mad, and that this isn’t a sign that they have failed to do the necessary grieving in the past. When we are bereaved, our whole history of loss will be triggered.
Find out more about Julia’s work and writing at Grief Works