I believe strongly in the power of psychotherapy. I have witnessed many, many times the capacity for human beings to adjust, to overcome, to thrive, after even the most horrendous traumatic experiences. I have seen how our brains have the ability to assimilate horror and come to an acceptance that something dreadful has happened to us, and to find ways of adapting to the losses, the tragedies, the horrors and terrors within our minds. I know it is possible to grow and develop after trauma, a phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth.
In the immediate aftermath of Anton’s death, did I even consider the possibility of adjustment, let alone contemplate the idea of growth? No. No. No. A thousand times No! The terror in my mind and the emptiness in my heart, my life, my very soul, felt like a permanent part of me.
But at some point within that first year, I knew that I needed some professional help. I felt that primarily, I needed to talk, and be heard. I needed validation for what I was going through. I needed reassurance that I would survive. Because at the beginning survival did not even appear to be an attainable goal. Without being actively suicidal, I certainly wanted to die most of the time. I was drowning in grief, and sometimes that felt literal, that I would not find another breath, that my lungs were filled with the deluge of grief, that my heart had been ripped from my body with the force of a tsunami.
I reasoned that a safe space in which to talk, probably at length, and for someone to listen and validate and metaphorically hold my hand, travel my journey alongside me whilst I gave voice to these catastrophic emotions, would help me stabilise. Bereavement therapy seemed to be the most appropriate course, but I couldn't seem to reach Cruse (it was during the pandemic and I guess they were very busy). So I searched the internet for therapists near me. Even the search was overwhelming and exhausting. So many therapists, all with Bereavement ticked on their speciality profiles. How to choose, based upon a paragraph of text, the photo of a friendly smiling face? All of them seemed great, but how would I know if they suited me or could give me what I needed (especially when I didn't really know that myself)?
I eventually narrowed down a few local therapists and then I called one, a psychodynamic counsellor. I briefly explained my story. She said that she had had experience of suicide personally, though it hadn't been a very close relative. She worked eclectically (this means that therapists draw on more than one particular modality, and may have training in several different methods). She said she felt confident about working with me. Our first session was face to face. She asked me to tell my story. For 40 minutes I described the wreckage of my world after losing Anton. I was a quivering mess. I stopped and waited.
She looked at me and said nothing. Nothing. I was at a loss as to how anyone with a beating heart could listen to such a tragic tale and not respond in any way. As I began to break down, she seemed to slightly panic and started using grounding techniques with me, to help me regain control of my emotions. This felt incredibly clumsy and invalidating, as though she thought I did not have a right to these intense feelings. I guessed that she was anxious that my breakdown in composure would mean a late finish to the session, and perhaps make her late for her next appointment. I left feeling crap.
The next session coincided with lockdown and was therefore via Zoom. It was no better. Afterwards I emailed her to say that I would not be continuing. She answered that she had not felt our relationship developing so she understood. I thought I sensed relief. I was angry and felt let down. As the therapist, it was her job to develop the therapeutic relationship, provide the safe, nurturing space for me to connect with her. In my view she had singularly failed to do this.
I contacted another local counsellor who had ticked Bereavement as a specialism on his profile. Via email I explained the problem. I told him I was a therapist myself. I told him this because I wished him to know it might be hard to work with me, someone who has experience of being in the other chair. Some therapists might prefer not to work with a mother bereaved by suicide who was also an experienced therapist. If he had any doubts about his own competence I wanted him to acknowledge these and politely decline – I did not need an anxious counsellor, worrying about whether he was doing ok. My own anxiety was enough for both of us, and from him I needed strength, wisdom, confidence; above all, faith in my capacity to survive. He said that he felt he could help me and we agreed to meet and booked a session. He cancelled the appointment the day before, saying that after all, he did not feel he had the right skills.
At this point I gave up for a while. I couldn’t face meeting anyone on Zoom again, for one thing. I thought I would wait until lockdown was over. Some months later when it was clear that lockdown might be a regular occurrence I reasoned that one advantage of working online was that I didn’t need anyone local, so could choose from anywhere in the country. I opted to contact an ACT (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy) therapist who had taught on some workshops I had attended in the past. I had liked this person and felt instinctively that she was gentle and compassionate, and highly skilled. The first session was very validating, I felt her empathy radiating through the screen. She had tears in her eyes at the end, and openly acknowledged this. For a few sessions I felt very held by her. But over time I noticed that when I mentioned Anton, although she would acknowledge and validate, she never seemed to want to take the conversation further; never asked questions or showed curiosity.
I desperately needed to talk about Anton; to understand more about him, his life, our relationship. Like most parents bereaved by suicide I tormented myself with doubts about my parenting, what I might have missed, what I had not done that I should have done, and what had I done that I should not have done. Had my parenting somehow led to this tragedy? This was very scary stuff. I was terrified that I had been lacking in some way as a mother. Whilst knowing I wasn’t perfect, any more than any parent, I had thought of myself as a good mother, but now I was having to face the possibility that I had been deluding myself, that somehow my actions or lack of them had been a factor in Anton’s death. My therapist’s apparent avoidance of delving into these terrifying realms was not reassuring, in fact it drove my anxiety and desperation. I called a halt to the therapy after 7-8 sessions, and stopped looking. It seemed my search had failed.
For months I struggled on alone, then on a personal recommendation I started seeing a Gestalt therapist very experienced in trauma. Here at last was someone who was emotionally and mentally strong enough to be fully present with the absolute horror of my experience; someone who believed in my capacity to endure. We spent several months working together, and as our relationship developed and she continued to be able to stay with my pain, I gradually began to think that I might just, after all, survive.
After a while however, I realised that there was something further I needed from therapy; the in-depth two-way dialogue, sometimes challenging, but filled with curiosity, that I was used to having with my own clients (I work primarily using CBT, though I have trained in Person-Centred Counselling and Psychodynamic Therapy).
By chance I heard about an online CBT based workshop for psychotherapists working with traumatic grief, and decided to attend. The workshop helped me to understand more of the theory and thinking in the literature about complex and traumatic loss, and reassured me that there was evidence-based treatment actually available for people like me. I liked the presenter and contacted him to ask whether he might take me on as a client, and received a reply almost immediately from his secretary offering me an appointment. This was a very significant moment and began the end of my journey to find a therapist, and the beginning of a conscious realisation that I might be capable of more than simply surviving; that I might actually find a way of living alongside my loss.
Its not always easy to know what you need from a therapist, but if you feel you aren't gaining from the treatment, or you don't feel comfortable with her/him its important to acknowledge this; give them a chance to understand what you need, but ultimately don't be afraid to make a change. The relationship with your therapist is hugely important. I probably wasn't an easy client, but it was my therapy and it needed to work for me. As you can see, I tried therapists from a few different modalities. I didn't worry too much about the specific type of therapy because at the time I really didn't know what I needed. Although I specialise in CBT I was unaware of the developing field in CBT for traumatic loss. Whichever modality is being used however, in my opinion its crucial that the therapist has some experience of working with trauma, and ideally experience of working with traumatic grief. Don't hesitate to ask any prospective professional about the way they work, and about their experience of loss and trauma. I plan to publish a separate post soon about how the therapy helped me.