There was a weekend in November last year when I felt like I was going through the motions of the day, but not really engaging properly in everything that was going on around me. I was really aware of it then because there were lots of family plans and I was around lots of people, but I just didn’t feel present. It was a foreign feeling and particularly unsettling on a weekend when I should have been happy and content but didn’t really feel anything. I wasn’t connected to myself and felt a bit like I was watching what I was doing from a distance. I realise now this was because while in coping with the fact mum had died by detaching myself from my sad feelings, it was also happening to happy feelings too. This really scared me.
I remember walking back from the tube station to my flat feeling more low than I could ever remember, and then feeling even more sad that I was feeling sad. I couldn’t think of anything I could do that could help me feel better so, with no other ideas, I googled ‘counselling services’ in London once I got home. A few people had mentioned to me that they knew people who had had counselling after a loved one had died, and with nothing else there to remedy how I was feeling I thought I’d just have a look. I found one that looked good (at least the website was nice) and was close by to uni so I emailed them about an appointment. They emailed back the next morning, but then I ignored it for a few weeks.
I think part of the reason I avoided replying to the email was acknowledging that something was wrong. Another part was perhaps thinking that if I have help, then maybe it would mean I couldn’t do it myself. I also disliked the fact that I was in this position. I wasn’t meant to ever need counselling in my third year of uni because of losing mum - that had never been part of the plan. I’d always seen myself as resilient and capable and I wrongly thought that counselling could undermine that (or that it questioned those descriptions). Maybe I was also a little bit scared about what would happen if I went. Also (there are a lot of reasons!) I thought that ultimately mum was gone and nothing could bring her back (as if a- there was a solution and b- everything I was feeling was directly as a result of mum dying) – I later realised these were untrue assumptions and there was a lot tied into how I was feeling and why.
In the end, while I replied to the email reluctantly, I actually quite looked forward to my first session. I was intrigued at what it would be like and was interested in what the counsellor would say. Would she maybe say I am grieving well? I think I almost wanted approval that I was doing the right thing (because no one ever tells you how to grieve or even what it means to grieve). Maybe she would say there was nothing she could do to help- mum had died and that couldn’t be changed. She could even have the answer to grief (ridiculous) and how to be ok (which of course I know now only I can figure out).
Anyway, the room was exactly how I might have imagined. Intimate, cosy, warm and with a very comfy sofa. There were also some tissues positioned exactly as you would expect (discreet but easily reachable). As soon as I sat down and started to explain why I was there I burst into tears. When I mentioned to others that my mum had died I always was at a distance to the words, but in that room I sobbed and in a strange way, I really liked that I could just cry like that with someone else there. Normally I’d hold back the crying, or at least recover very quickly if I started to cry, very aware that there is little to say to someone who’s mum has just died. In the counselling situation where social norms don’t really apply, I didn’t have to be aware of my counsellor’s feelings towards what I was saying or how she might be feeling. I could just talk and talk and interrupt and cry and indulge in an hour where I didn’t have to be considerate to the needs of someone else (this took a bit of getting used to).
However, I left the first session feeling drained. I think I had these hugely high expectations that the one hour would ‘fix’ what was wrong and that I’d feel a bit better straight away. I felt like I had repeated a lot of what I had said before and I came away feeling underwhelmed. I know this came in part to a naivety about what grieving means and how it can never just go away.
After mum died I started to recognise certain things as ‘life buoys’ - things that helped keep me afloat and not sink with the hugely sad feelings that threatened. Friends were a big life buoy, but so were happy moments and so I began to prioritise them a lot. The little things I enjoyed (like a coffee and croissant) were scheduled into my day along with other kind moments. I gave myself a lot of treats in those initial months (and as a result I spent more money than I would have...) but I needed them to help offset the sad feelings and thoughts. I think I expected that first session of counselling to be a huge life buoy (especially because at that moment I really needed one), but of course it couldn’t immediately be that.
Nevertheless, we agreed that 3.15pm on a Monday afternoon would be my weekly slot (I was a bit nervous at the commitment of it – I had imagined it could be quite ad hoc and not at a set time each week). By the time the next session came around I was a bit apprehensive… maybe even nervous about bringing everything up. Again, I had a cry, and for the 5 months that I went to counselling I cried every single time.
One thing that I had been struggling with was the normality of life even though mum had died. Everything was carrying on the same and especially being in London where mum’s absence wasn’t as obvious, nothing in my week felt it had changed. I couldn’t get my head around how something so huge and life changing had happened but nothing really life changing was happening now (as in there was nothing to show for it). The hour a week of counselling became my acknowledgement that things were different now. It made me feel like I was actually ‘doing’ something about mum dying.
It had also become very scary to confront a lot of the emotions I had been resisting. I was scared to have to face up to the enormity of what had happened and naturally, you avoid the things that scare you. Counselling let me see that I could incorporate these deep emotions into my normal day. I could be in the library one moment, writing my dissertation, and then having a huge cry an hour later and then be going about my normal day an hour after that (although I was usually very tired after the session and often ended up in Pret with a coffee and croissant).
Recently I came across a quote in a book I’m reading (called Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant) that characterises a lot of what counselling gave me:
‘It occurred to me that dealing with grief was like building physical stamina: the more you exercise, the faster your heart rate recovers after it is elevated. And sometimes during especially vigorous physical activity, you discover strength you didn’t know you had.’
Counselling became a space to see that I could tap into the sadness and be ok. I also felt more practiced in having a huge cry and then recovering, which meant I didn’t resist times when I wanted to cry in the future because I knew I’d be fine afterwards. In the moments when grief hits, it can be completely overwhelming and it’s hard to see how you can ever be ok again. Over the months I had counselling I became less afraid of these moments because I could see that the deep emotion could fit into my life as opposed to being completely separated and cornered off. I didn’t need to be afraid of it.
How you grieve is something that takes time and is hugely personal. I feel like I’ve accepted now that it is a part of my life I will always need to tend to and give space. I know that I’ll always have sad moments but then I’ll be ok again afterwards (and in a way I’m almost glad the sadness will still be there somewhere because I’d never want to not be sad about losing mum). I have also given myself permission for that to happen. As obvious as it may sound, letting myself feel something and not questioning it or exacerbating it (for example by being sad that I’m feeling sad, or more stressed that I’m feeling stressed) helps.
There is a stigma around counselling and therapy. We are all expected to be super human and strong always and counselling, as I used to think, could undermine being ‘able’. There is a huge power in being able to understand your emotions and why you feel certain things, and counselling was a space to explore and understand more. Ultimately there is no time to do this normally so having a designated hour a week almost forced me to give it time and I think that is what I really needed. I didn’t just speak about how it felt living without mum, I also talked about the impact of the two years before and the responsibility I felt and the worry that I carried. There were a lot of things that I couldn’t have articulated before but in talking about them, I found connections.
I think back to the moments when I was much younger and felt really sad. Mum and dad would ask why I was upset, and I’d cry ‘I don’t know’ and then I’d cry even more because I just couldn’t understand why I felt like I did. Being more aware of my emotions has meant I am more in control of them. While I often really didn’t feel like opening up about everything and talking about it each week, counselling gave me the space and time to digest what was going on in a way I would have found hard to give myself otherwise (at least not while trying to keep going with my degree at the same time).
I would have never identified myself as a sad person and I have always been generally happy and positive, so in a way grief threatened what I had considered a core part of me. It has taken time to understand that being sad doesn’t make me a sad person and undermine all those things. Counselling hasn’t stopped me being sad but I think that’s what I needed to understand – I had the unrealistic desire to find a solution to my sadness about losing mum, when actually I just need to give myself permission to be sad and let myself feel it.