As James sat in front of me, memory after memory of his father’s death surfaced, released, and ran softly down his face.
‘He died when I was 10’, said James. ‘It was an unexpected heart-attack. He went to work one morning and didn’t come home.’
‘Mum thought I was too young to go to the funeral so I went to school on that day just, like any other day.’
James’s mum wasn’t being cruel. She had hoped to protect her young son from the pain of seeing her so desperately upset. She wanted him to escape somehow the turbulent and intense range of emotions that are a part of the journey through the grieving process. So she made life as normal as possible for him. She compensated by taking him on holidays, buying him the latest designer clothes and gadgets and putting on her ‘I’m okay’ face in the daytime.
It was only after she put James to bed at night that she allowed herself to cry. She put away the pictures of James’s father and he was rarely referred to. The mother-who-meant-well stayed strong and kept going. She was doing a good job she told herself. After a year, James seemed fine, was doing well at school and never mentioned his father.
What she didn’t realise was that, in bed at night, James could hear his mother crying and would often cry himself to sleep too. Both mother and son were going through an intense range of emotions they did not want to communicate to each other, for fear of causing upset. They each became isolated in their shared grief for the most well-intentioned of reasons and they were making a mistake that many of us make.
Must keep going
There are plenty of laudable reasons for not dealing with grief. People have to go to work to keep their job. They have to get the kids off to school. They have to mow the lawn, do the shopping, cook and pay the bills. They think if they give way to grief, it will be like a dam has burst. They won’t be able to cope with the deluge and will drown in a flood of their own tears.
But deferring grief is like living with an undetonated bomb. We kid ourselves that if we tiptoe around it, perhaps it won’t go off and we can all pretend it’s not there.
An open wound
The grief, however, remains as a concealed, but open, wound. Although we may have stuck a plaster over it, it will not begin to heal until we acknowledge its presence, the bandaging is removed and we let some light and air onto the injury.
Death has become a sanitised business.
We try to ignore it. We clean it up with phrases like ‘passed over’, or ‘slipped away’ rather than saying someone has died. Or we wrap it up and leave it on a shelf somewhere in a darkened room that we try not to visit. We are taught, in the face of adversity to stand strong. We must stay in control. We have to keep a ‘stiff upper lip’.
But grief is not an illness. It’s a fact of life. We will all lose someone we love and we will all feel the pain. Being able to ride the waves of the big emotions that come with bereavement is an example of mind management. Asking for help or talking to someone about how we really feel is a sign of emotional intelligence, not weakness.
As a therapeutic coach, I have a range of skills in my professional toolbox. But for James, as with most of my clients who are grieving, I used the simplest, yet most powerful of them all.