“At my mother’s grave, I feel alive,” the client said.
When someone important dies, we have to say goodbye. We grieve for a while and then we turn back to life. But some people can’t let go of the deceased, but keep intense contact with them. Read here how my client succeeded in saying goodbye after all and what role Snoopy played in the process.
“Just don’t give me a diagnosis, I have enough of that already. It helps me zero,” the woman said in online coaching. Her voice was a bit shrill, probably because she was angry.
“What kind of diagnoses have you had?”, I inquired.
“I’ve been to two clinics and one rehab. The diagnoses were mostly something to do with depression, but I would also have an adjustment disorder on offer,“ was the cheery reply from the client, Stefanie S., 39, single.
I like clients with a sense of humor. But who knows what was behind it. Maybe it was gallows humor. That is, a feigned cheerfulness with which someone tries to counter an unpleasant or desperate situation in which they find themselves.
“What did you go to the clinics for?” I asked.
“I didn’t go, I was walked. My mother died in a traffic accident ten years ago. A drunk driver ran her over. We were very close and her sudden death was a maddening shock to me. Since then, many things have become meaningless to me.”
The client’s story reminded me of a movie I saw in theaters in 2004 starring Jack Nicholson, About Schmidt.
In it, Nicholson plays a 66-year-old insurance executive whose life is also badly shaken by a loss in a short time. After decades of working for his company, he discovers that his employees have quickly forgotten him. In addition, his wife suddenly dies of a stroke. But the grief for her does not last long, but turns into raging anger when he finds love letters from her to his best friend. Everything he considered good and true shatters, along with the identity that has carried him through life until now. He searches for a new meaning, which he finally finds in Ndugu, a 6-year-old boy from Africa whom he adopts and with whom he can confide his grief.
Here are some film clips with this great actor.
Why do some people find it so difficult to say goodbye?
People react to loss in very different ways. But professionals and lay people alike are often subject to the tendency to quickly label someone else’s behavior as normal or abnormal. That’s what happened to Stefanie S. when she told me her story.
“Your mother died ten years ago and you’ve been visiting her grave every day since?”, I asked incredulously.
“Do you think that’s strange, too?” the client asked, somewhat suspiciously.
“Frankly, yes,” I replied. “But you’ll have your reasons for doing so.”
“At the clinic, the therapists told me that I was suffering from an abnormal grief reaction. But I don’t suffer at all. I just like to visit my mother.”
Defensive Mechanisms are omnipresent. Sigmund Freud assumed that they serve to prevent unpleasant, painful, unacceptable and threatening impulses and affects, such as fear, guilt, aggression, etc., from entering consciousness.
- The neologism “alternative facts” can also be interpreted as denial.
- “I’m not an alcoholic,” the man said, “I just like to drink a lot of beer.”
- “For me, it’s not about power, it’s about the opportunities to shape things,” says the candidate for chancellor, using rationalization.
- “You kick the dog and mean the boss,” characterizes the shift.
Can you properly grieve and say goodbye?
I am generally suspicious of descriptions of pathological grief or even descriptions of so-called normal grief. In over thirty years of therapeutic work, I have seen that people respond to loss and say goodbye to the deceased in very different ways.
There are people who wrestle with the loss of a loved one for a year or several years. In contrast, I have seen people in long marriages who seemed to go on quite well after losing their partner. Was their relationship not that deep or even bad? Some people may immediately look for another partner. Are these shallow or do they not want to allow the grief? Others, after a loss, decide never to commit to a partner again. Is this normal or strange?
Diagnoses suggest that there is a right way to behave. When many behave similarly, it quickly becomes a norm. Thus, in our country, death and the funeral of the deceased is a serious matter. With sad music and many tears. Whereas in other countries, such as Indonesia, the funeral is a celebration of joy.
Either way, as long as people are comfortable with what they are doing and experience it as coherent for them, I am reluctant to judge anything. More important to me is the meaning that the behavior has for the person.
But of course there are theories about how the proper grieving process works:
- Grief follows a certain pattern.
- The experience of grief is finite.
- Grief proceeds in phases.
- Prolonged grief is abnormal.
- “Working through” the grief process is necessary.
But such models run the risk of pathologizing people with their grief response. Either because they show too much emotion or too little. Grieving too long or not long enough.
Image: Aleks Marinkovic
When is a deceased person really dead?
“Relatively soon I will die. Maybe in 20 years, maybe tomorrow, it doesn’t matter. Once I’m dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as if I never existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all.”
(From the film “About Schmidt” (2004).
Most clients are ambivalent about seeking support. One part suffers and wants to change something about it. Another part also suffers but does not want to change anything because they are afraid of the effort.
Therefore In my view, it is important as a coach to adopt a neutral stance, if possible, for which both alternatives are okay. If you favor the position of change (“You absolutely have to change something!”), you will quickly get many arguments why this is not possible. If you plead for the position of not changing (“But you’ll manage somehow.”) the client brings many reasons why it can’t go on like this. The client also displayed this ambivalence.
“Actually, I didn’t want to come to you at all,” said Stefanie S.
“And yet here you are.“
“Yes, my best friend sent me. She threatened me with the end of our friendship if I didn’t talk to you sometime.”
With a “Hmm,” I commented on the odd occurrence of our coaching session.
“Why does everyone always think I have a problem just because I visit my mother at the cemetery every day? Doyou think that too?” the client turned to me.
“It’s hard to say if you have a problem,” I answered evasively.
“I think it’s much more interesting to ask why you visit your mother’s grave every day.”
“I don’t visit the grave, I visit my mother,” the client corrected me somewhat pointedly.
“Who is buried there?”, I inquired.
“Her body is buried there but her soul is alive. I feel that every day.”
For coaching to be successful, the client must trust me. That’s why I strive to accept everything that comes from her first instead of arguing against it. I take the attitude of an ethnologist who seeks to understand the customs and traditions of a foreign people.
To do this, it is important to put one’s opinions, knowledge, and evaluations to the side as much as possible and to open oneself unreservedly to the client’s worldview and perception.
“How do you feel or experience that there at your mother’s grave is her soul?”, I wanted to know.
“I feel her closeness, I hear her warm voice inside, I feel happy because she is around me.”
“Do you also feel that at home or only at her grave, that there is her soul?”, I wanted to know.
“At home I have a small altar with two pictures of her, there I also feel her soul very clearly. There my mother is quite alive for me. I once read that someone is not really dead until he has been forgotten.“
“You mean by your daily visits you keep your mother alive?” I tried an interpretation.
“Yes, I think that’s how it is.“
“But maybe it’s keeping you alive, too?”
Complicated grief: when saying goodbye doesn’t work.
The grieving process does not always proceed in the stages described above. About ten to twenty percent of bereaved people “slip” into complicated grief, which can sometimes be described as a chronic, heightened grief response.
Queen Victoria, regent of Great Britain and Ireland, went down in the annals as the “Widow of Windsor.” When her husband Albert died at the age of 42, the queen began a period of mourning that lasted until her own death.ene’s death lasted forty years later. From then on, she wore widow’s garb, left Albert’s bedroom in Windsor completely unchanged, and ordered his bed linen and towels to be changed regularly. At the dining table, the table was always set for the deceased.
Signs of complicated grief are usually:
- Everything is focused on the loss.
- The memory of the loved one is kept alive and revived.
- Death is not accepted, but “mystically” transfigured.
- The person does not live in the here and now, but only in the then.
- Social withdrawal, feelings of futility, irritability and restlessness may occur.
- Other people are avoided.
- Difficulties in maintaining the usual daily routine occur.
- A strong longing for the deceased is observable.
It is normal and human to regret the death of a loved one. At the same time, the longing for him often plays a trick on us. We think we recognize him from behind on the street. The cell phone rings and we have the crazy idea that it’s him. Coming home, we hope that he is sitting in his armchair as usual.
Grieving is important because it helps to process and integrate the strong feelings about the loss. Over time, grieving frees you up, although it can take varying amounts of time, because it regulates the longing reflexes until they usually disappear altogether.
Looking at Stefanie S.’s behavior diagnostically, it can be understood as complicated grief.
Characteristically, the mourner jumps back and forth between the different stages of grief (see above). Brain scans show that people with a complicated grief response process the loss of a loved one differently than “normal” grievers. The strong longing for the lost person and the unawareness of his or her death seem to prevent them from processing the grieving process well.
Complicated mourners keep the longing process alive through their habits. Like my client, they remember the past and fill their present life with habits associated with the deceased. These pleasant memories act on the reward center in the brain and can be downright addictive.
Whether someone slips into complicated grief depends in part on their attachment to their mother in early childhood. If she or another close caregiver is not sensitive to the child’s needs, the bond can become insecure. This increases the risk for complicated grief, Hansjörg Znoj emphasizes.
“What does a normal day look like for you?”, I asked Stefanie S.
“Right after I wake up, I say a prayer for her, even though I’m not that religious and I don’t think my mother is in heaven.”
The client had been living off her mother’s inheritance for twenty years and did not need to work. After a brief disappointing marriage, she stayed away from men. She had never wanted children.
“Then I have breakfast with my mother, like the last twelve years when she moved in with me before she died. Her chair with her favorite blanket, where she always sat, is facing me. It’s a very familiar feeling that I look forward to every Morgen freue.”
I was a little creeped out by how naturally Stefanie S. talked about having breakfast with her dead mother. The whole thing reminded me that many children have imaginary friends in certain situations.
Imaginary friends are…
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