Thursday, 10 May 2018

When Your Best Friend Dies

                                                          Image by Lisa Buckingham

A very close friend of mine died after a short and shocking battle with cancer.   I understood how grief might affect me and had an expectation of myself, that as a counsellor I should be able to process my grief easily, but I wasn’t prepared for the sense of loneliness and isolation I would experience at times in the first couple of months after her death.  My anger had built up over a period of time, eventually exploding and in that moment, I connected with my pain, speaking words I hadn’t said out loud, crying for my friend and for myself.  This was a reminder to me that I am human and that like everybody else, I will grieve because like everybody else I love and sometimes loving another being brings unbearable pain.

The grieving process is talked about a lot and is usually related to the death of a relative but what about when your best friend dies?   I realised that this type of bereavement isn’t talked about very much, so I thought I would share a little of my experience and some of my thoughts.

You might think that as you are not related to the person, it won’t be as painful but that’s not necessarily true.  Friends are the people we feel connected to, they come into our life and we spend time with them because we enjoy their company.  They are our chosen family.  Relationships with family members are not always easy or particularly close and are sometimes much more complicated than those with friends.  Maybe you have different types of friends, the ones you party, exercise, study or work with.  You might have lots of friends, just a few or even just one close friend, who you call your ‘bestie’, the person who knows pretty much everything about you and you about them, the person you turn to when life is challenging, or you want to share something with them that is funny.  There is often history with this person, shared experiences and memories.  You believe you will never have a friendship quite like that one ever again and there’s truth in that as each relationship and person is unique.

If your friend becomes ill or dies suddenly, circumstances or distance could mean you don’t have the chance to say goodbye.  It may only be family members that are present.  You might feel awkward or worry that you are imposing.  If your friend did not have family, you may be the person who is with them at the end of their life.  You might have avoided visiting, as you found it too painful to see them suffering.

Whatever the circumstances, grieving for a friend can feel unacknowledged in many ways.  When there is a death in the family, people often send a card or make contact in some way to offer support or offer their condolences but maybe not for the death of a friend.

At this time it will be important to look after your physical and emotional wellbeing.  Notice how your moods are.  You might encounter any number of difficult feelings or thoughts.  Acknowledge how you are without judgment. Be gentle with yourself, much like you would if you were showing compassion to your friend or a hurt child and try not to minimise your loss by comparing it to that of others.  If you didn’t get to say goodbye or weren’t able to attend their funeral, consider creating your own ceremony by visiting somewhere you and your friend liked to go together or plant something in your garden as a memorial.  You could create a memory book or box using photos, poems, drawings, write a letter to the person and include anything that has meaning to you.  There are websites that provide suggestions on how to do this.  Use your support network of understanding family or other friends, to help you feel less isolated.  If there is no-one you can turn to and you feel overwhelmed by grief, then speak to your doctor or access the support of a bereavement counsellor.

Lisa Buckingham
10th May 2018

Monday, 12 March 2018

Tides of Grief

Grieving is universal, something that we will all do at some time and is not restricted to the death of a loved one.  Throughout your lifetime you will go through the grieving process for various reasons, possibly without even realising because it is triggered by something you don’t relate to loss.  As human beings we become attached to people, pets, marriage, job, wealth, home, health to name just a few.  Some losses are processed without too much difficulty and you might have an awareness of some difficult thoughts or feelings such as anger, sadness, relief, guilt, confusion or depression.  Some losses are more difficult to bear or accept and this can depend on your relationship with whatever or whoever it is that has gone from your life and the circumstances surrounding the loss.  For instance, if someone you know dies, and you are taken by surprise at how sad you feel, it might be because a loved one died several years ago and you were unable to grieve for that person at that time.  Layers of grief can build up, just like any emotion that is unexpressed can amass until it can no longer be repressed and eventually starts to seep out when the container becomes full and overflows.   

Attachment also influences your reactions to loss.  Your early relationships and emotional bond with your parents or caregivers and whether your needs for safety and security were met can have an effect.  For example, if your mother was unable to meet your needs through physical or mental health problems, if you were separated from your family, or your family moved around a lot due to a parent’s job and you had to continuously make new friends, this might have an impact on how you form relationships and how you manage change and loss. 

The stages you go through are not clearly defined or linear and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.  There is no time limit on grieving, so it is important not to judge yourself or others who are grieving.  I have often heard people say they think they are weird because they talk to the person that has died but this is not unusual.  Grieving is something that we all do in our own way and there may be common links with other peoples’ experiences, thoughts and feelings but we all have our own story to tell, picture to paint or book to write.  When a parent dies, the siblings may grieve very differently because the relationship they have or the way they relate to a parent is different and unique to each person, whether it was a loving or a difficult relationship.  Your response to the death of a loved one and the way you cope with your grief can vary enormously.  Some people express their sadness openly, others are more private and the type of funeral we choose varies from a non-religious celebration of life to a religious service fitting of that person’s faith.

No matter how you grieve, you never get over the death of a person you love, you eventually adjust to life without them and carry on living in the best way that you can. Your grief may sometimes take you by surprise when you hear a song, see or smell something that brings memories.  People sometimes describe grief as coming in waves of sadness, anger, fear, or whatever is present, sometimes as gentle swells that wash over and quickly and quietly recede, leaving no trace other than ripples in the sand and at other times arriving as huge crashing breakers that overwhelm and smash against the stones dumping debris and foam, leaving the person feeling lonely, vulnerable and raw in that moment.  Some people say the pain never totally goes and feels like a constant ache.  Low mood that lasts for short periods of time and more debilitating depression can be a normal part of grieving.  Sometimes grief can be more complex or complicated, you may feel ‘stuck’ in your grief and have difficulty processing how you feel or what has happened.  Notice any judgments or critical thoughts you have about yourself at these times and soften any harshness with kind thoughts, actions and self-compassion.  Access any support that is available.  It is normal to grieve but if you feel you are really struggling and need help and support, counselling with a trained bereavement counsellor will help.  If it is difficult for you to fund private therapy, a bereavement charity might be able to offer you counselling, or if you have had contact with a local hospice throughout your loved one’s illness or at the end of their life, they may be able to offer you support.  Taking care of yourself, physically, psychologically and emotionally will help you to build resilience and find a way of adjusting to your loss.

There are many books that explain attachment theory, the grieving process and the stages that a person might go through.  I haven’t gone into depth in this article but some people find it helpful to access this knowledge, as it normalises their grief.  If you do, you may find that one theory does not feel relevant to you or that only bits of it make sense and that’s ok.  After all, they are only theories and one size does not fit all.  I have written this article to help people gain understanding.  This comes from my personal experience and work as a counsellor.  I hope that you find it interesting and helpful in some way.

Lisa Buckingham
24th February 2018

Friday, 3 November 2017

Photo 'Mountains to Climb' by Lisa Buckingham

Do you 'man-up' or do you 'put your big girl's pants on'?

I’ve heard the phrase ‘man-up’ several times over the last couple of weeks and this got me thinking about what it means. To me there’s a suggestion that being a man means to be ‘strong’, to not show or experience difficult emotions such as sadness, crying, depression, to not be compassionate and to get on without making a fuss. I began to mentally log other phrases we often say to ourselves or which might be said to us, like ‘pull yourself together,’ ‘get a grip’ or ‘get over it’. I noticed my amusement at some of the female versions, ‘being a big girl’s blouse,’ ‘big girls don’t cry’ and ‘put my big girl’s pants on.’ Can someone please tell me what ‘big girl’s pants’ are?  So it's not just men that are expected to have a ‘stiff upper lip.’ Even my ageing Labrador got the 'don’t be such a wuss' treatment this morning, as I was trying to coax her into her car harness which she hates. 

This kind of self-talk is a way of forcing yourself to carry and push through when life becomes difficult. Let’s face it, phrases like this have become a normal part of the English language. What’s wrong with using them, well if you talk to yourself in this way, the message is that it’s not ok to struggle or experience and express difficult emotions like sadness, anger, disappointment, fear or anxiety. Emotions can sometimes feel overwhelming and you might fear being judged for not coping, so minimising or suppressing difficult emotions is a way of avoiding connecting with your feelings and not letting others know how you really feel. You might be shocked on becoming aware of just how little self-compassion you give to yourself and think it will be impossible to change, as this is probably something you’ve done for a long time. My suggestion is not to be hard on yourself, for being hard on yourself! 

I was surprised when I first realised how little self-compassion I gave to myself and believe me, it took a long time for me to become fully aware of this because my critical voice was so subtle, I hardly knew it was there. As a counsellor and in my personal life I work hard at being compassionate towards others, mostly it comes naturally, sometimes it’s a bit more challenging and I dig a bit deeper but generally I find it much easier to give to others than myself and I’m sure many people in caring professions will relate to this.   

Mindfulness is a way you can help yourself and you could try this very short practice. Try not to judge yourself for thinking unhelpful thoughts, just notice and be present with them, take a breath in through your nose, notice how it feels as the breath passes through your nostrils, down your throat, filling your chest and lungs, you may be able to feel it filling your tummy as it expands and then notice how it feels as you breathe out through your mouth. You could try imagining breathing the words out along with your out breath, as a way of letting the harsh words go.

Be gentle with yourself, self-compassion can be challenging if you’ve been hard on yourself for a long time and it might seem like you have a mountain to climb. Finding a supportive therapist, joining a mindfulness group or joining a mindfulness self-compassion course are some of the ways that you could support yourself.