Loss · Mental health and wellbeing

Grief from the other side of the couch *

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As a psychologist, I have been exposed to the experience of loss, grief and trauma on a daily basis having worked with many clients who have suffered in so many unimaginable ways. I have an academic and clinical knowledge, but I guess I have been really lucky that I haven’t had too much personal experience until now. Since losing Orla, many people have said ‘I guess your training / work must help with your coping’ which got me thinking – is it a help or a hindrance? Have I used any of my psychological training at all? Is it possible to know too much?

 

Like most clinical psychologists I embody the typical Type A personality traits, and at times I fear I am falling into the trap of trying to get grief ‘right’. I mean, I should know how to do this shouldn’t I? Not only that, my driven over-perfectionist self tells me that I should be doing the best that I can possibly can at grieving, doing the right things in the right order at the right time.

 

As if just grieving the loss of your child in itself isn’t hard enough…

 

The typical five stages of grief are something that most people know about; that there are typical responses that most people work through after any type of loss, and that hopefully at the end you are able to come to some form of acceptance of what has happened and continue on the path that is life. Kind of. So how am I doing?

 

Shock and denial – tick

Being told that our baby’s heart had stopped beating was like being hit by a ten tonne truck. We were in a state of shock that felt like we were having an out of body experience and entering a completely different state of existence. We had had a wonderfully smooth, textbook pregnancy. We had had seen the midwife two days before, had a scan just three days before that and everything was absolutely fine, so there was no way that this could be happening. It must be a mistake. Everything else in life suddenly became completely meaningless and we felt as though there was no way that we could continue without our precious baby. Life as we knew it no longer had any point.

 

Anger – tick

Alongside every other emotion that you could imagine turned up to the maximum volume. Pain, guilt, jealousy, shame, hopelessness, anxiety, panic – you name it, we’ve felt it. Losing your child is a pain that is indescribable. Most people respond with ‘I can’t imagine…’, which is true. You cannot even begin to imagine how painful this is without having been here yourself. And you wouldn’t want to imagine. Anyone who has a child or is pregnant I am sure relate to those dark intrusive ‘what if’ thoughts. The thoughts that bring a knot to your stomach, a racing heart and a frantic attempt to block them out, lock them in a box in the deepest part of your brain and then swallow the key. When your child dies, the pain, guilt and shame is overbearing. When your child dies whilst inside of you, you feel completely and solely responsible. I have been plagued by thoughts of what I might have done to cause this, what must other people think about me and how I have caused the pain and suffering of my partner and whole family. This stage is a dark and lonely place.

 

I have felt angry at life, at the world, at the government for not adequately prioritising or funding maternal mental health. However, it is the anger that I have had towards myself that has been the most painful. Feeling as though it is my own fault, that there must be something wrong with me, that I could have, should have, done something differently. The health professionals, friends and family tell you otherwise and your head can sometimes agree. But in your heart, it is almost impossible to shake the feeling of anger, shame and guilt that you have towards yourself.

 

Bargaining – tick

“If only” and “what if” thoughts plagued me like a broken record during the first week and continue during the more dark and wobbly times I have. Which is a vicious cycle that rewinds you straight back to the anger, guilt and shame…

 

Depression – tick

The best way that we have found to describe this is a chronic empty and hollow feeling. It’s like a background noise that is always there, but sometimes you are more or less attuned to it. This is the ongoing sadness of losing Orla, the reality that we will never again hold her, never see her grow, never know what she would have looked like or what a beautiful girl and woman she would have become. This is knowing that every day we live going forward, there will always be an Orla shaped hole in our lives and this is a hole that will never be filled. It is wondering what meaning there is in life if this is the reality of what can happen to you.

 

Acceptance – tick

Strangely, even early on, this is something that we have had fleeting moments of. It is not about being okay or being ‘over’ your grieving – we will never be over losing Orla. There are times that we know that we have to accept that we need to find a ‘new normal’, that we need to develop a new sense of self that integrates the immense pain and sadness that we have to hold. That we need to go on knowing that there will always be a piece of us that is missing and can never be replaced. Right now, this flips me rapidly back into anger (‘why the hell do I have to accept this?’) and depression (‘I don’t want a new normal – I want to be the old me who was looking forward to welcoming our much loved baby into the world’). But maybe as time goes on, this will be less fleeting and maybe even accompanied by hope.

 

I guess the term ‘stages’ give the impression that you move from one level to the next, much like learning a new skill or getting to a new level of candy crush. A stage is defined as a ‘point, period, or step in a process or development’, suggesting that you move from one to the next in a progressive way. The reality is that grief is so much more messy, chaotic and overwhelming than this. I can experience all of the above in the matter of minutes. I can be a snotty weeping mess as a result of sadness, pain and anger, feel overwhelming guilt and shame at the anger and then focus myself into something like writing that I accept is part of building a new me. It’s utterly exhausting.

 

Despite my training, I need to reconcile that there is no right or wrong and to give up the idea that I can find the perfect way in which to grieve. Grief is not linear; there is no timeline or timeframe and you can chaotically flip from one stage to another, and back again, in the matter of minutes. Acceptance doesn’t mean you have reached the end of your sadness, anger or bargaining, but for me it means accepting that I will be different from now on and therefore so will my life. Part of me will continue to be sad and empty in many ways, but I hope that having Orla will teach me to love wholeheartedly, to take all opportunities I can and to have gratitude for all the things that I have in my life that are positive. And that I need to give myself a break.

 

* I have never had a couch unfortunately. In the NHS, you are often lucky to get two of the same seats that are the same height in the same room, which can make for some very awkward sitting / crouching positions.

10 thoughts on “Grief from the other side of the couch *

  1. Hi, you commented on my Instagram and I stalked you all the way back to here! I wanted to reach out as I remember those first weeks so well and I know how hopeless and isolated you might be feeling.

    Firstly, congratulations on becoming a mum and having Orla, your beautiful daughter. People rarely tell us congratulations when our pregnancy and birth stories don’t have a happy ending but you created a life and nurtured it with your body and your love, and that is an amazing thing. Secondly, I am so sorry that precious life you created ended so soon. No words can express how deeply it hurts to have that part of your future taken away.

    You absolutely will get through this, I can vouch for that, even though now you don’t think you can and you probably sometimes think you don’t even know if you want to. It will get easier to be happy and to feel like yourself again. Randomly I’m a clinical psychologist too and I’ve found the ACT model really helpful for grief and recognising the need to feel emotions and move through them while also taking small actions in the service of your values and honouring your daughter who will always be part of your family.

    If you want to have a look at my blog I’ve made a list of resources that helped me over the past year – you may or may not find any of them helpful!

    Feel free to contact me if you ever want a chat! I completely agree that no amount of psychological training or experience can prepare you for dealing with your own trauma and grief!

    Big hugs xx

    https://anelefunkneverforgets.wordpress.com/words-that-heal/

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    1. Thank you so much for getting in contact – I was so touched by your photo that I just had to comment! I have just read through some of you earlier blog posts and so much resonates. This is a tough old journey, but I find a lot of comfort and hope in hearing about how others have got through it and seeing happier days. And so nice to know that there are other psychologists out there who are willing to say how they are feeling and not hide away – I have been inspired by the psychologist in the US who has a page called ‘I had a miscarriage’…..I guess we know the power of words and changing discourses!

      Thanks for reaching out – it really is hugely appreciated. I hope all is going well with the first few weeks with your second beautiful baby:) xxx

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for getting in contact – I was so touched by your photo that I just had to comment! I have just read through some of you earlier blog posts and so much resonates. This is a tough old journey, but I find a lot of comfort and hope in hearing about how others have got through it and seeing happier days. And so nice to know that there are other psychologists out there who are willing to say how they are feeling and not hide away – I have been inspired by the psychologist in the US who has a page called ‘I had a miscarriage’…..I guess we know the power of words and changing discourses!

    Thanks for reaching out – it really is hugely appreciated. I hope all is going well with the first few weeks with your second beautiful baby 🙂 xxx

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  3. I’m not sure what I want to write here, im not very eloquent with words, my blog is a lot of Rambling. However what you wrote really spoke to me, it was like you were writing my thoughts down. I know my grief journey has been different to most, lost of trying to see the positives, but i have/am currently going through the stages above. Your right tho its not a linear thing, its a roller-coaster which goes up and down and back and forth and if you drew it would look like a child’s 1st squiggle drawing. Sending you lots of love and thank you for this post, its helped me reading it xx

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    1. Thank you so much for your message – I’m so sorry for your loss but I’m just pleased that you found some connection with what I wrote. It also helps me to feel that I’m not alone. I love your analogy – this path is definitely like a squiggly line…..which is what makes it so unnerving as you never know how you will feel each day. It’s helpful to connect with people who have been / are going through this xxx

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  4. I’m so sorry for the loss of precious Orla. And thank you for writing about it so beautifully – I hope that it is helping you in some way process your loss. I am only a little further down the line having lost my son Arthur at 36+2 on the 5th February although really it still feels like it has just happened. I can identify with all these ‘stages’ of grief. I’m curious to see what my new self will be like as I do feel completely changed by the loss – I’m still figuring out how to integrate my pain and sadness – and you’re right – the loss will never go away, we have to hold it but somehow live on.
    love Kathryn xx

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    1. I’m so sorry for the loss of Arthur, Kathryn – February feels like just yesterday for me too, so I can imagine why is still feels like early days for you as well. I feel as though time exists in another dimension in these situations – time passes quickly in a blur but then things feel like just a few days ago.

      I really hope that many of the changes will be positive as well as hard. I feel as though my heart is a lot bigger, which although means more pain, I hope will also mean more compassion and love. Only time will tell though. The new me will certainly always have a degree of pain and sadness I’m sure, but I hope that this won’t always be the overriding feeling.

      xx

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  5. Hello, just came across your blog. Firstly I’d just like to say I’m so sorry for your loss. I can relate so much to the post above, I’m currently trying out a “new normal” again after sadly having my 2nd Miscarriage in 7 months. Your so right about grief not being a linear pattern it’s back and forth constantly. Most mornings I wake up and see how I feel as every day is different. The angry sometimes is overwhelming but the lonely feeling surrounding this subject is suffocating. Im slowly getting a bit of hope for the future back but it’s such a slow progress…

    No one wants to be in this “club” but I agree it’s helpful to know your not alone and someone out there is feeling the same.

    Hoping your having a peaceful day on this path to “new normal”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for your message Laura – it sounds like such a tough 7 months for you physically and emotionally. It can definitely feel like an incredibly lonely place, but I have been overwhelmed with how many people I have connected with online who are suffering in the same way behind closed doors. We all just need to talk to help us continue down the path in the right direction.

    xx

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  7. Dear Michelle, I’ve been reading your blog and wanted to say how sorry I am for the loss of Orla. Your words resonate with me, although my story is somewhat different, Edward was born alive at 22+5 weeks and died in my arms an hour later, he was too little to save. I think it’s really positive that we share our stories and our immense pain, if for nothing more than to know we’re not alone. Please keep writing. Nicole X

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