The Evolution of Emotional Strength
Posted on 8th August 2022 at 17:22
I remember once reading a blog written by a doctor detailing her lived experience of having had a stroke. It felt important, this woman – placed on a pinnacle by all her patients – etching out her fears, her worries, her processes and vulnerability for those of us interested enough to read. My dear friend had just had a stroke, and we read it together. He felt met, if doctors can feel like he did – then it wasn’t so bad after all.
What she wrote about, was less her knowledgeable experience of the stroke – less her brain’s way of processing the blood clot that exploded on the left hand side of her mind – but more her emotional feelings. Having been what she called “an emotionally distanced” person, she suddenly arrived in a world full of feelings that her brain now couldn’t shut down. Having thought that being a GP and being visibly emotional wasn’t possible, she now became the Doctor that freely allowed herself to show her feelings in front of people.
It is 8 weeks since my father’s death, I am a psychotherapist accompanying my grief and I am a daughter trying to work out what is possible now. For years I have proffered my suggestion that the world of therapy needs to shift itself. I have never subscribed to the theory that I must be a blank wall to my clients – though I absolutely respect that in its early formations, that is where therapy needed to sit, and so I share my process willingly and freely.
Though I have no contact with my mother, she is still alive and has chosen not to contact me for the last 16 years. This coming birthday will be the first one I will experience where neither of the people present at my birth will celebrate with me. I have asked my dear soul mother to write my father’s name in any birthday card she chooses to send. I don’t need this forever, but I cannot let it go this year.
Everyone processes significant deaths differently. Grief does not have a predictable pattern in which we move through it logically, and yet – there is a map. I notice the initial state which was a sort of emotional euphoria, my heart raw and open, asked a million questions a day. Not prepared to accept the reality of the situation, I needed to blame or be blamed. I went over and over final conversations – did I hug him goodbye…… at the time – that seemed relevant.
The funeral arrived, my son sang, I read out some words, there was a wooden box. I thought I would hate every minute of it, having personal issues against the rote prescriptive funerals that I have attended in the past. And yet, my father’s celebration of life was held by a celebrant who allowed himself to cry with us. During the weeks leading up to the date – he had allowed himself to love my father, visiting his vegetable patch, talking to the cat. After my son sang my father’s favourite Les Miserable tune, this wonderful man chose to be visibly emotional with us all. I was wrong – this funeral could not be less “by rote”.
8 weeks on, and I am no less raw and no less heart open. The anger has ebbed away – I am finding myself talking to my father a lot more. In the car I point out things I know we would have talked about. I have just returned from France, having taken my dear sister and her family to see the places I often discussed with dad. He would love it, my sons – now 15 and 17, being part of their much younger nieces’ worlds – teaching them about the sky, about bugs, about French bread.
Events that Dad and I talked about, part of our future narrative; are now happening – I recently facilitated a group for social workers who worked for the same county council as my father, instead of me having to recount the details to him later on, I believe he was right next to me.
There is a bitter sweetness to this stage of grief. A joy of discovering that death does not cease conversations and a pain of not being able to sit in the presence of the chat. I can point out to my father the brilliant storm on the horizon of the French valley, I can even hear his response – yet… I cannot give him a hug afterwards – I can just recall what it would have felt like.
Mornings are still tricky, there is a window of 20 minutes where my heart has not caught up with my brain, and at the moment that it does, the despair is just as intense. I still want to roar at the unfairness of him leaving this earth so soon. How confusing it is to both know and not know something at the same time, I believe that it is this very state that we often try to fix with questions.
I’ve just watched a Dr Phil episode where a father grieving the daughter he lost to suicide 12 years previous – is still attempting to fix his state of knowing and not knowing. He wants her case re-opened despite what he knows. We can numb ourselves to feelings, and separately feel numb, or foggy, or dampened – I absolutely know I am not numbing my feelings, yet in the moments that I track my body from toes upwards, from 6.30am – 7am, I am fogged, dampened, confused and numb.
Those of us who have chosen willingly to walk into careers where we are holding people, supporting people, accompanying people along their emotional journeys – be we doctors, or priests, or celebrants or therapists MUST start reviewing what is possible. You might ask me why I feel so strongly about this?
Yesterday I had a conversation with a family member about the meaning of the word strength, she feels she has had to be “strong” for so long. I questioned why becoming emotional would mean this strength would change. The war, screwed over a generation – strength became a strategy of emotional shut down that was literally advertised, our “stiff upper lip” protocol became the way of dealing with life.
We HAVE to redefine emotional strength for the next generation; Crying, not crying – being vulnerable, behaving defensively, talking – not talking, has nothing to do with your emotional strength and much more to do with what you have defined is possible. Questioning your possibilities….Now that takes strength.
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