Almost a year ago my niece whom I had fostered for five years, looked up at the window that I was looking out of, as she ran away for the third and final time. Social services, as I knew they would, ended our placement without so much as a disruption meeting. I could have put in another complaint about their professionalism but this time felt there was no point fighting a decision made which my niece was behind. Sadly I knew that if I had been her mother, running away would have been classed as normal teenage behaviour and she would have just had to put up with the clash between us as adult and pre-adult. This clash actually creates the motivation required for leaving the nest. However, as a Looked After Child she had other options, and moving in with another foster family was the option chosen. To this day I was not given so much as a forwarding address for her mail. My mother travelled several hours to come down for the weekend to pack up her bedroom because I could not do it. I moved the pile of her things into the flat foyer ready to be collected by her social worker on Monday. I realised that I was looking at five years gone in a blink of an eye. No time to dwell on sadness, practically my fostering allowance was ceased at the end of the month, a weeks notice for losing my main income. I had to pack up my own life as I could not afford to stay in the flat. I sold all my furniture to raise the funds required for a months notice to quit the flat. I made the decision to continue counselling training, chasing my dream of an equine therapy business and keeping Jac, our pony, which has meant living with friends and out of suitcases ever since.
This is one of my stories of what has occurred in the last 12 months, and I can tell it now without any tears, which they say means you are over it. I know that isn’t quite true, I can disconnect from my emotions to tell my story. A wise woman advised me that you have to connect to three places in your body to see if you are over things; your mind, your heart and your roots/base/gut. My mind can logically tell you a story, it just has, but my other two centres are not OK. I decided to use Gestalt theory to help with my experience of sadness as it is well known for getting clients to connect to their bodies and explore their emotions.
Gestalt theory is largely accredited to psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Fritz Perls (1893 – 1970) and the approach is basically active, experiential and deals with the ‘here and now’. It promotes human growth and potential. Gestalt is German for ‘pattern’, and according this theory people are concerned with creating ‘meaning’ in their lives, therefore people take into account whole patterns of sensory experience (e.g. physical, sensory, emotional and intellectual), rather than single elements alone. The ‘meaning’ is dependent on how a person takes in their sensory experience or perception. For psychological growth it is necessary for people to be fully aware or self aware of all aspects of themselves, including their barriers or defences. The defences are known as ‘layers of neurosis’ in Gestalt similar to ‘self-concept’ in Person Centred Therapy. People have varying needs, and the more important ones are at the forefront of a person’s thoughts and are known as ‘figures’. Once figures are dealt with they fade into the ‘background’. This is known as the formation and destruction of Gestalts, collectively ‘figures’ and ‘background’ become the ‘whole’ pattern.
Present thoughts, feelings and actions attached to experiences, even if they are connected to the past or future, are the main focus of this approach. Telling your life story is discouraged as people can use their stories to hold onto and avoid moving on or making changes. Your story is not who you are. Your trauma is not who you are. I am therefore not my sadness, but I am experiencing the emotion of sadness. Acknowledging present feelings and emotions helps us connect us to the here and now, as this connection is said to be very productive in gaining self-awareness, and with this comes self actualisation or moving into your own power. The Gestalt approach is interested in the experience, rather than the interpretation of it.
My sadness layer was visible once the anger was released, and I then went through the grieving process of losing a child. I did not appreciate I was going through this at the time because life is not single layered and I was dealing with other more pressing ‘figures’, namely homelessness and financial difficulties. Some time later when a client came in to see me with low mood after the death of her adult daughter a year earlier. I listened, put myself in her shoes and how it felt for her that people had avoided her because they didn’t know what to say or what to do. She had noone to just listen without advice or judgement until she came into counselling. At the end of our sessions she asked if I had ever lost a child because I listened like I had. That’s when it struck me, I had.
The Elizabeth Kubler-Ross model describes 5 stages of loss and grief as:
- Denial – protective, practicalities as a distraction, disbelief, numbness (this is a survival reaction which stops overwhelm).
- Anger – blame, meaningless loss without directing blame, needs outlet.
- Bargaining – ‘if onlys’, punishing self/bargaining with fate
- Depression – realising the loss, lonely – this has potential to go clinical.
- Acceptance – closure, accepting the reality, permanent, its not about being OK.
From my own observations there is no time limit, there is no specific order and stages can occur at the same time or not at all. The Tonkins model of grief goes a bit further on an emotional level, giving permission for the grief to become part of you and that you then build your life around the grief. It has been my experience that emotions trapped in the body lead to dis-ease and better for our well-being to release them if we can. If we explore a bit further on from our emotional body to our spiritual body, our innate emotions (anger, fear, sadness and joy) are part of our human experience, they are not who we are in essence, merely what we are experiencing in the body, which links back to Gestalt theory. In our spiritual body we are energy, so we exist on another level if you will. Physics explains we can’t create or destroy energy, so death or loss, does not really exist at this level. Although it can feel we are alone and isolated in our human experiences, it may help our resilience to life as we know it, to remember energetically that we are all connected to each other, past and present, as time itself is a human-made concept, and we are connected to divine source. We never really lose anyone. Of course you could look at these words and conclude this is just the denial stage talking.