A friend of mine died recently. It was unexpected and the news came as a sudden and great shock. I heard about it via a message from her mobile phone. To read a message from her number telling me that she is no more made it seem all the more unbelievable.
Much of my work centres around loss, with bereavement perhaps being the greatest of all losses. I like to believe that, as an experienced practitioner within this field, I know how careful and sensitive I need to be when I’m working with a client who is suffering.
It may be, however, that experience can make a so-called professional just that little bit blasé. Not consciously and never arrogantly or intentionally but because our experience may give us an understanding of how time really will help (whatever you feel in the moment) and our learning will hopefully allow us to lead you along that painful path until you can begin to manage on your own. We may not mean to know best but we may sometimes inadvertently slip into such a sense.
In a way, such a thought process is both natural and inevitable; to be so overwhelmed with empathy for each client’s sad story would mean we would no longer be able to do our work as well as we would want to. We need to be able to support, hold and be there for our client but we also need to be able to stand back. It’s one thing walking with them on their journey, it’s another trying to merge with them or claim their suffering is ours too. That would not be right.
That is what I might have said before experiencing my own reaction to the news of my friend’s death. Not now, however.
My experience was visceral. I had a sense of not being able to understand what I was reading followed by disbelief. The message from my eyes to my brain was clear but my brain could not grasp it. I had to read the message again, and again. I still couldn’t take it in. I read it aloud to a friend who was with me and who knew of this person. Did saying it aloud help? I’m not sure. I don’t think so.
Let me tell you a little about my friend, a creative force of nature. She was an award-winning stand-up comedian; a poet; a writer; a teacher and a loyal and entertaining friend. She was a great cook, a great traveller and an all-round bon viveur – a lover of life. She also had a waspish tongue and sharp wit that could inflict a fair bit of damage if she disapproved of what you were saying and you were on the receiving end of it – I was once, and it did.
She was a tall blonde beauty in her youth and had matured – she might question that word – into a glamorous and sophisticated woman of the world in her middle years and the wisdom she’d gained over the years honed her natural gifts. Above all, she was a truly vibrant human being, full of energy and life and still with many plans for what she was going to do next.
Then, within a month, she was gone, leaving friends, colleagues and students feeling bewildered and bereft. As in life, she had her devoted friend by her side and supporting her at her end.
My strong reaction to her death surprised me. It’s reconnected me with the emotions that a person goes through when s/he loses someone dear to them. The difference between “imagining” how I’d feel and actually “feeling” a personal loss is stark.
I’ve learned from this – though I’d prefer my friend were still here and I was still ignorant – that I need to remain open to my own feelings, rather than perhaps using my own counselling role as a shield.
We live in a cynical age and it’s easy to get caught up in it. It’s sometimes easier to sneer than to praise, and it may be a way of guarding against feelings of disappointment. If we don’t hope for much, then we won’t feel bad about losing much. But does that make for a good life? I think not.
In this month of remembrance of people who seemed to be so much more idealistic than we are, I like the idea of trying to reconnect with some of that desire for something better or desire to protect the good qualities and values we have.
I’m aware that I’m preaching and that’s not part of my role which is to reflect, observe and point out those observations to a person who is looking to gain some understanding and relief in their own life. I feel, though, this is part of a reflection caused by her untimely death.
And so, back to my friend. I’m not going to say RIP to her because I’m not sure that’s what she’d want. I’m going to hope instead that somewhere in a parallel universe, there’s another fabulous party going on featuring the best champagne, the most delicious food, the best reggae music and my friend at the centre of it all, sprinkling her bon mots to her devoted attendees. I hope she’s having fun.
Meanwhile, still on this planet, thank you, Ms A, for continuing to teach me even after you’ve gone. I’m going to keep you in my heart and hope to honour you by remembering just what your loss has meant to me.