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Making sense of loss and grief



Just at the moment, many of us are in a state of pronounced grief.  We have embarked on a massive change, and any change brings loss.  Even those who welcomed the referendum result will still be adjusting to change and the prospect of living in a very different world.

From a therapeutic point of view, thinking about Kubler Ross’s ideas of how we work through grief is helpful.  The diagram shows it as a wave, but it isn’t a linear process, and  it is often shown with stages in different orders, but the important point is that all stages are necessary.  And they take time.

When we are faced with loss, whether unexpected, or anticipated, as when terminally ill loved one dies, there is always an element of shock and denial.  To feel a mix of feelings, or none at all is entirely normal.  As the confusion and denial passes, we start to feel angry, and this anger is important.  People who can get angry and express these feelings when faced with bereavement often process their grief more effectively.  When we find it hard to get angry or turn this anger internally, we may well get stuck longer with unprocessed grief.

The important thing about depression after loss is that it is normal.  It is our wholly human response as we feel great sadness.  The colour goes out of our world, our energy diminishes, and we lose interest in our surroundings for a while as we process the feelings inside.  It isn’t a permanent state, even if it can feel endless. These feelings will pass.

 Much of our work at Solace is about helping people to find some meaning in the losses and trauma they have experienced, to help people tell their story, and to re-emerge as human beings who have suffered greatly, experiences unimaginable losses and who can, accepting all this, live their lives fully.  Over a week on from the referendum, many of us still find it hard to talk about very much else.  This bargaining phase is all about trying to make some sense of it all.

 Acceptance in the case of the referendum result will mean different things to different people.  For some, it means literally accepting the result and getting down to making a success of where we are. Theresa May appears to be doing this!  For others it may well mean finding new energy to stopping Brexit happening (such as the recent growth in the Lib Dems and the Green Party).

 This blog isn’t about politics, but is intended to be helpful in understanding how we might be feeling, and to put our feelings into the context of a very natural process.  A process that we experience every time we lose somebody,  or make a major change in our lives, planned or unplanned.


The challenge of uncertainty

The result of the EU referendum, whichever way you voted, or didn't vote, has been a shock, and a massive change to the world as we know it.  My own reaction was one of distress and mourning, for stability and security, for shared values, and for the belief I hold dearly, that we are always better together than apart.  My fears and grief were deepened by the SNPs inevitable call for a second devolution referendum, and the very real likelihood that this time, they will succeed.

 So what to do? Emigrate to Canada?  Move to Scotland?  Wear a big badge saying “it wasn’t me” or maybe, start talking to people to find out what this is all about.

 In the shock of Friday I found myself wondering:

“what is this challenging me to be?”

And this was a helpful question to ask myself. 

I felt first and foremost I needed to be grown up, to be reassuring, to communicate my own feelings and fears and to listen to others.  At first I needed to hear others’ fears and grief, and then as I became stronger, I was ready to sit with people who had voted leave, to hear why they believed this was the right option.  Hearing well thought out arguments for this decision helped, even if I didn't fully agree with them.

So what actions should I take?  In times of uncertainty our core values come to the fore.  What really matters to you?

I am passionate about our environment, so thinking about how I support the protection of our natural world once we leave the EU is of paramount importance.   I also believe in dialogue and understanding, and finding a peaceful, positive path through situations.  Other people may see trying to ensure that the Conservative party has a leader of integrity as a top priority.  Still others focus on reaching out to neighbours, friends and colleagues from other European countries to show that they are still valued and welcome. 

What would it be for you?

If nothing else, this referendum has shown that what we do matters.  Our actions have consequences, and this one will have consequences, good or bad, for many generations to come.


Why I love working with a sand tray

Isn’t that just for kids? 

Well, yes, sand tray therapy works brilliantly with kids.  It was developed as a form of therapy, by amongst others, Virginia Axline, who wrote the landmark childrens’ therapy book “Dibs: in search of self”.

And it also works really well with many adults.


What is a sand tray?  And what is sand tray therapy?

A sand tray is a rectangular shallow box, with fine sand in, that feels pleasant to run your fingers through.  Alongside the tray are objects, a whole range of different sorts of objects that you can choose to represent the issue that you are exploring, and to explore your own personal world.  My collection of objects includes stones, feathers, shells, domestic and wild animals, monsters, dinosaurs and heroes, a clock, a bell, mirrors, ribbons, and many strange and wonderful items that are not easily summarised and described.

To work with the sand tray, I invite the client to choose items that appeal to them in some way and place them as they wish in the tray.   It may be to create a specific scene to explore an issue, or a broader representation of your world right now.   The edge of the tray provides a safe boundary in which to contain the work, which can make difficult issues much more manageable.   I have used sand trays to explore support systems, to recognise strengths, to explore relationship issues and illuminate internal conflicts and feelings.

I value using sand trays in my work, and in my own therapy (the tray above is one of mine) because they always show something new.  They allow us to connect with our unconscious, and to follow our intuition in choosing items and placing them, and noticing how they relate to each other.  It isn’t a thinking exercise, and there is no right and wrong: whatever appears is there to help us.  I am often impacted by the emotion that can be expressed in the sand tray, as we suddenly see part of ourselves, and make that connection.

Sand trays are particularly good when words seem to be failing to reach what the issue is all about.  By bringing in intuition and touch, and the scope to physically move things around, to build, bury, remove and replace items we can open up new insights that words might never uncover.  And as we explore an issue at arms length, with our hands, and recognise the resources we can release stuck situations and gain new choices.

My sand tray is always available to use: some of my clients love it, some never use it.  The choice is yours!


The menopause and psychotherapy: or why “The Change” is a great time to start therapy!

What do you feel about the menopause?  Are you safely through it, dreading its arrival, or in the middle of hot flushes and confusing hormonal changes?  Is it something you talk about?



I have just been reading a fascinating thesis looking at the role of the menopause in psychotherapy: what clients want to talk about, and the issues that come up between client and therapist.   Its written by an Australian, Margot Hinton, and I include a link to her paper at the end of this blog.

She  reflects that in some societies, such as Native American Indian and Maori, the menopause is seen as a transition to an age of power, and wisdom, and to a position of greater and different value in society.   Unsurprisingly, women in these cultures tend not to have too many problems with the menopause.  This is in marked contrast to the way Western society talks about “The Change”: a time of loss, the end of femininity, a medical problem to be addressed with drugs, the start of decreptitude, bone loss and osteoporosis, depression and mood swings.

The Victorians saw it as an affliction of the blood, with the menstrual blood going to the brain, and prescribed leeches and bloodletting. It was also linked to death as in the days when life expectancies were much shorter, the menopause would occur at the end of many womens’ lives.  Once Freud got involved things really went downhill.  Hinton builds up the case that the menopause is as much socially constructed as it is a physical reality.

This element of social construction is really important, as it means that we as women, have a choice as to how we see ourselves in this experience.  She identifies five core themes:

  • ·      Silence – that the role of the menopause is unconsidered in therapy, when in fact it may be a significant, hidden issue.
  • ·      Loss and fear of loss: of youth, of fertility, of feminine power
  • ·      Relationships with their mothers – and their therapists!
  • ·      Growth and maturity as these tensions are disentangled
  • ·      A renewed sense of self: acceptance, freedom and self determination

I can certainly relate to all of these, both in my own therapy, and in my experience with clients. It is very easy to overlook the possible impact of the menopause, particularly in the fear and sense of loss that surrounds it.  I was intrigued by it being a time when women really address their relationships with their mothers, and from this, gain a real power to be themselves.  It seems to me that this is a tremendously creative time, if we can just grasp the nettles of the change itself.

Those nettles might be the challenge of finally growing up, of accepting our mortality, of looking after our body through nutrition and exercise.  Denial can work well for much of our life, but the menopause is the time to meet, and embrace, reality.  And I believe there is life and excitement in that.

Hinton’s paper can be found at

If you are interested in health and nutrition, you might consider a hair test MOT from The Health Detectives: 

For an extremely comprehensive (long) and positive guide see Northrups book “The Wisdom of the Menopause”



What Easter means to me

Each year, despite having very vague beliefs about Christianity and some misgivings about organised religion, I find myself drawn to attend church services, to hear the Easter story once more, to get drawn into the unfolding drama.

This year I went to a thought provoking and moving Maundy Thursday service. I was touched by the vulnerability of the people who offered their bare feet to be washed, and how open they made themselves.  The service ended with the church in silence and darkness, with all fineries stripped away, and just a candlelit chapel left, in which a payer vigil would continue through the night. I went to a short Good Friday service where we laid candles on a cross on the floor, and as I watched them flickering it seemed as if we were watching the fragile hopes of everyone in the world.

Having entered into the depths of despair and fragile, flickering hope I wanted to continue the story to its conclusion, and so we attended a church in the village in which we were staying.  As we entered the sense of excitement and anticipation was infectious.  The church was full of crosses decorated in every possible way imaginable, including one made of crosswords, a peace cross of white poppies, another created with the workings of a bicycle and many, many more, of every colour and size. Instead of a sermon, five parishioners stood up and spoke about what Easter meant to them, deeply personal and moving accounts of faith and experience. It seemed that the vicar had got everyone in the village involved in some way, and I felt privileged to have been invited to share this, even if I couldn’t muster the same degree of faith in the detail of the story.

But the big story is important.  Easter is a time of hope, and so often, it seems that my work is to nurture and restore hope.  Hope is the uniquely human quality that keeps us alive, and is always there, even if at times, its flame becomes tiny and flickering.  Easter restores my faith in the capacity of human beings to recover and build again after terrible suffering and despair. 

Easter also comes at a time when we celebrate the start of spring, and the end of winter.  As I dig the ground ready for this year’s crops, and see bright green buds emerging on the empty trees, it is another reminder that life goes on, and that new life does start once again.