I wrote down the question that appears at the head of this article some time ago, and left the rest of the page blank. Then on the very day that I was going to write a first draft I found myself in discussion with someone describing her own grief. During that spontaneous conversation I shared the title with her. She immediately asked me if she could read what I had written. I confessed to her the fact that there was a problem with this: I hadn’t written anything but the question at that stage. But here it is, complete with what she shared with me over breakfast this morning.
It is possible that readers of The TCJ can point me to those who have addressed this question already: if so I would be profoundly grateful (Ed: please comment below). In the meantime here are my reflections.
We were at the funeral of one of my close relatives. She had died having been in the bloom of health until the last few months of her life, and was living life to the full. She was in full-time employment, and was expecting to see yet another of her grandchildren due to born in a few months. She was lovely, and loved. And when the news of her death was shared, a wave of grief that swept through the family. People said things with intensity and feeling. No surprise you might say?
Well, that’s a good point, except that many of the same people had gathered in 1984 at the funeral of three close relatives of the same family (and related to the recently deceased person), and it was patently clear that something was happening now, that hadn’t happened then. The difference was that we were now genuinely expressing deep feelings of loss, sorrow and anger in a way that had not happened on the previous occasion.
Now it need to said that there were a number of differences between the two events, including the fact that the three who died in 1984 were killed without warning in a car crash on a motorway, whereas this relative had been diagnosed as terminally ill for a few months. But, though aware of these, I was still beginning to hone in on the question that prompted this piece. It had never occurred to me before. And as soon as I began to consider it, I sensed intuitively that it probably isn’t possible to mourn the loss of two or more people at the same time, in the same way as you might mourn the loss of one.
And this is why. If two or more closed family or friends die at the same time, how could you mourn one of them, while putting to one side the others? This would be to defy the deep emotional logic of grieving which by definition is not susceptible to such neat, clinically-defined boundaries. How on earth could you ration your time and your feelings in this way? Grief simply does not obey the normal categories of thought and feeling. It functions much more like a tsunami carrying all before it: no respecter of persons.
Over time it might become possible to think once again about each of the people in turn, but at the moment of loss the whole of life has become a whirl. One is in a vortex. One might be able to control aspects of outward behaviour, and try to limit outbursts of grief to private times and places, but the inner world which is where the well-springs of grief lie, has been destabilised and is not subject to this discipline.
This led me to reflect on the feelings of children and young people who have lost or been removed from their homes and families for whatever reason or reasons. As far as they concerned it must feel at times as if they have lost everything and everyone. And there is a mass of data, evidence, material and theory based on the effects of such loss. But how much attention has been paid, I wonder, to the simple, single question: can one grieve for more than one person at a time? I suspect not.
And so the follow-up question for those of us engaged in therapeutic responses is: given that there are multiple losses, and multiple causes of grief, how can we help to provide a container that allows an unblocking of the defence-mechanisms that flow from such a trauma? My guess is that there are many aspects of a therapeutic approach that lend themselves to this. One example would be to pay attention to a child’s life-story. Life story books have been de rigueur in the UK for several decades. But have we appreciated the potential they offer for a child to grieve for individuals in the story one at a time? And with play therapy and role play how much attention and focus is given to assisting the expression of grief and loss of specific individuals in a child’s life?
If all this is, as they say in the field of chess, “well known to theory”, then I wonder how I happened to miss it. If not, then I think we are on to something important and would like very much to work at the implications of the question.
All of which leads me back to breakfast conversation this morning. Out of the blue the two of us found ourselves talking about the time in her life when she had lost her father and her husband had lost his twin brother at almost exactly the same time. From a geographical distance I had been trying to help her and her husband cope with their respective losses and the associated grief. And without hesitation she told me that because she was overwhelmed with her own loss and grief, she could not help him as she wanted to. And she realised that he was too affected by his own grief to respond to her and her feelings as she knew he would have done in other situations. The thought that this was not an idiosyncrasy of her personality or his, was of considerable comfort to her. She began to see some of the hidden dynamics that were going on. And even as we spoke we found we were able to express our sense of loss of both people, as individuals.
It obviously takes time before one can grieve at all adequately when there are multiple losses. To realise this and to find ways of assisting the expression of such grief is surely a primary tasks of therapeutic child care. And as we well know, the effects of this separation and loss, can last a lifetime. So it is not something that is likely to have disappeared. Is it ever too late to be in touch with and express the feelings associated with death, physical or emotional?