When I saw this clip, it immediately reminded me of the first person that I lost to death. I was a child and they were a close family member who went through a fairly brief battle with cancer. I wasn’t there at the end and I can’t remember whether it was days or weeks between the last time I saw them, and their death; and yet this was someone who until their hospitalisation, I saw several times a week. There was no goodbye and I was not allowed to go to the funeral. There was also no grieving on my part; the unconscious decision not to, had already been made, and the adults around me were far too preoccupied with their own grief and with seeking reassurance from me, to notice. Though I have no memory of most of my feelings at that time, the way I responded to this clip made me wonder whether deep inside I had wanted a ‘good ending’ and a chance to say goodbye.
By the time the scenario was repeated with a second close family member, my emotional defenses were already in place to absolutely guarantee that the pain would be minimal. I didn’t want to say goodbye or go to the funeral, even though this time I had to. People commented on the fact that I didn’t cry; but at least they weren’t asking me to try and negate their long-held atheism with reassurances of the existence of an after-life. All that I knew was that life after a death was a place of blackness, crying, desolation and lack of joy. There was no celebration of either of those lives, and that made the endings – unresolved as they were – so much worse.
A couple of years ago I read ‘Family’ by Susan Hill. It is a moving account of the author’s struggles to complete her family, following the birth of her first daughter, Jessica, in 1977. A few years later Susan Hill gave birth to a little girl prematurely, and she survived for only five weeks. The account of her brief life, and her death, is heart-breaking; but what struck me most of all was the way in which Jessica was fully involved and had the chance to say a proper goodbye to her sister. Just like her parents did, she held the little girl’s lifeless body in her arms, and gave her a last cuddle.
I know many people might disagree with Susan Hill’s decision, thinking that it would have been too distressing for a young child – my parents certainly would have thought so. When I first read about it I was shocked and surprised – but now I hope I would have had the courage and conviction to do the same, in that situation. Though not yet in double figures in age, Jessica encountered death face to face – and I like to think that she may have grown up into a woman who is less afraid of it as a consequence. A woman with loving memories of someone that she lost, that may bring pain, but also joy at what was gained before it was lost. Of course that’s all speculation; but if it’s true, I also like to think that what made it possible, was the fact that she had a chance to properly say goodbye.
Stepping back, after two years, into the counselling service where I used to see Jane (my ex-therapist), felt strange. For the first few months after our therapy ended, even driving past the building was painful. The prospect of entering it again had filled me with apprehension; and before I could do it I had to check with the service manager that Jane had indeed retired, as she had planned, and that the room I would be attending a meeting in was not the one in which I had had sessions. I was afraid of how I might feel if I were to bump into her again; and of what it would be like to sit in that room. If there were a choice of chairs, which would I choose? I couldn’t risk sitting in the ‘patient’s’ position in case it was too triggering; I couldn’t sit in the therapist’s chair as that had been her space. It would have to be another seat – but there was still the worry that even being in the room would be too difficult and too distressing.
Though I felt unsettled, I managed to concentrate during my meeting and the next time I went back it was a little easier. During my most recent visit, I got up the courage to ask the service manager if I could go into ‘Jane’s’ room and take some photographs. For a while I had had a nagging desire to take a picture of the view out of Jane’s window – the view I spent so much time looking at because I found it so difficult to maintain eye contact. I remembered the view well, but was motivated – as was the case with wanting a copy of Jane’s notes of our sessions – by the fear of losing that memory one day. Having a picture of the view felt more important than having a picture of the room itself; perhaps because it was a memory of my vantage point and a direct recollection of my experience, rather than of the context in which it took place. In some ways the view was evocative of the therapeutic relationship itself. I was surprised when the service manager agreed to my request, and that she left me to it, albeit with the door open.
The room was smaller than I remembered, and less bright; though perhaps that was because I was visiting at a different time of day. I sat in ‘my’ chair – it didn’t even occur to me to sit in Jane’s, though when I think about it now, I wonder if perhaps I should have done….I took a picture of the view, which hadn’t changed, and of Jane’s chair and the wall behind it, which had. They seemed more drab and less interesting, somehow; but then again, I’m sure she was the only thing I noticed when she was there, and so they may well have been much the same.
The biggest and most reassuring change in the room, was that Jane wasn’t there. The room was empty; or at least, empty of her. I’m pleased I took the photos; I don’t need them now, but I may be glad of them in the future. And if there’s one thing that consistently drives me, it’s guarding against regret and the fear of mistakes, and at least this way even if I never look at them again, I cannot regret not taking them. But what I’m most glad of is that going into the room showed me the truth of the point my therapist has been trying to make all along – the same point she made in connection with Jane’s notes and that I’m sure she would have made it in connection with taking the photos, had I asked her before I did it. The point being that memories can be enough; that we remember what we need to. That I carry Jane and what she meant to me, with me. That the lived experience of the relationship is not something I can hang onto either via a bland record of it, or a picture of the place in which it unfolded; but that it is something I have internalised.
Going into the room and finding that Jane wasn’t there, and that that felt okay, showed me that my therapist was right. I had what I needed, and it wasn’t in that room.
When I spoke to my therapist about this a few days later, I told her it had been a relief to find that the room hadn’t been haunted by Jane. That I hadn’t been haunted by her presence, in it. I think that’s what I had been expecting, and was afraid of.
I realised, quite suddenly, that that fear went back to my first family loss. I remembered how on occasion, my parents and I would stay the night in that family member’s house. How I had to sleep in their room, in their bed, and that I was terrified. On the one hand, there was an irrational fear of ‘contamination’ – that somehow the illness and suffering they had been through, could be catching. By that stage I think I’d already acquired the belief that is still firmly rooted inside me today – that I will go through the same thing myself, at a similar and comparatively young age. And then there was the terror of waking up in the middle of the night and finding their ghost standing at the end of the bed. I was afraid to go to sleep and afraid to lie there in the dark. The whole room felt haunted by their presence, and by sickness and death.
My therapist said that she associated the word ‘haunted’ with an unresolved or somehow negative ending. One definition of the phrase, is ‘to be repeatedly troubled’, and both this meaning and my therapist’s, were certainly true for those early family losses which involved neither grieving nor good-byes.
Although my therapeutic relationship with Jane did not have a chance to run its course – as I saw her through a service that offered only short to medium term support – we had the vitally important chance to prepare for our ending, and to say goodbye. And so though at the time it was heart-breaking, and though it took a full eighteen months before I felt as though I had fully grieved her loss, it turned out to be a ‘good ending’. My only ‘good ending’ – so far.
What this short clip doesn’t show you, is what happened immediately afterwards. Meredith is gripped by anguished tears – presumably, with the realisation of what she unthinkingly denied Amelia. Sometimes, we act without thought; sometimes, with the best of intentions. But I hope, if nothing else, this post can be encouragement to us to try and ensure we do not deny ourselves or others (most commonly, our children), the chance to say goodbye before a loss: whether that be the loss of a loved one to death, the loss of a friend due to a change of school, the loss of a pet, the loss of a house due to a move – even the loss of a therapist. Along with allowing ourselves, or them, to grieve, it gives us all the best chance that we will come to feel it as a ‘good ending’ – even if it feels anything but ‘good’ at the time – and that is a priceless gift.