Tell me about the importance of counselling
Within weeks of Nico’s death my partner and I knew we were greatly in need of counselling. As we were at the stage where we barely remembered to wash and eat. The head of pastoral care arranged for us to see the in-house counsellor at the school where my partner worked. It was free, we could start immediately and could go every week for as long as we needed to. It felt like a life-line. Although the counsellor had no prior experience of grief counselling and had never worked with a traumatically bereaved family, he told us he was excited to work with us and was actually looking forward to the challenge. We had no prior experience of counselling and took his offer at face value, assuming it would be very helpful.
I remember little from the initial sessions, mainly because those first few months are pretty much a blur. My daughter came to the first two sessions with us, but refused to come after that. She rang me on the day of our third session and strongly advised us to get help from someone else. She said that there was something about him she wasn’t comfortable with and it felt to her as if this guy was ticking us off some type of counselling to-do list “worked with traumatically bereaved family”. But without other options, we continued as we felt talking to a third party must surely help.
One day I told him the day before something quite terrifying had happened to me. I was in my bedroom doing my hair, when I saw in the mirror behind me a stranger had walked into the room. I whirled around to confront them, but there was no-one there and when I turned back to look into the mirror, to my horror, the stranger was there in the mirror. Then suddenly the stranger turned into me. I was looking at my own reflection. I remember shaking all over, quite terrified and unable to understand what was happening.
When I told him this, the counsellor replied “oh yes, that’ll be the stress. That sort of thing is common in your state”. He was quite dismissive and told me not to worry about it. He talked about something else and then our session ended.
For months we were jerked from our sleep by a loud noise but we didn’t know what that sound was. Occasionally we would identify it as screaming, but in our sleep fuddled state we couldn’t work out where the screaming was coming from. I mentioned it to the counsellor and he said I was just dreaming it. One night, close to a year after my son’s death I was woken by the screaming and for the first time realised it was I who was screaming. I sat on the side of the bed shaking, realising that it was I who woke us all night after night, screaming. I told the counsellor and he told me not to worry as it would fade over time.
The last time I saw the counsellor was a couple of months before my son’s inquest and by then I had been seeing him for almost 2 years. In the last months he made it clear that he felt there was no point in continuing. He seemed to be bored by the sessions and repeatedly asked me why I was still coming to see him. His last words to me were “good luck with everything – I think we’ve taken this as far as we can”. Nico’s inquest was coming up in 4 months and I knew if was going to be an awful experience which I would need help to get through. I was distressed by him ending the sessions in the run-up to the inquest and I didn’t want to stop, but had no choice. In many ways he was right though, we really had reached a cul-de-sac and as he had no knowledge or understanding of what we were about to go through, he probably wouldn’t have been any more help than he’d already been.
The inquest was widely reported and it seems he saw some of the television coverage. He sent us my partner an email a couple of weeks after the inquest which said: “I now appreciate what you have been through better and I can see what an awful experience it has been for you. It seems from the press coverage that you were not lying or exaggerating and I’m only sorry that I wasn’t in a position to help you more”.
We were stunned. It had never occurred to us that at any point he thought we were lying or exaggerating. I strongly doubt though that he could have helped us more. Mainly because what we really needed was the help of a counsellor trained specifically to help families who are going through traumatic grief. Thanks to my own experience, I know only too well that being supported by someone who is not a properly trained grief counsellor can be extremely damaging.
There are some very good grief charities out there which give you to access to very good grief counsellors. One is the fantastic charity Respond https://respond.org.uk/ who specialise in helping people with LD and their families. For some these are a lifeline when they need it most and they wouldn’t make it through without them.
However, I think traumatic grief is different to other types of grief for one main reason; families have no choice but to stay mired in the grief state – often for many years. I personally know of families who are still at the investigation stage of their loved-one’s death 7 years after it happened. They simply haven’t got the option of “moving through the stages of grief” because on a regular basis they are required to supply crucially important details of what happened in the months and weeks before the death, on the day of the death and in the immediate aftermath. They feel that if they fail to recall every little detail, then that little detail may be the one on which the whole case turns. This causes them to have to re-live the details of the death over and over, often speaking to people with whom they have no emotional connection at all. That’s an awful, deeply toxic situation, but for so many families it’s their day to day truth.
We need more specialist counsellors to work with traumatically bereaved families. We are still at the point where so many families think they’re lucky if they manage to find an advocate and manage to find legal assistance to help them fight their case. In so many cases that’s rare enough. How can it be that still for families, even now, finding good counselling to help them through this emotionally is just too big an ask?