Fiona's Blog: When We See Our Parents Die…
I could never have imagined life without my dad and my mother-in-law. My parents lived quite a distance away, and visits were not as frequent as I would have liked. But my dad had been a strong figure in my life, all my life. My mother-in-law I’d known for far fewer years, but I saw her every week once my first child was born – a routine I deliberately put in place, so that my children would have a very visible grandparenting figure in their lives, given how far away my own parents were. We grew incredibly close over those years and I still hear her laughter in my head most days.
I lost both of these people within two years of each other. I was with my dad when he died. An agonising seven hours by his bedside, prepared for the inevitable by the hospital “we’ve withdrawn his oxygen. He doesn’t have long”. It turns out that a human being can struggle on for quite some time, even with very low oxygen levels. My mother-in-law’s decline was slower – a four-month agony of seeing her die from an aggressive cancer. I missed her final moments, but was with her intensively up to that point.
I’ve had to work through both of these experiences in therapy. Therapists also need therapy! It wasn’t only the grief connected to losing them that I needed to process. It has been so much more than that. Seeing my loved ones die was extremely distressing - being with them up to their final moments. It has left me with memories and images that I don’t actually want or know how to process. I wasn’t prepared for this part of the loss. I thought I only had to prepare myself for life without them, which I knew would be hard enough.
Since these experiences, I have worked with others in my client work who have been with their loved ones at the end, and who have struggled to process the experiences of witnessing their deaths. What’s common in everyone’s stories, is that it’s very difficult to find a place to talk about how the ‘seeing’ has left them feeling, and how difficult it is to process those details, images and memories. The horrific details that no-one can bear to hear. No-one wants to hear these parts of the death, and yet, with no-where to process them, the memories and images can become overwhelming for those left behind.
This is where therapy has been invaluable for me. I have a space where I can talk in as much detail as I need to, as often as I need to, in order to process even the most frightful parts of the deaths of my loved ones. And I have accessed an additional type of therapy - EMDR - that helps the brain to process and integrate distressing memories, so that they are less disturbing and haunting. I am trained in this type of therapy, too, and offer it to my own clients. I have seen astounding results with EMDR - from feeling emotionally overwhelmed and having intrusive thoughts, dreams and imagery, to feeling settled, sleeping well, and remembering what happened, but more opaquely – less of a feeling of still being there, or less vivid somehow.
I’m writing this to acknowledge a part of the grief and death process that often gets silenced. And to say to others who have had similar experiences, you are not alone, and help is available.
If you or someone you know would like support with grief, complex grief or traumatic memory processing, please get in touch or share my details with those who might benefit.
Fiona Gregory is a mum, wife, crazy dog parent, psychotherapist and executive coach. She works and lives in Surrey. Her best days are spent in Devon with family and dog, eating ice cream by the sea and laughing at the dog going crazy about sea gulls.