Tag Archives: emotional connection

The Loneliness of Grief

This weekend the world was given an image of the loneliness of grief.  On April 17, 2021, many people in the world watched as the British Royal Family said goodbye to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at his funeral service in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Through media coverage, we were granted an intimate view of a family in mourning.  No matter our opinion of the monarchy, it’s important to remember that this is a family that is grieving the loss of a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Prince Philip would have celebrated his 100th birthday this June.

A Common Experience

While we are probably not a member of a royal family, many of us have shared this experience of losing and honouring a loved one during this pandemic.  We can relate to having to limit the number of guests who can attend the service and internment.  We know what it’s like to maintain physical distance from our friends and family members when what we need more than anything is a hug and words of comfort whispered in our ear.

Part of the original plan for Prince Philip’s funeral was that his coffin would be carried by a custom-built Land Rover hearse (Prince Philip designed it himself) through the streets of London in order for the public to pay their respects and say their farewells.  Understandably this didn’t happen.  We also know the pain of not being able to honour our loved one in the way that they may have pre-arranged themselves or as we would like to do for them.

A Woman Alone

One of the most poignant images from the service is that of Queen Elizabeth sitting alone.  Due to Covid-19 restrictions, only thirty people were able to be in the church.  Those in attendance had to sit in their household ‘bubbles’.  This wife is now alone in her bubble.

For a minute, let’s forget the famous identity of this woman and think of her as a fellow human.  Elizabeth met Philip when she was thirteen years old.   Philip was 18.  Apparently, for Elizabeth, it was “love at first sight”.  For eight years they continued their relationship through letters until they were able to marry when Elizabeth was 21.

As a married couple, they set up a household, had children and worked at their careers.  Sadly, a few years into their marriage, Elizabeth’s father died suddenly. This meant that Elizabeth had to take over the family business.  Philip, knowing how important this work was to his wife and her family, had already agreed that he would support her in this endeavour—even if it meant stepping back from his career.

When Philip died, they had been married for almost 74 years.  Throughout those years, their relationship weathered good times and bad.  They worked together on common goals—supporting each other along the way.  Elizabeth was heard to say soon after her husband’s death, “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years…”

And now…like many other people who have lost a spouse, Elizabeth is without ‘her person’.

How Can We Help?

Unless we personally know Queen Elizabeth, there isn’t anything we can do for her.  However, I think she represents many grieving people that we do know.

One of the most common things I hear as a therapist is that people mourning the loss of a loved one (no matter the connection to them), is that they are surrounded by care and support immediately following their person’s death.  However, over time, the check-in calls dwindle away, notes and emails stop and offers to spend time together become farther and farther apart.  Others go back to their own lives, and the person in mourning is left sitting alone.  The loneliness of grief is intense.

While being busy can be the way of life for everyone, what the griever experiences is a ‘secondary’ loss.

We can think of it this way…imagine a still pond of water.  A large rock is dropped into the pond sending large ripples away from where the rock entered.  This rock symbolizes the death of the loved one and the ripples are the major changes that happen in the griever’s life.

As the ripples move away from the initial point of contact, they become less violent—yet they still make waves—upsetting the surface of the pond.  These are the secondary losses.  The difficult thing is that they tend to happen as the bereaved is coming out of the shock phase that follows the death of a loved one, and are experiencing active grief experiences such as grief bursts (sudden crying jags), sleep issues (too much or too little), and grief brain (brain fog).

A Request…

If you know someone who is grieving, please stick around.  I know that life is busy, and it doesn’t take much.  In fact, you often don’t even need to say anything.  One client shared with me that one of the most comforting things a friend did for them was to show up for regularly scheduled walks.  This wise friend let them take the emotional lead.  Sometimes they needed to talk, other times to laugh or cry.  Often, they needed to be quiet together and not feel quite so alone.

And now…here’s a wonderful video from grief therapist, Megan Devine, on How to Help a Grieving Friend.  Enjoy!

A Trip Through the Past: The Genogram

None of us were created out of the mist, but have generations of family members that came before us. ?Even if we are no longer speaking to them, or know nothing about them, these people?continue to ?have an influence on us–even it’s unconscious. ?How do we bring this influence into consciousness? ?Enter the genogram!

A Geno-what?

Simply put, a genogram is?a graphic representation of a family tree that displays detailed information?about relationships among individuals. It is more complicated than a?traditional family tree?as it can include individuals’ characteristics, health history, cause of death, emigration patterns…basically anything that the therapist and/or client feel they would like to add to the document.

If you’re curious and want to discover more about the structure and history of genograms, you can check out this Wikipedia entry.

The Use of Genograms in Therapy

When I begin to work with a new client, one of the first things we often do is create a genogram. This is a joint process, and the document is created from the client’s perspective. ?We start with the client and work outwards by adding partner(s), siblings, children, parents, etc.–going as far back as grandparents–though sometimes farther back if it will be useful.

Once we have the added?the people, then we start to include ‘relationships’ between the client and key people on the chart. ?Are they close or distant? ?Who doesn’t speak to whom? ?Who disappeared from the family never to be heard from again?

Often a useful component is the addition of a few words describing each person on the chart. ?As a client tells their family history/personal story, additions are made to the chart. For example, perhaps emigration is a large part of a family ?history, which effects the relationships between members that stay in the country or origin and those that leave. ?It’s also interesting to track items such as divorce, suicide and drug/alcohol use over the generations.

While genograms follow a definite structure and use specific symbols, each chart is as individual as the person creating it. ?In fact, their usefulness is due to their flexibility as we can include any information that feels important to the creators.

The genogram is?a ‘living document’ and?the product of an iterative process. ?As more information comes to light during the course of therapy, it may?be added to the chart. ?We can also go back to the chart during sessions to confirm thoughts or perceptions when needed.

The Client Response to Creating a Genogram

Ideally, creating a genogram is an?enjoyable activity. It can be interesting?to look at our family history from this perspective. ?When I ask clients what they think of the process, I often hear about how they never thought of their family in this way and are enlightened when they start to see the patterns that emerge.

Clients often apologize when they don’t know information for the chart. ?However, it’s all good information–even not knowing is valuable. ?Why don’t they know? ?What does this say about their family system? It’s acceptable?not to know as it’s all grist for the mill.

The Use Of Genograms In Couple Work

Genograms can also be completed when working with couples. ?In this case, we complete a chart for both partners–‘marrying’ it into a?whole picture. ?It’s often fascinating to see how family of origin pieces affect their current relationship and how each person is being affected by family history.

The Benefits of Creating a Genogram

Besides showing multi-generational patterns, one of the benefits of completing a genogram is that it puts some distance between the clients and the current concern(s) that brings a couple or individual into therapy. ?We can see the challenge from another, less-personal perspective.

Another benefit is the unveiling of family secrets. ?Holes in family of origin information often point to family secrets. ?Why don’t we know what happened to Great Uncle Ed? ?Why did Cousin Louise disappear only to return suddenly? ?How come no one talks about Aunt Nancy? ?Family secrets are important as they are part of the rules that govern families. As these rules often affect our core beliefs and subsequent mental health, it’s important that we explore them. ?A genogram is often the first hint that a secret exists.

A third benefit of a genogram is as a tool to encourage interactions?between family members. ?While in grad school I created a complex genogram as part of a family of origin course. ?In order to fill in missing information, I had to initiate conversations with family members that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise. ?While these talks were not always easy, the results were worth the effort, both for information gained and relationships renewed.

It’s Not Our Ancestors’ Fault–At Least Not Intentionally

One of the pitfalls of a genogram is the possibility of blaming our family for our current struggles. While they may have a part to play–especially as patterns are repeatedly acted out, at the end of the day it’s safe to say that parents desire to love their children unconditionally and attempting to do their best. ?However, this doesn’t always seem to be the case. ?Why?

Dr. Gabor Mat?, in his book, When the Body Says No: ?Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, writes about how multi-generational stress and trauma affect the ability of parents to attach to their children. ?It is well-documented that our attachment style (secure vs. insecure) is?a key component of our mental health and the way we interact with others. Our ability to handle stress is deeply related to brain development, both before?and post birth, as much of our brain development continues well into the first years of age. Therefore, if our grandparents were stressed and unable to attach securely to our parents, it affected our parent’s brain development and their ability to attach…and on it goes.

Dr.?Mat? states:

“Parenting styles do not reflect greater or lesser degrees of love in the heart of the mother and father; other, more mundane factors are at play. ?Parental love is infinite and for a very practical reason: ?the selfless nurturing of the young is embedded in the attachment apparatus of the mammalian brain…Where parenting fails to communicate unconditional acceptance to the child, it is because of the fact that the child receives the parent’s love not as the parent wishes but as it is refracted through the parent’s personality. … For better or worse, many of our parenting attitudes and responses have to do with our own experiences as children. ?That modes of parenting reflect the parent’s early childhood conditioning is evident both from animal observations and from sophisticated psychological studies of humans.” (p. 211-212)

What Do We Do With?The Information?

Once we have looked at and integrated the information from a genogram, what do we do with it? ?Awareness is the key. ?When we begin to notice patterns, both in ourselves and?in our relationships with others, we have taken a big step in making things better. ?We can choose to do something differently. ?We can choose not to continue the pattern to our children and grandchildren.

The ?7th generation? principle taught by Indigenous tribes?and Native Americans say that in every decision, be it personal, governmental or corporate, we must consider how it will affect our descendants seven generations into the future. ?This also relates to taking care of?our mental health. ?When we do the hard work of healing the results of multi-generational stress and trauma, we not only benefit ourselves and those we are currently in relationship with, but also?generations to come.

Now for some vintage comedy…family dynamics from the?Carol Burnett Show. ?Enjoy!




How Well Do You Know Your Partner?

When people begin a new romantic partnership, everything feels new and sparkling.? For decades, movies, art and music has expressed the awe and fascination that is part of this stage of love.? As the relationship grows, couples often go through a ?cocooning stage?.? Relationships with friends and family may temporarily fall away as they spend much of their time together. They want to learn everything possible about their new love-interest?favourite foods, earliest memory, most embarrassing moment?and the sharing of confidences are reciprocal.? At this stage of relationship-building, the couple is making up for lost time?the time before they knew each other.

Alas…This Stage Doesn?t Last

Contrary to popular culture, the cocooning stage doesn?t last.? People can only stay in this closed relationship for so long, before boredom sets in.? Eventually, one or both members of the couple may feel the desire to reconnect with friends and family.? Hobbies start calling and jobs demand attention.? While they want to spend time with their ?person?, each partner may become one of the priorities instead of the priority.

Time Rolls On

Now, flash forward seven years.? This couple is still in a relationship.? They have moved in together and possibly married. ?Children have been born, one or both of them has progressed in their careers and made?new friends.? Each partner has developed new interests.

In an ideal world, the couple has been able to grow together as their lives have grown.

However, this isn?t an ideal world.? Often the complications of the life they have built together get in the way of their intimacy.? Weeks or months may go by before they are able to spend time alone together or go on a date.? Where once this couple felt they knew everything about each other; now it?s a struggle to remember each other?s schedules.

It Doesn?t Have To Be Like This

While the above scenario is common, it doesn’t have to be like this–and it takes work and intention to stay emotionally connected to your partner.

John M. Gottman and Nan Silver in their book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: ?A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert state that “emotionally connected couples are intimately familiar with each other’s world.” ?They have kept in touch with what matters to the other person, remembering past history as well as updating information as their partner’s world changes. ?Gottman and Nann describe this ongoing collection of information a “love map”.

Not sure about the state of your love map? ?You and your partner can do the Love Map Questionnaire.

How Do We Update?a Love Map?

I suggest that most couples already have a love map–it’s all that information that was gathered at the beginning of the relationship or until life became too busy to stay connected. ?What happened is that the map became forgotten or out-of-date. ?Just as using an out-of-date map can lead to getting lost when travelling, an out-of-date love map may lead to getting lost in the partnership.

Updating a Love Map Can Be Fun!

Updating?a love map is an opportunity to spend some positive time with your partner! Think back to the intimate conversations that happen at the beginning of a?relationship. ? Gottman and Nann have created an exercise called the Love Map 20 Questions Game. ?The goal of the game is to become reacquainted with your partner. ?Each partner agree on a random list of 20 numbers between 1 and 60. ?Starting at the top of the list each person asks the other the corresponding question on the set of provided questions. ?Point values are assigned to each correctly answered question. ? The person with the most points at the end wins–though both people win as it leads to greater emotional intimacy.

While this game is meant to be fun, if playing leads to conflict, it may be an indication that there may be deeper, underlying issues that are getting in the way of recreating intimacy. ?If so, a therapist skilled in couple therapy may be helpful.

If you’re interested in learning directly from John Gottman, here’s a link to a series of talks that he has given on making relationships work. ?Enjoy!