When the Work Isn't Helpful

I left therapy feeling worse than I have in a long time.

abstract watercolor illustration of dying tulips in a field
Image created via Midjourney
Some things in life cannot be fixed.  They can only be carried.  
-Megan Devine

I spent nearly two years with my first therapist learning how to carry my grief.  She let me talk about how I felt and gently probed deeper.  She wanted me to identify, label, and learn to be comfortable with my feelings — even if my feelings hurt.  We talked through upcoming situations so that I could learn to manage my response.  When I lost Iris, she hugged me tightly and said, "I'm so sorry, hun.  This isn't what I wanted for you."

It began to unravel a bit when I was pregnant with Autumn, mostly toward the end of my pregnancy.  I felt like she no longer understood my anxiety.  And after Autumn was born, she understood less.  

Somehow, it seemed that she thought that having a baby would fix me somehow — as if one child could be a replacement for another.  By that time, even though parenting after loss was new territory, I felt like I was in a good place to handle it on my own, so we parted company.

It was earlier this year that therapy began again, this time marriage therapy, attended with Ger.  We had put so much on hold for so long.  Then his anxiety began to unfold, so we halted marriage therapy while he dealt with that with an individual therapist, so I began to see someone individually as well - feeling like I needed to talk about what was going on in my marriage.  Since our marriage therapist (Suzanne) could not also be my individual therapist, I began to see Liz.

Liz was level-headed.  I told her that it had all started with losing our two babies, leading up to the point where we are today.  Eventually, Ger came back around to seeing Suzanne with me and I began to alternate between the two, with Liz being a support system for me, and Suzanne supporting the both of us.

Today was Liz.  The day did not start well, with the bus arriving ten minutes early and therefore we missed it.  I tossed both of the kids in the van and braved the hysteria that is the school drop-off lane.  Arrived to therapy late and frazzled.

She wanted to know how I had been and I told her that it had been Nelle's birthday, and how the visit to the tree had gone in a completely unexpected and disappointing direction.  She asked me what I think happens to people when they die, and I told her that I had a belief in an afterlife - somewhat like What Dreams May Come - and that we see each other again when we die.  I believe that our loved ones look after us.  The time at the tree was important to me, because I felt like it was a time for me to sit with Nelle and think of her.

Then Liz said, "I think Nelle would want you to move on."

I was completely taken aback.  She was leaning forward in her chair, arms on her knees, peering at me intently in an "I'm here to help you" way.  I don't even remember what I said in immediate response.  Finally, I managed to utter, "I'm sad that I missed celebrating her birthday.  Just as I would be sad if I missed Theo's birthday for some reason, or if I missed any of my children's birthdays.  I don't get to do most of the things with her.  I don't get to go to school performances or drive her to school when she missed the bus like my other kids.  Her birthday is one of the few days I have with her."

Liz continued: "But if you believe that she is up there in heaven somewhere, playing, then she is having experiences."

This was not going well.  I retorted, "Yes, I often talk with other loss moms and we picture our kids playing together.  But that doesn't change the fact that I am still missing out on experiences with her."

Liz commented: "You seem angry."

"I'm not angry," I replied.  "Anger might come from believing that this happened to me.  But I have long ago accepted that there was no reason that we lost her.  It just ... happened."

I told her about the time that someone told me that my writing and the people that I have reached might be a "reason" that we lost Nelle and Iris, and my rejection of that.  It's not a reason.  It's a byproduct.

My therapist continued, "Well, I think that good things can come out of what happened to us.  Like your support of other parents who are newer in loss through your SHARE group."

I shook my head, "Again, that's a byproduct.  Not a reason."

Liz shrugged.  "I guess it's just because I'm a positive person overall, that I look for the good things that may happen as a result."

I felt like I had been slapped.  What exactly was the implication there?  That I'm not a positive person?  That I'm broken, messed up somehow, for still being sad that my daughters died?  That there was something wrong with me?  I am a positive person as well, but losing a child is heartbreaking, and I can't "happythink" my way out of that.

Luckily, I have enough self-awareness to know that there is nothing wrong with how I feel, much as her words - as a reflection of what she thought - indicated otherwise.

She stated again, "I still sense anger."

I said, "If I have anger, it is over people who do not understand and how much I still have to justify my grief and explain it."

She wanted to know who did I felt I need to explain it to.

I listed a few examples of people in my life that have made insensitive comments in the past.  I also said that culturally there is an expectation that people are just "over" grief and loss on a specific timetable. I refrained from saying, "People like YOU.  Telling me that I need to move on."

I left feeling worse than I have in a long time.  It was already a shitty week in not being able to celebrate Nelle the way that I had liked, and now this?  Everything she said invalidated the way that I was feeling.  This was the first time I had really talked about grief with her, since my original reasons for seeing her were very different.  

I told Ger upon arriving home and his comment was "Whoa — she said those things to you?"  Even he — in a very different place than I am with grief — could recognize how inappropriate the comments were.

I texted a friend of mine, so upset.  This friend is also a licensed therapist, who had a stillborn son.  She was angry on my behalf, saying that many therapists are not equipped to support clients on issues like grief and that it was indicative that she has never experienced any type of significant loss of her own - not a reflection of me and how I am doing.

I have had to spend the past 24 hours unraveling this.  It is clear that she is not the right therapist for me, and now I have to email her and let her know that I will not be coming back.  I considered saying something, but it isn't my job to educate her that she fell down in supporting my grief as a therapist.  That is her own shortcoming.  I am going to take the approach that I'm going to focus on marriage therapy and therefore do not need individual therapy right now.  And maybe suggest that she read the book It's Ok That You're Not Ok: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn't Understand by Megan Devine.

Still, still I have to combat people that do not understand.  It is bad enough with regular encounters but from people supposedly trained in the field?  Having a "professional" say things like that to me messes with my thoughts - even though I am comfortable enough in what I know and how I feel.  Imagine if I had been new to grief and loss and had a therapist say that to me.

I suppose I should feel fortunate that I do know what I need, enough to know that the relationship between therapist and patient is not going to work.  I can walk away easily.  My grief does not need to be "fixed" - it is something that I need to carry, and I need people in my life who can bear witness, rather than try to erase it.

I cry constantly in fear.
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