A Case of Loss and Grief
Jim had come to counselling to seek help with dealing with the sale of his late mother’s estate. He was experiencing a lot of anger with the issue and also with his brother, Frank, who was joint inheritor. Frank was facing bankruptcy and needed the proceeds of the sale of the family home to save his business.
Jim is 58 years old and inherited the family home five years ago on the death of his mother. It is a substantial property in a desirable waterfront location and the will stated that it would go to Jim as the elder son. However, in the event of Jim’s brother needing financial assistance, a clause in the will allowed for the home to be sold and the proceeds split 50/50 between the two brothers.
Jim understood that because of Frank’s financial problems the property would need to be sold to meet outstanding debts but felt very angry towards him. He said that he felt extremely angry whenever the issue of selling ‘Mother’s home’ arose but did not understand why, as he was a practical and logical person and the brothers had always been very close.
As their mother has been dead for five years, Jim’s unhappiness about having to sell her house may suggest he has unresolved grief issues.
Jim said that he was very close to his mother and living in her house enabled him to feel that she was still there and he could stay in contact with her. He said that he often ‘talked’ to her and that selling the house would break this vital link with her.
In the following dialogue C stands for the counsellor and J for Jim.
C: How do you feel about the fact that your mother is no longer here, J?
J: I feel lost, like I don’t really know how to do things.
C: Can you tell me how you felt just after she died, at the time?
J: I was really scared; I didn’t know how I would be able to cope.
C: So really you still feel the same as you did five years ago?
J: I guess I do, what’s wrong with that?
C: Grief is a process, J, which has a number of stages and one of these stages describes what you are feeling. In order to deal with grief we need to be able to move on through all the stages until we come to a level of acceptance and optimism about the future. We may not move through the various stages in a straight line, often we go forwards and then backwards again, maybe several times, but we do need to keep on trying to move forward.
J said that when he tried to talk to people about the way he felt, they just told him he would get over it as time went on, so he had never really thought about how he was dealing with the issue.
As more time passed he felt that maybe there must be something wrong with him that he could not get over his mother’s death and ceased to talk, or even think about it, just accepting that that was the way it was for him.
C described the various stages of the grief process and encouraged J to talk about his feelings and thoughts about the loss of his mother. He explained that feelings of anger, resentment, helplessness and blame are all quite usual. As they talked over a series of sessions J was able to identify his feelings in relation to the grief process and the counsellor helped him to express his feelings and accept them as normal.
With J now moving through the grieving process C thought it would be of value to explore J’s relationship history with his mother and asked him to talk about his relationship with her.
As J spoke it became clear that the mother had always had a controlling role within the family and the final say in most matters. Both J and his brother always felt the need for her approval of their decisions as they grew up, even in later life.
J: I have always felt that Mother didn’t trust my judgement. I needed to run things past her to make sure she approved and would not be angry with me.
C: J, I sense that you need to feel that your mother would approve of whatever decision you make about the house.
J: Yes, whatever the decision is about I always need to feel that Mother would approve.
C: What do you think makes you afraid to make decisions on your own?
J: I’m afraid that if it doesn’t work out, people will blame me, it will be my fault.
C: What do you think would need to change for you to feel comfortable about making a decision and accepting the outcome, whether good or bad?
J: I guess I would have to be not worrying about what Mother would think about it.
C: J, are you willing to work on that? To try to change that belief, that you must have your mother’s approval? Can you find the strength to make your own decision?
J: It sounds scary.
C: J, let me just check this out with you, there are two things here: (1) You need to hang on to your mother’s house because you have to be able to go there to ‘run things past her’ and (2) you need to have your mother’s approval for any major decision you make. These two things are making it impossible for you to discuss the sale of her house.
J: Yes, that’s about right.
C: Which one do you think you need to deal with first?
J: I think being able to make decisions on my own, I think if I can do that the rest will come together.
C: So you feel ready to try to change your thought processes so that you can make your own decisions?
J: Yes, I know I have to sell the house and move on, but when my brother asked me to sell it, to make the decision to sell it, that made me angry. I didn’t have Mum to run it past.
C: Your mum’s approval has always been so important in the past that now the thought of making a decision of your own scares you, and you feel angry with the person who seems to be making you do it.
J: Yes, exactly. But I know that I have to learn to do it on my own.
C: OK, let’s see what we can come up with. Tell me J, when have you made decisions in the past without asking your mum’s opinion?
J: Oh, lots of times.
C: Can you think what was different about those times?
J: They were things I felt safe about; I didn’t need to ask Mum.
C: Great, so you can make decisions on your own J.
J: Yeah, I suppose – it’s just having the confidence really.
C: What gave you the confidence then – against when you felt you had to seek your mum’s approval?
J: I guess it was just the way I thought at the time.
C: So, by thinking you could do it, you actually could do it?
J: Yes, I suppose so.
C: J, I’m going to show you how a mediating response can help you to change your behaviour. If we say that the stimulus is the need to make a decision, and your response is to seek your mother’s advice, how about we put a mediating response in between there: “I can make this decision on my own.”
J and C worked on a few variations until J felt happy with the mediating response.
C then went on to introduce J to the A – B – C model, encouraging him to identify his irrational beliefs about the consequences of his actions.
Over the next few sessions, by continuing to use a mix of PCT and CBT techniques, J was able to understand the reasons for his anger and begin to deal with it.
He also made the decision to sell his mother’s house and was able to fulfil his dream to move up the coast and take up fishing; his brother was able to continue in his business.
By using Person Centred Therapy to draw out J’s feelings in relation to his mother’s death, C was able to help him move from his ‘stuck’ position and come to terms with his loss.
An acceptance of his mother’s death, however, was only part of the problem; J also needed to develop confidence in his ability to make his own decisions and stand by them, without needing his mother’s approval.
By using cognitive behavioural techniques, such as the implementation of a mediating response, J was able to learn how to confidently make major decisions and accept the outcomes without feeling personally responsible for the consequences of a particular course of action.
Author: David Hayden