Counselling Dilemma: A Family “Break-Up”
The client, Helen, is 56 years old. She has been happily married for 32 years to Barry, who works for the local council. Helen and Barry’s first child, a boy, was stillborn. Helen fell pregnant again very quickly to help get over the loss. They now have two adult daughters, Vicky and Sharon. Vicky, the eldest daughter, is married with two children and lives interstate. Unfortunately, Helen doesn’t get to see them very often because of the distance.
Sharon, the youngest, has been living with her partner, Graham, for over five years. Sharon and Graham decided early on in the relationship that they would not have children and would not marry. Graham’s parents died in a car accident some years ago and consequently Graham and Helen have become very close. A few months ago, Sharon found out that she was pregnant. She had been taking antibiotics for a chest infection and did not realise that they could affect the contraception pill.
Sharon terminated the pregnancy even though Graham had asked her to wait because he was having second thoughts about their decision not to have children. This situation led to the breakdown of their relationship and they have now separated. Graham has moved away and neither Sharon nor Helen have heard from him for over three weeks.
Helen has come to see you because she is feeling very angry with her daughter Sharon. She blames her for the break-up and thinks that Sharon was very selfish not to consider Graham’s feelings. She envies her friends who can visit their grandchildren regularly and is missing Graham very much. He has been like a son to her.
As Helen’s counsellor, how would you approach this case?
Helen has come to see me on the basis that she is angry with her daughter Sharon and that this anger comes from her blaming Sharon. The first thing I would do is remove the concept of blame as that only causes negative emotions and is completely unhelpful in our relationship together. Helen has come for assistance, not Sharon, so we are unable to change her behaviour directly. After blame is removed, I would guess that the predominant emotion running through the story is ?grief? and that Helen would identify this.
She may see that she has lost a son herself and now her son-in-law, her aborted grandchild and Vicki and her children because they are interstate. I would give this ?Grief? a personality through talking about it as an entity separate to Helen, thus removing the problem from herself, making it easier to fight without fighting herself.
?How has grief had a hold over her life?? Then ask Helen, what impact do you think ?Grief? may be having over her daughter, Sharon at present? This would involve much exploring but it is important that Helen get on top of ?Grief? and focus on improving her current relationships with her family.
I would then get Helen to look at what she would ideally like things to be like for herself and her family. ?If you woke up tomorrow and a miracle had happened, what would you and your family be doing?? It may be that ?Grief? is no longer a main member of her family. The goal then needs to be broken down into realistic and reasonable steps and a list of skills that Helen has to achieve these steps. It is important that Helen go home with even just one step to achieve and a tool to measure this such as a scale tool.
When she returns, look for the times when she got the desired effect and ask how it was she managed to do this. Continue with the measuring and celebrating until Helen is confident enough to continue this by herself. Ask her who is supporting her and who is not surprised about her success. This person or people can assist her through the process.
Issues of grief and loss, values, beliefs, and societal and role expectations are all possible areas for exploration, acknowledgement and validation within this counselling situation. Given the significant issues of loss, grief and death, the counsellor could draw on an existential framework to assist Helen in exploring and enhancing her life situation.
It is possible that Helen may not have addressed her loss and grief when she experienced the stillbirth of her son, and these unresolved issues are now playing out following the loss of her unborn grandchild, and the relationship break-down with her son-in-law, Graham. Acknowledging that anger is a secondary emotion, other feelings and emotions such as guilt, sadness, and confusion could be explored to assist Helen to understand her feelings of anger towards her daughter, Sharon.
Using an existential approach, the counsellor could ask questions such as, ?What do you value?? and/or ?Whom do you value?? This provides Helen with the opportunity to explore and acknowledge what is important and who is important to her. It acts as a prompter for the counsellor to assist Helen in identifying expectations she has of herself, and expectations she perceives others have of her.
This allows Helen to consider if her perceived expectations others have, are realistic, or if her own personal expectations are acting as the driving force. For example, Helen may feel guilty for not having regular contact with her grandchildren who reside inter-state, perceiving that society expects a grandmother to be physically present in her grandchildren?s lives.
Existential questions also provide Helen the opportunity to consider her beliefs regarding life and death. For instance, Helen may believe in heaven ? if this were the case, this acknowledgement allows Helen to consider where her unborn son and grandchild are, and how they are.
Asking questions such as ?Why are you here?? or ?What is your life purpose?? allows Helen the space to explore what gives her meaning, and how she contributes to herself as an individual, to family, friends, community and greater society. These questions can also be used to address areas within Helen?s life that she would like to enhance. Such as: family relationships and meaningful connections outside of her role as ?mother? or ?grandmother?.
As with any counselling situation, the various layers of the presenting issue will become richer as the counselling progresses.
Thank you for the ‘what would you do as a Counsellor”post. They are a great source of inspiration as the two replies above show.
Both seem diffeerant in their appraoches and that is one of the joys of hearing from differant therapists.
I would explore with Helen the grief she is holding seeking from her what part of her life she wants to talk about, Sharon, Graham, the grandchildren, her own son, they will all be intertwined and with her anger and I wonder if unmeshing them will help Helen. I wonder if blaming Sharon is a way of deflecting the blame she feels within herslef and i would like to explore that by getting her to talk more about this realtionship
Helen does need support as she seems to have lost everyone in her immediate family. I would explore what supprts she has, what has worked for her in the past and what she feels may work for her in the future
Thank you again for these wonderful oppotunities to comment. If anyone would like to offer feedback on my reply i would be most grateful (new counsellor)