Louie Talks Death With…A Counsellor: Part 1
Updated: Jun 1
I have never been to see a counsellor, although it could be argued there have been times in my life that I may well have benefited from doing so. It was therefore with great interest and intrigue that I sat down with Violet, 44, a counsellor who has experience in both general and bereavement counselling. During our conversation we explored her thoughts, feelings and attitudes to death and her firsthand experience of its effects on others.
Louie: What was your first experience of death and how old were you?
My first experience of death was when I was 8 or 9, but I would like to talk about the death of my maternal grandfather, which occurred a few years later when I was around 12 or 13. We didn’t have a close relationship as he lived far away, meaning we didn’t get to see him that often.
The main experience from his passing was the feeling of being slightly left out of the grieving process. I remember my mother going to the funeral, but that I was not allowed to go, although I wanted to. I wanted to go so I could be there for my mother and to show that I was sad too.
For me, it raises lots of questions such as who has the right to grieve and who has ownership of grief?
Louie: Do you think it became more about your mother and not about your shared loss?
Yes, but it’s understandable. I have not experienced losing a father, it must have been horrendous, particularly as I know my mother was very close to her father. But, from my point of view, I just felt left out. I wanted to be with her, support her and to be able to be upset, but instead, I just got left behind.
When I think back on it as an adult, I get a real sense of not being allowed to be as upset as those closest to the person who has died. However, I think people should be allowed to be as upset as they feel and be permitted to show their grief.
In a way, that experience has stayed with me as with my own children, I have always tried to be open about feelings. A friend of ours died recently and although the children didn’t know him that well we allowed them to be upset, to cry for him and experience those kinds of feelings.
Louie: How old were you when you fully comprehended the concept of death?
I don’t know why, but I find that a bit difficult to answer. Although I lost both of my Grandfathers within a short time of each other and understood they had died, it didn’t invoke in me any great ‘Oh my God, people die’ moment.
But I think perhaps that question does lead to the next one, to be honest.
Louie: Has anyone close to you died, and if so what was the experience like?
I would say no, but in recent years I have experienced it through my husband who has lost family members that he was very close to. That experience really brought the concept of death home to me; seeing someone’s else’s very raw grief, the loss, the fact that they are not coming back and just the pain, physical, mental pain associated with it. It really hit home like ‘Oh God this is death, people really close to us do actually die’.
I have also experienced that through working with bereaved clients and seeing first-hand other people’s distress and feelings of hopelessness, and just how life-changing it is. As part of my training, I learned about the theory of grief and how in the early stages it is all-consuming. We were shown a diagram of a black circle within another and the black one almost occupied the whole of the outer. This was to illustrate how grief feels at the beginning and whilst over time the black circle gets smaller, the circle is forever altered i.e. your life changes and you can never go back fully to the how you were before that person died.
Louie: I suspect a lot of people think grief is something you get over and it would be considered dark to suggest your life will never be the same again, even if it is true. Do you think people need to acknowledge that more?
Yes, that was definitely something I used to try to bring into sessions, the idea that life has changed and that people are almost starting a new one. They have to learn to see their life differently and reevaluate it without that significant person.
Louie: Have you ever seen a dead body, and if so, how did it make you feel?
No, I haven’t and the idea of it fills me with fear and dread. I am actually a bit scared of seeing one.
Louie: Do you think it would be easier if it were a stranger, as oppose to someone you know?
Yes, I feel quite clear in that it would be easier if it was someone I didn’t know. I think to see someone I love dead would be absolutely horrendous.
I remember my husband, however, describing his experience of seeing his dad after he died. He recalled how it was his dad’s body, but his dad wasn’t there. It was just a body and no longer a person.
Louie: What do you think happens to you after you die?
Well, I don’t believe you will go up to heaven or down to hell, or anything of a religious nature. But something I do feel, and am interested in, is a person’s energy or in a way their soul.
I feel you have the physical body but there is also something else in people which is their personality, experiences, memories and thoughts. For me, this is like an energy and I am quite interested in what happens to that when someone dies.
I remember reading, many years ago, that a person’s soul weighs 21 grams. This idea originated from an experiment carried out in 1907, by Duncan MacDougall, in Massachusetts, USA. MacDougall hypothesised that souls have a physical weight and went on to attempt to measure changes in the mass of six patients at the moment of death. During the experiment, only one patient lost a mass of 21.3 grams, with the rest showing no change. His experiment was flawed as it was only a very small sample size and there were also questions over the methods he used. Nonetheless, his theory popularised the concept that the soul has weight and has inspired songs and most famously the film 21 grams.
However, I do believe there is something in the theory, but it is obviously very hard to conduct any experiment to support it. I guess for me it raises the bigger question of what defines what a person actually is? Is it their physical body, or is it something else? But whilst I believe that we have a soul, I don’t know where it goes when a person dies.
I also think people live on in others, through their memories and objects. I watched a documentary made by BBC films called Evelyn, which is about a man who took his own life and how his siblings dealt with his death. At the end, they read a poignant poem called If I be the first of us to die, by Nicholas Evans, which expresses the sentiment of how someone who has died lives on within us.
So, for me that, is what I think happens after you die, you don’t go anywhere, you just live on in others.
Louie: Have any experiences in your life changed your view or perception of death?
I guess various experiences have made me feel that death can be quite close and unexpected, which makes me think that life is quite fragile, and also leads me to question what is the point of life? I know some people have a religious faith which gives them meaning, but I don’t have that, and nor do I particularly want to.
There have been times in my life where I have thought about dying, and whether I can make the choice to die myself. When I was seventeen, I felt really bad, rubbish, low and depressed and ended up taking some tablets with the idea that perhaps I wouldn’t wake up. But, now all those years later I realise that I didn’t actually want to die, I just wanted to stop living for a bit which I think is different to actually wanting to die. It was more a case of wanting to put a pause on life and take a break, rather than not wanting to exist. I guess what I am really talking about is suicide.
Throughout my life I have thought about suicide, the suicide of others, and have sometimes felt like I don’t want to be around anymore. Just the idea that we can choose whether we live or die is quite a big thing, and that we have that potential within us, the ability to take our own life. Suicide can also be a great relief for people, or the idea of it at least can be. It is something they can have in reserve if things get really rubbish, or provide another option, so the thought of it can be a comfort.
Going back to my thoughts of what is the point of life, I do believe in the sentiment of ‘Better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all’. This has fed into my work on my own spirituality, which I have been doing as part of my training course. It’s about just being with other people, loving them, and forming connections even though you know you will end up losing them at some point.
Next time… Louie Talks Death With…A Counsellor: Part 2
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Also, if you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can receive advice and support from Cruse Bereavement Care. Cruse is a wonderful nationwide charity who offers support, advice and information to children, young people and adults when someone dies. www.cruse.org.uk/
You can also receive advice and support from the Samaritans by calling 116 123, from any UK phone or text or call 877-870-4673 in the US.
Samaritans UK – www.samaritans.org
Samaritans USA – www.samaritanshope.org
The BBC film Evelyn, is available to watch on Netflix - https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80216928