Find the river: On loss, living, and love

Dr Nick Little, Clinical Psychologist, on a year of national tragedy, played out in small, personal vignettes.

I was making Sunday roast when my sister rang me, unexpectedly, the day after winter solstice 2019. I could hear that her heart was in her throat and I knew instinctively that death had visited our family. 

I assumed my sister was ringing to tell me that her partner had died. We knew it was close after a years-long battle with cancer. But it wasn’t that. Our mother had died unexpectedly during the longest night of the year. She was found upright in her wheelchair, looking at her reflection in the mirror above the bathroom sink. She had been brushing her hair. My sister’s partner died two months later.

Across Britain, death visited thousands upon thousands of families in 2020, both Covid-related and otherwise. At the time of writing, the UK Covid-related death toll is 88,590 and it will continue to rise. Like me, family members will receive phone calls. If they are lucky, they may have a chance to be at their loved one’s bedside, but many will not. After my sister’s phone call, I clung to my boyfriend and bellowed, ‘I don’t understand!  What does it mean?  How could she be gone?’ In that moment, my whole understanding of the world came undone. 

Back and forth, past and present

Similar scenes were played out in living rooms across the nation. Over the past year, many of us have been tasked with healing from personal and national tragedy simultaneously. But how do we do that? 

In her book Grief Works, psychotherapist Julia Samuel argues that the only way of learning to live with this new, painful reality that we desperately wish was not true, is to open ourselves to and self-compassionately experience the pain. Not immersively, which would emotionally overwhelm us, but intermittently, travelling back and forth between the past we wish to hold on to and the present to which we must ultimately accept and re-commit. That’s a big ask, whether for the bereaved individual or the shell-shocked nation. To successfully navigate this iterative journey time and again demands personal resilience, skills of emotion regulation, and the ability to tolerate distress. So where do we get those? 

1918 was also a year of personal and national tragedies. That thought popped into my head on New Year’s Day 2021, a little past the one-year anniversary of my mother’s death. I had been thinking about my dear old Gran. Or rather, I was thinking about her parents, my great-grandparents. Their daughter was born on 28 August 1918, six weeks before the end of the First World War. Around one million British military personnel and civilians were killed in World War One. Imagine.

In January 1918, the ‘Spanish flu’ was first observed in Haskell County, Kansas. By the time of my Gran’s birth in August, it had become a global pandemic. UK doctors and nurses were overwhelmed. There were no treatments for the virus. There was no NHS. During the 1918-19 pandemic, over 50 million people died worldwide. A quarter of the British population were affected. The UK death toll was 228,000. A 1918 playground rhyme went, ‘I had a little bird, its name was Enza.  I opened the window, and in-flu-enza’. Imagine giving birth to a beautiful little girl amidst the death and the chaos, the shock and the grief.  

And yet, amidst a global pandemic and hundreds of thousands of deaths of mostly young men, babies were born. Life did continue. The British public found a way to survive and re-build their lives. In fact, even amidst all that grief, momentous events still took place. Thanks to the suffragette movement, the right to vote was extended to women for the first time in 1918 – albeit only to propertied women over the age of 30. About 8.4 million women gained the right to vote. Later the same year, Parliament voted to allow women to be elected to the House of Commons for the first time. Progress was possible despite the decay. There is reassurance in knowing that past generations also wondered if the sky was falling, yet kept going, finding new ways to live. 

‘Let’s talk about the future. That’s what should be beautiful’

On New Year’s Day, with 2020 behind us at last, I considered the mix of emotions my great-grandparents must have felt holding their little girl. I considered that, in 1939, only three days after my grandmother’s 21st birthday, a second world war broke out. Nearly half a million Brits would die. By the end of that war, like so many other women raising children alone while their husbands were at the frontline, my grandmother had trained and joined the workforce for the first time as a schoolteacher. Working life proved to be a source of great joy and freedom for her. She maintained friendships with other women she met through her work right up until her death at the age of 94.

How did they cope with so much grief? In her book, Samuel notes that the children of parents who had survived the First World War rarely saw their parents mourn openly, and so learned to generally suppress their own personal and collective grief. Samuel argues that British death tolls were so high in the first half of the 20th century that emotional shutdown may have been necessary to survive. Since the end of World War II, European generations have thankfully enjoyed relative security, perhaps providing us with greater psychological safety to make those grieving journeys back to the past.

Consider Ágnes Keleti, the Hungarian-Israeli gymnast and ten-time Olympic medallist born in 1921, who celebrated her 100th birthday on 3 January this year. Keleti’s story of escaping Nazi death camps to claim asylum abroad and achieve athletic domination is inspiring, but what mesmerises me is the joy and hilarity she exudes in almost any interview or photo (honestly, she’s a treasure). We might intuit something of how she overcame grief through her self-description: ‘I’m strong. And silly!’ Asked directly about the tragedy of her childhood, Keleti said, ‘The past? Let’s talk about the future. That’s what should be beautiful. The past is past but there is still a future.’ She lived most of her life in Israel, where she taught gymnastics.  ‘I love children and I also love to teach them.’ The most important thing for children to learn about? ‘The joy of life.’ 

My foundation

My first and greatest teacher was my grandmother. She is my foundation, intellectually and emotionally. She taught me to tell time, read, use money, bake bread, knit, sew, and to play a mean game of canasta. She also taught me about feelings, love, cuddling, and safety. I didn’t know it then, and I doubt my Gran would have known these words herself, but when she let me squeeze in beside her and she read to me while I felt the warmth of her body, she was teaching me how to attach to others securely. 

It’s this secure attachment that would later in life allow me to soothe myself when important others disappeared in the night and I found myself alone. My Gran raised my mother with strength, which gave my mother the strength to raise me and my three sisters on her own.  Poet and singer Gil Scott-Heron was also raised by his grandmother and mother. He wrote:

I came from what they called a ‘broken home’, but if they had ever really called at our house, they would have known how wrong they were. We were working on our lives and our homes, dealing with what we had – not what we didn’t have. My life has been guided by women, but because of them I am a man.

Personal resilience. Skills of emotion regulation. The ability to tolerate distress. Ágnes Keleti’s acceptance of the past, commitment to the future, and insistence on living exuberantly in the here-and-now might be explained by a fellow Hungarian, who arrived in Britain in 1967 at the age of 16 as a refugee, and has gone on to achieve countless honours in his own field of psychoanalysis and clinical psychology. Professor Peter Fonagy describes how secure attachment equips children with the ability to emotionally self-regulate:

Children, from six months, and long before they become verbal, look around and try and figure out what it is that the person they are interacting with knows or doesn’t know. Long before they can use language, children are already interested in the minds of others. And even more than that, they expect others to be interested in them. 

[A young child] will expect [an attachment figure] to react to them contingently, to react to them in a meaningful way depending on what they have been doing. Because they want to find themselves in the other person. They want to find someone who mirrors them, who reacts to them. Because none of us starts out knowing who we are, knowing what we are. [As children,] we are interested in others mainly to find out about ourselves. In the first three years of life, we find out about the nature of our own minds, the nature of our thoughts and feelings, through the relationship that we have with others. 

So I don’t know when I’m smiling or I’m laughing, as a baby, what the meaning of that experience is. If I see my emotion being responded to by someone who mirrors it, I see that experience outside of myself. I can then take it back and that gives meaning to all the sensation I had in relation to my happiness. 

But it’s even more important when I feel anxious or I feel sad. If I feel sad, I feel distress, I feel disorganised. I can feel lost in the world, lost in all my experiences. But there is my Mum, or my Dad, who responds to me with a reaction that indicates that they are aware of how I feel. I look at them and I actually take into myself that representation of sadness, and that helps me to organise myself. Now I know what I feel. This is what we call emotion regulation. This is how we come to be able to regulate our emotions. Paradoxically, even though I, [as an adult], now know perfectly well when I feel anxious or when I feel sad, the anxiety that I recognise as my own anxiety, is actually not my own anxiety, but is my picture of my Mum looking back at me when I, as a baby, felt anxious.  

Just as there were in 1918, there were moments of light amidst the hardship of 2020. Surely, footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign against child poverty and hunger is high among them. In his June 2020 open letter to Members of Parliament, which eventually forced the Tory government’s policy U-turn on suspending its school meal voucher programme, Rashford wrote:

I’ve read tweets over the last couple of weeks where some have placed blame on parents for having children they ‘can’t afford’. That same finger could have been pointed at my mum, yet I grew up in a loving and caring environment. The man you see stood in front of you today is a product of her love and care. I have friends who are from middle-class backgrounds who have never experienced a small percentage of the love I have gotten from my mum: a single parent who would sacrifice everything she had for our happiness. THESE are the kind of parents we are talking about. Parents who work every hour of the day for minimum wage, most of them working in hospitality, a sector which has been locked down for months.

My grandmother’s story, and the hope, light, and love that she and my mother brought to my life, are not unusual. Marcus Rashford’s dignified activism this year was so compelling because his words struck people as authentic in a landscape of platitudes, over-promises, and inflated optimism. A natural leader in seemingly leaderless times. Rashford’s words rang true for millions of people across the UK who bailed out the banks, survived a decade of austerity, battled through Brexit, and are now locked down, unemployed, and still trying their best. His unimposing manner contrasts sharply with the frivolous buffoonery of politicians who seem to rely on stunts to demand attention. Instead, Rashford speaks plain words about what he learned growing up and getting by in a single-parent family. An education like his cannot be bought with private tuition. 

The river flows

I joke that if my family has a religion, it’s a sort of matrilineal ancestor worship. Although my understanding of the world came undone in the moments following my sister’s phone call last year, to my surprise, my world itself did not fall apart in the year that followed. I survived and I’m surviving. I have mourned and I continue to mourn my mother. But many days, I am happy to discover there is also a joy and gratitude to the mourning. I feared I would feel orphaned, deserted, left on my own in the longest night of the year. But I find she is still with me and that both she and my grandmother equipped me with the skills I need to travel back and forth between the past I wish to hold on to and the present to which I must ultimately accept and re-commit.

Utah Phillips, an American anarchist, labour activist, folk singer, storyteller, and poet, who himself died a few years ago, spelled it out

Time is an enormous, long river. And I am standing in it, just as you are standing in it.  My elders were the tributaries. And everything they thought, and every struggle they went through, and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down flows down to me. And if I take the time to ask and if I take the time to seek and if I take the time to reach out, I can build that bridge between my world and theirs. I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world.  

Building that bridge, reaching down into that river, in small, unextraordinary scenes that make up our lives and later our deaths. All across the nation.  

Nick Little ([email protected], Twitter: @n9birds) is a clinical psychologist based in Manchester and a member of the Psychologists for Social Change network (www.psychchange.org).

Photo, above: "Me with my mother, sister and niece"

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Comments

i read this article with interest - I have experienced "pathological grief" (Freud's use of the term) myself. 

with respect to this section: "This is how we come to be able to regulate our emotions. Paradoxically, even though I, [as an adult], now know perfectly well when I feel anxious or when I feel sad, the anxiety that I recognise as my own anxiety, is actually not my own anxiety, but is my picture of my Mum looking back at me when I, as a baby, felt anxious." -

 

do you literally mean - it is not your own anxiety - or are you being metaphorical? 

Hello, Renee.  Thank you for reading my piece and taing the time to reply.

The section of the article you've quoted is a transcription of this video interview with Peter Fonagy: https://youtu.be/Qjfy-8LshGw
The process he's describing in the extended quote I've used in my piece is described in greater detail in this book chapter he co-authored with Elizabeth Allison: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1430329/7/Fonagy_chapter1_draft_pf...
(Fonagy has written about this process in many places - this is just one example)
In particular, the process is described in the section of that chapter titled 'The development of an agentive self: The social acquisition of social cognition'

As for your specific question, I wish I had a depth of knowledge about this subject anywhere even close to that of Fonagy's!  But my own understanding is that when Fonagy says "when I feel anxious or when I feel sad, the anxiety that I recognise as my own anxiety, is actually not my own anxiety, but is my picture of my Mum looking back at me when I, as a baby, felt anxious," his use of 'my picture' in that sentence could be replaced by 'my internal working model' (IWM), which comes from Bowlby (1973).  My (or your, or anyone's...) IWMs are an aggregate representation of all my past experiences with my attachment figure(s).  So in that sense, I don't think Fonagy literally means that the anxiety is not your own.  But what we think of as 'my anxiety' also may not be this objective entity that exists outside of and apart from our relationships wth others.  The IWMs are *ours*, but the IWMs are actually just the product of all those many times in the past when our attachment figure did (or didn't) mirror back to us our anxiety (or happiness, etc).  We only came to know this thing we call 'my anxiety' by observing, over many interactions, how our attachment figures responded to us when we expressed certain physiological manifestations (changing facial expressions, tears, tense muscles, widened eyes, etc.).  Over time, and through interaction with others, we come to label that collection of internal sensations and physiological manifestations as 'my anxiety'.

But again, that's just my understanding from what I've read and listened to.  I'd welcome your or others' thoughts.  And thanks again.