NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Mind-Body Connection in Psychotherapy: Looking Beyond the "Happy Talk"

While I believe in positive psychology and optimism, over the years, I've seen too many psychotherapy clients who use positivity as a defense mechanism.  In other words, they only focus on the positive aspects of their life and avoid dealing with serious emotional problems  (see my article: Are You Using Your Idea of "Positive Thinking" to Deny Your Problems?).

The Mind-Body Connection: Looking Beyond the "Happy Talk" to Underlying Emotional Issues

When people only focus on the positive aspects of their life, not only do they avoid thinking about their problems, they also avoid taking action to try to change their problems.

There's often a fear of dealing with unpleasant aspects of their life, so they'll say that everything is "fine" and everything about their childhood was "great."

In the meantime, it takes so much psychic energy to maintain this defensive attitude that it often leaves people feeling mentally and physically exhausted.  And underneath it all, they feel miserable, but they just can't admit it to themselves or, initially, to their therapists.

The people who avoid their problems aren't delusional--they're in denial--and their unresolved problems manifest in other ways: insomnia, headaches, backaches, muscle spasms, excessive drinking, drug abuse, compulsive gambling, and so on.

They're often so busy "looking on the bright side" that they don't want to see other areas of their life that are falling apart.

Aside from avoidance and denial, part of the problem is our culture's infatuation with positive thinking.  For more than 50 years, we've had dozens of books on "how to be happy" and "choosing happiness" that many people develop unrealistic ideas of how their life should be.  They think they're supposed to be happy all the time and if they're not, something must be wrong with them.

Fictional Vignette:  The Mind-Body Connection: Looking Beyond the "Happy Talk"

Edna came to therapy because she was having problems sleeping.

The Mind-Body Connection: Avoiding Problems Can Cause Insomnia and Other Physical Problems

She told her therapist that she wanted to learn mindfulness meditation so she could de-stress at the end of the day, and she chose her therapist because she had an expertise in mindfulness and the mind-body connection.

One of the first things that her therapist noticed during the initial psychotherapy consultation was that Edna was stiff.  She sat rigidly at the edge of the couch with her hands tightly clasped, eyes wide open, and a rigid, tight smile on her face.  She was also clinching her jaw.

When her therapist asked her about her family history, Edna brushed this off saying that she had a "great" childhood and she didn't see any reason to dwell on her family history.

When the therapist told her that they didn't have to dwell on her family history, but it's customary to get basic information about the family, Edna reluctantly agreed to talk briefly about her family.  Then, she seemed to flounder for a few minutes, finally asking, "What do you want to know?"

Her therapist told her that she would like to know about her relationships with her parents and her siblings, how they got along, if there were any significant events when she was growing up that impacted her, and so on.

Edna thought for a moment, and then she said that she got along well with her parents while they were both alive, and she also got along with her older brother.  Her father died when she was nine "...but I got over that," and her mother and brother were still alive.

When her therapist asked her how she got over her father's death, Edna told her that she, her mother and brother "just put it behind us and we went on with our lives."

Although Edna continued to smile, her eyes were welling up with tears and she was grasping tightly to the sides of the chair.

Since this was the initial consultation, her therapist noted Edna's reaction to herself, but she didn't press her about it.

Edna went on to say that she has had a "very happy life" and it would be "perfect" if only she could overcome her problems with insomnia.  This is why she wanted to learn mindfulness meditation in therapy because she tried it on her own and she couldn't focus.

During the next few sessions, her therapist guided Edna through mindfulness meditation, but Edna continued to have problems focusing.  She also got headaches, neck pain, and backaches during the meditation and she got spasms in her right arm.

The Mind-Body Connection: Looking  Beyond the "Happy Talk" 

Edna told her therapist that she would frequently have these physical problems and her doctor told her that there was nothing medically wrong with her.  He suspected that these physical problems were psychological and possibly related to stress.  But Edna discounted this and told her doctor that her life was "wonderful" and she wasn't under any particular stress, nor did she have any psychological problems.

Her therapist asked Edna if she would be willing to try a hypnotherapy technique called the Affect Bridge where clients sense into their physical and emotional reactions to see what comes up (see my article: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Edna told her therapist that she would be willing to try it, but she doubted that anything in particular would come up.

Using the Affect Bridge, her therapist asked Edna to sense into the tightness in her jaw and go back to  the earliest memory she could remember that was related to this physical sensation.

After a couple of minutes, Edna's jaw began to quiver and tears rolled down her face, but she seemed totally unaware of her emotional and physical reactions because she told her therapist that nothing came up for her.

When her therapist pointed out to Edna that her jaw was trembling and tears were streaming down her face, Edna seemed surprised.  She appeared to be cut off from these sensations.

Although she couldn't associate any particular memory with her physical and emotional reaction, she realized that she was feeling a little calmer--as if something in her had been released.

Her therapist recognized that the work would be slow because Edna was defending against feeling her emotions and physical reactions, and going too fast would be overwhelming for her.

When Edna returned for her next session, she said she slept better after their last session and that hypnotherapy technique, the Affect Bridge, seemed to help her--even if she didn't understand why.  So, she agreed to continue to work with the Affect Bridge.

Edna made slow and steady progress in therapy, although she continued to maintain that there wasn't anything in particular, other than her sleep problem, that was affecting her.

During that time, she was assessed in a sleep lab, and she was told that she didn't suffer with sleep apnea and there weren't any other medical problems that could explain her sleep problem.  The sleep specialist recommended that she continue to attend her psychotherapy sessions.

Over time, using the Affect Bridge, Edna began to identify an emotion that was associated with the stiffness in her jaw:  Anger.

This surprised Edna, "I can't imagine where that came from.  I don't have anything to be angry about."

Although she couldn't identify anything that she was angry about, she said that she could sense the anger in her jaw as well as in her throat and neck.

When they focused on her throat, Edna said she felt a tightness in her throat as well as tears behind her eyes.

Although this was a little frightening for Edna, she becoming more psychologically minded in therapy and she was curious as to where all of this would lead.

As usual, her therapist told Edna at the end of their session that if she remembered any dreams, she could bring them in.  Usually, Edna would say that she never remembered her dreams.

But the following session, Edna came in and she looked upset.  She told her therapist that she had a dream the previous night that disturbed her.  Her therapist asked her to tell the dream in the present tense as if she was still in the dream.

The dream was about her father on the day that he died.  He never had any health problems, but he had a sudden heart attack when Edna was 10, and in the dream she was telling him not to leave her.  As a 10 year old, she believed that if she prayed, he would be all right, but he never recovered and he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Edna said that when she woke up from the dream, she was clinching her jaw and her jaw hurt.  She also realized when she woke up that she was crying in her sleep.

As they talked about the dream and how close it was to what actually happened 20 years ago when her father died, Edna told her therapist that she thought she had "put all of that behind me."

Even talking about the dream was disturbing to her but, by the end of the session, she was feeling calmer.  And when she came back the following session, she reported sleeping better that whole week.

Reluctantly, she acknowledged that it was obvious to her that she had never mourned her father and she was still holding onto a lot of grief.  She was also still angry about her father leaving her and that her prayers for his survival went unanswered.

Edna told her therapist that when her father died, there was no one to talk to about it.  Her mother and older brother refused to talk about it, and the other family members told her that she needed to "move on" and focus on her studies.  Now, looking back on it, she realized how ridiculous it was for her relatives to tell a 10 year old this, and she felt angry about this too.

Edna said that, in the past, she thought that if she just focused on being positive, doing affirmations, and remained goal-oriented and motivated that she would have a sense of well-being, but it was clear to her now that her body and her dream were trying to tell her something else.

Edna was now ready to accept that her insomnia and other physical symptoms were connected to trauma related to her unresolved grief.  She was now willing to listen to her therapist talk to her about the connection between the mind and the body and to work on her unresolved trauma.

Anything can be used as a defense against feeling uncomfortable emotions, including positive thinking, positive psychology and affirmations.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with positivity and affirmations.  The problem arises when people use positivity to avoid their problems.

This avoidance is usually due to fear of dealing with the problems and develops into denial.

When clients avoid dealing with their problems, especially unresolved trauma, these problems can manifest in physical ways (as seen in the fictional vignette above).

If clients are fortunate enough to have a medical doctor who rules out medical problems and understands the mind-body connection, the doctor will recommend psychotherapy.

There are certain mind-body therapy modalities, like the Affect Bridge in hypnotherapy, that can help clients to tap into physical sensations to understand the underlying issues.

When clients have a good therapeutic rapport with their therapist, they are usually more willing to be curious and explore the underlying issues.

When underlying traumatic issues are identified, a trauma-informed therapist can help the client to work through these issues.

Getting Help in Therapy
Fear and denial can be very powerful.

Sometimes, when people are very emotionally invested in believing that they only need positive thinking or positive affirmations--to the exclusion of dealing with underlying problems--they blame themselves when positivity isn't enough to make them feel better.

A skilled trauma-informed psychotherapist will work in a gentle way to help clients to overcome their fear and denial so they can eventually work through their underlying trauma.

If you have been feeling stuck and you think you might be avoiding dealing with emotional problems, you could benefit from seeking help from a skilled psychotherapist.

Rather than suffering on your own, you could free yourself from your traumatic history so you can lead a healthier, more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to work through psychological trauma so they can move on with their lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail is a term that was coined by a psychotherapist, Susan Forward.  Basically, emotional blackmail is a form of manipulation where one person is trying to control and manipulate another person through guilt, threats, or by instilling fear or a sense of obligation (see my articles: Why Emotional Abuse Might Feel "Normal" to You and The Effect of Growing Up With a Parent Who Has Borderline Personality Disorder.

Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Blackmail

Emotional blackmail usually occurs between people who have an intimate relationship, like parent-child, a married couple, two siblings, close friends and so on.

When emotional blackmail works, the person who is being controlling intimidates the person who is being controlled.  The intimidation is usually of an emotional nature, but it can also be physical (threats to the person being controlled or threats of self harm by the controller).

This dynamic often becomes a cycle that begins with the controlling person trying to get something s/he wants by manipulating the person s/he is trying to control.

The person who is being controlled might recognize the manipulation, but s/he wants to avoid the feared consequences of not giving in, so s/he acquiesces to the controller, and this becomes the dynamic between them.

Breaking the cycle of emotional blackmail is often challenging, especially if this dynamic has been going on for a while.  It is especially challenging if the person who is being controlled was in this role as a child and, as an adult, chooses people who are manipulative and controlling.

Fictional Vignette:  Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Blackmail

Amy grew up as the youngest of five children raised by a single mother.  She never knew her father.

Since she was much younger than her siblings, they were already out of the house by the time she started school, leaving her to deal with her mother, who was depressed and angry.

Amy tried to please her mother in every way she could because she feared that her mother would fall apart or harm herself if Amy didn't go along with whatever her mother wanted (see my article: Ambivalence and Codependency in Mother-Daughter Relationships and The Role of the Family Scapegoat in Dysfunctional Families).

Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Blackmail
Her mother made a suicidal gesture when Amy was 10.  While in a drunken stupor, she told Amy that she took a handful of pills because she was unhappy about being alone so much of the time when Amy went out to play with her friends.

Shocked and trembling, Amy called 911 and waited with her mother while the EMTs came.  While she was waiting for the EMTs, Amy blamed herself for not giving into her mother's wish that Amy stay home with her rather than go out with friends.  She blamed herself for her mother's unhappiness and made a vow to herself that she would try to please her mother from that time on (see my article: Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships).

The EMTs brought Amy's mother to the hospital emergency room, but she was discharged the same afternoon because she hadn't taken enough pills to harm herself.

The hospital psychiatrist suspected that Amy's mother had borderline personality disorder.  He offered to make a referral to a local outpatient mental health center, but Amy's mother rejected the referral.  At that point, the psychiatrist told the mother that if she showed up again at the ER under similar circumstances, he would contact the State bureau of child welfare to investigate the situation at home.

After her mother was discharged, she seemed like a completely different person from the person who said she was suicidal only a few hours before.  She told Amy to stop looking so gloomy and offered to take her for an ice cream sundae.

After that day, whenever her mother wanted to get her way, she would remind Amy of the day she took the pills.  This was enough to frighten Amy into giving into her mother.

They lived under very precarious circumstances with Amy's mother losing one job after another.  She would usually start out being an excellent employee and getting along very well with her boss and coworkers, but within a short period of time, she would argue with people at work and she was convinced that they were all out to get her.  At that point, the usual pattern was that her work performance suffered, she took off a lot of days, and she got fired.

After Amy graduated high school, she decided not to go to college because she wanted to work to help with the household bills.  She took a job at the local bookstore.

Amy loved working at the bookstore.  She liked the store owner and her coworkers.  She also liked meeting the people who came to buy books.

She met the man who would eventually become her first boyfriend, John, at the bookstore.  He usually came in a few times a week and would hang around to talk to Amy.

Amy thought John was handsome, intelligent and charming, so when he asked her to go for a drink one day after work, she agreed.  Soon they were dating on a regular basis.

Initially, Amy was afraid that her mother would be lonely when she went out.  But her mother also met a man around that same time, and she was immersed in that relationship so Amy didn't have to worry about staying home with her mother to keep her company.

Several months later, Amy met John for dinner and he told her that he quit his job at the publishing company where he had been working for a year.  He felt he was unappreciated and underpaid.  He said that even though they tried to persuade him to stay, he decided he couldn't stand to be there another day, so he left.

Amy was shocked and asked John what he would do.  He told her that he wasn't worried.  He said he had lots of contacts in the publishing world and, with his skills, he would get another job as a copy editor in no time.

But as the weeks and months passed, John was unable to find another job, and he was running through his savings.  There were times when he asked Amy for money to pay his rent, and he didn't know when he could pay her back.

By that time, they were spending most of their time in John's apartment, and Amy became aware that John was drinking a lot.

In the past, she wondered if he had a drinking problem because she noticed some empty liquor bottles in the recycle bin, but she dismissed this idea because she never saw John drunk.

But after John was out of work for six months, he would come to the bookstore to see Amy reeking of alcohol.  Amy noticed that bookstore owner kept a watchful eye on John, and her coworkers avoided him.

One day when he came to get Amy after work, he was so drunk that he was weaving down the street. Although he refused to talk to her about his drinking in the past, Amy decided to bring it up again because she could see that his drinking was getting worse.

John brushed aside Amy's concerns as they entered into his apartment.  He was silent for a long time, and then he looked away, as if he was embarrassed, and told her that he needed to borrow more money from her.

Amy hesitated.  John already owed her over $2,000.  She was saving her money to buy Christmas presents for her mother, her siblings and John.  If she lent John more money, she would be taking it from savings.

When Amy hesitated, John slammed his hand against the kitchen table, "Goddammit!  I need the money!  You have to help me!"

Amy tried to explain her dilemma, but John interrupted her, "You say you're 'so concerned' about me.  You say you're concerned that I'm drinking too much.  Well, what do you think will happen if I get thrown out into the street because I can't pay my rent!  Do you think that would make things better!?!"

Amy didn't want John to be evicted from his apartment so, reluctantly, she gave him the money.  She rationalized to herself that her new promotion to a managerial position at the bookstore would substantially increase her salary and she would replace the money she lent John.

She also tried to persuade John to take a temporary office job that his friend offered him and that he turned down.  She told him that, until he finds a job that he really wants, if he took the temporary job, at least he would be earning some money.

John was pouring himself one drink after the next, and he was quite drunk at that point.  He raged at Amy for even suggesting that he should take a job that he considered beneath him, "How could you even suggest such a thing!?!"

Amy trembled in fear because she thought John was going to get up and hit her.  But he sank back into the couch and continued to drink and, soon after that, Amy went home.

None of Amy's friends liked John.  They thought he was narcissistic and manipulative.  They were mostly concerned that he was going to drag Amy down with him.  So, Amy didn't feel she could talk to her friends because they would just tell her to leave him.  And she couldn't talk to her mother because her mother spent most of her time at her boyfriend's place, so she was hardly around.

Everyone that Amy knew who knew John had a bad opinion of him.  She knew she needed to speak to someone who was impartial and objective, so she began therapy (see my article: Why Is It That It's Usually the Healthiest Person in a Family Who Goes to Therapy?).

Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Blackmail: Getting Help in Therapy
Soon after she started therapy, Amy became aware that John was manipulating her in much the same way that her mother manipulated her since Amy was a child.  Her therapist called it "emotional blackmail."

Over time, Amy admitted to herself and her therapist that she knew that John had serious emotional problems and she wasn't going to be able to rescue him.  She was also getting tired of his demands for money and his refusal to help himself.

At first, she tried to avoid him by making excuses as to why she couldn't see him.  But he would wait for Amy outside and try to persuade her to come back to his apartment.

One day, when he was drunk and frustrated with her excuses, he shouted at her in the street, "Why are you doing this to me!?!  Are you trying to destroy me!?!"

People on the street turned around to look at them, and Amy felt embarrassed.  Based on the work that she was doing with her therapist, Amy knew that John was trying to manipulate her by making a scene in the street.

She knew that he thought she would do anything to get him to be quiet--including go back with him to his apartment, watch him drink and then lend him more money.  But she was fed up and she had built up enough courage, confidence and self respect in therapy to quietly tell John, "You can shout all you want, but you're not going to control me any more."

John was stunned and stopped in his tracks, but Amy kept walking.  A few seconds later, she could hear him yelling at her from down the street, "Yeah, that's right!  Keep walking! What do you care what happens to me now that you think you're a big shot manager!  You were nothing when I met you.  You're nothing now."

Amy kept walking as if she was in a dream, and she could hear John still shouting down the block, but his voice was fading the further away she got (see my article: Choosing Healthier Romantic Relationships).

She continued to work in therapy to deal with the emotional aftermath of breaking up with John.  Although she never ran into him again, she feared he might wait for her outside the bookstore.

Amy and her therapist also worked on the original emotional blackmail in her life--her relationship with her mother.

Her mother was about to move in with her boyfriend and so she had little time for Amy.  But Amy knew that if her mother's relationship ever ended, she would be emotionally and financially dependent upon Amy again, which Amy didn't want.

She and her therapist worked on helping Amy to overcome the emotional trauma that she went through as a child with her mother (Overcoming the Traumatic Events of Childhood Trauma).

They also worked on Amy moving out and getting her own place.

Six months later, when her mother ended the relationship with her boyfriend and wanted to Amy all to herself again, Amy was able to set a healthy boundary with her mother and deal with her mother's angry threats.

By then, Amy already had her own place, so it was easier for her to set this boundary with her mother (see my article: Overcoming Dysfunctional Ways of Relating in Your Family and Freeing Yourself From Family Expectations That Are Harmful to You).

Working through these issues was difficult, but Amy was beginning to feel that she deserved to be treated better (see my article: Overcoming the Need to Be Everyone's Caretaker).

Emotional blackmail can start in early childhood, which primes the individual to unconsciously seek out people as an adult where there will be a similar dynamic.

Parents who use emotional blackmail often, consciously or unconsciously, choose the most vulnerable child in the family who will respond to manipulation.

If someone has a long history of being manipulated by emotional blackmail, this type of dynamic might seem "normal" to him or her.

Breaking the cycle of emotional blackmail can be very difficult to do without getting help in therapy.

Getting Help in Therapy
Having to choose between taking care of yourself or taking care of the person who is emotionally blackmailing you can be a daunting choice.

The person who uses emotional blackmail is usually very skilled at manipulating and causing the person s/he wants to control to feel guilty and, over time, s/he will continue to up the ante.

If you're feeling stuck in a situation where you're being emotionally blackmailed, you could benefit from seeking help from a skilled psychotherapist, who can help you to break the cycle of emotional blackmail.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

How to Cope With Getting Emotionally Triggered During Family Visits

In an earlier article,  How to Cope With Difficult Family Visits, I discussed coping strategies to deal with difficult family get-togethers.  In this article, I'm focusing specifically on how to cope with getting emotionally triggered during family visits (see my articles: Overcoming Dysfunctional Ways of Relating in Your FamilyRegressing to Feeling Like a Child Again During Family Visits and Learning to Develop Healthy Boundaries Within an Enmeshed Family).

How to Cope With Getting Emotionally Triggered During Family Visits

When there's a long history of dysfunction in a family, family visits can be fraught with problems, especially if you're not prepared for emotional triggers.

Have you ever wondered why you're able to overlook an unpleasant comment that an acquaintance makes, but if a family members makes the same comment, you have a different emotional reaction?

The answer is that you're not as emotionally invested with an acquaintance as you are with family members.  Also, there's probably not a long history between you and the acquaintance, whereas with your family, you've probably experienced similar problems.

Fictional Vignette:  Getting Emotionally Triggered During a Family Visit

Cindy loved her family, but she usually found going home for family visits difficult.

Whenever she went home, Cindy experienced her family and herself falling into old dysfunctional patterns that she disliked.

How to Cope With Getting Emotionally Triggered During Family Visits

Although she knew that her mother loved her, she often made comments about Cindy's weight, which was a longstanding sensitive issue for Cindy.

This was an old pattern with her mother, and no matter how many times Cindy told her mother that her comments weren't helpful, her mother would insist that she was "trying to be helpful."

There just seemed to be no getting through to her mother, and her mother's comments would usually lead to an argument between Cindy and her mother.

Her father, who knew that Cindy wasn't in a relationship, would usually ask Cindy, "So how's your love life going?"

Then, when Cindy told him that she was seeing anyone, he would express concern and ask her why she was dating anyone, which infuriated her.

Cindy's brother earned a lot of money as a corporate attorney, and he tended to look down on Cindy's job as a Legal Aid attorney.  He also made disparaging remarks about her salary and her clients, which annoyed Cindy.  She felt that he was trying to make her feel ashamed, and they would frequently argue.

After yet another family visit where Cindy argued with her mother, father and brother, Cindy decided to get help in therapy.

She knew that these were old familial patterns, and she wasn't going to change her family, but she hoped to change her own reactions to them (see my article: You Can't Change the Past, But You Can Change How the Past Affects You).

Over time, Cindy and her therapist worked on the underling issues that got triggered for Cindy when she went to see her family.

Using a combination of EMDR Therapy and Somatic Experiencing, they were able to gradually work through these triggers so they no longer affected her.

Cindy also learned how to set limits with her family in a gentle and tactful way.

The real test of what she accomplished in therapy occurred during her next family visit when, as usual, her family made the same remarks that usually triggered Cindy.

To her surprise, Cindy discovered that while she was disappointed that they were going down the same path as usual, she didn't have an emotional reaction.  Instead, she felt that these were their issues and they didn't concern her.

Suggestions on How to Cope With Getting Triggered During Family Visits
  • Be aware that whatever your family members might say or do, they don't define you.  They might have different opinions about what you "should" or "shouldn't" being doing.  But, as an adult, you get to make your own choices.
  • "Bookend" your visit with calls to supportive friends both before and after (and possibly during) your family visit so you don't feel alone.  Emotional support during a family visit can make all the difference.
  • Take breaks while you're with your family.  You don't have to be with them 24/7 during your visit.  If you plan breaks where you go out for a walk, it gives both them and you a break and a way to "reset" so you can regulate yourself emotionally.
  • Maintain appropriate boundaries with family members in a tactful manner so that if they attempt to cross a sensitive boundary with you, you can set limits with them.

Getting Help in Therapy
When you get emotionally triggered, this is usually a sign that you have unresolved emotional issues that need to get worked through (see my article:The Benefits of Psychotherapy and Expanding Your Window of Tolerance in Therapy to Overcome Emotional Problems).

Working with a skilled psychotherapist, you can work through these unresolved issues so that you're not constantly getting triggered by the same situations (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

If you find yourself continually getting triggered with your family, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to work through unresolved trauma so they are no longer triggered in familiar situations.  

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Creating a Sense of Home Starts Within Yourself

Your home is more than just a place.  Whether "home" means your parents' house or a home that you have created on your own, the emotional meaning of "home" has a lot to do with your earliest experiences of living in a secure, stable environment--or not (see my article: A Happy Family Doesn't Have to Be a "Perfect" Family).  Creating a home starts from within yourself.

Creating a Home Starts Within Yourself

If you were lucky enough to live in a stable, happy home with both parents and your siblings, your home was more than a financial asset.  It was the place where you knew you would be loved and cared for and where you could always return.

As the poet, Robert Frost once said, "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

If you were fortunate, home was a place where you would have pets, bring friends, and celebrate birthdays and holidays.

It didn't have to be perfect--it just had to be "good enough" for you and your family to thrive and have a sense of well-being.

Developing a Home For Yourself
How do you crate a home for yourself?

Creating a Home Starts Within Yourself 

Creating a home for yourself is about feeling comfortable with yourself and having people that you love and who love you in your life.

Your home starts within yourself--it's a feeling that you carry around inside you.

If you were fortunate enough to grow up in a relatively happy home, you already have a sense of what this means.

If you weren't fortunate enough to grow up in a happy home or if you experienced a lot of upheaval in your early life, you might have more of a challenge creating a home for yourself.

The following fictionalized vignette illustrates the challenges of creating a home for yourself when your early childhood was chaotic, and how therapy can help you to develop a feeling of "home" inside yourself first:

Fictionalized Vignette:  Creating a Home Starts Within Yourself

By the time Ken was 11, he and his family had lived in five different apartments.

On average, he and his family moved every two years or so because his family couldn't afford to pay the rent or because the landlord forced them out in order to get another family who could afford to pay more.

Ken was the youngest of four children being raised by a single mother.  He never knew his father.

He often felt confused and unhappy about moving away from his friends and his school.  No one ever explained to him why they had to move and why there was such chaos each time.

When he was seven, his mother told him that they would have to give up their dog because the apartments that she saw wouldn't allow dogs.  This was a terrible loss for Ken.

When he was nine, his family lost most of their possessions because the landlord put their things out on the street and they were stolen.

The family had to move in with Ken's maternal grandmother in an apartment that was already overcrowded with other relatives.  They lived this way for another year until his mother could save up enough money for the first month's rent for their next apartment.

Although Ken was bright, he began to have academic problems by the time he was 10.  His teacher, who knew that Ken was intelligent and capable to doing the work, spoke with his mother to encourage her to try to motivate Ken to be more diligent about studying and doing his homework.  But his mother already had her hands full with working two jobs, so she had little time to spend with Ken.

With Ken's mother's permission, his teacher introduced Ken to the school counselor, who became a mentor to Ken.  The counselor saw that, in addition to being smart, Ken was artistic and she encouraged him to pursue his artistic talent.  This made a tremendous difference for Ken (see my article: How One Person Can Make a Difference in a Traumatized Child's Life).

His elementary school counselor remained a mentor to Ken even after he went to high school, and she encouraged him to apply to college.

At that point, Ken didn't have a sense of a future for himself, and he was beginning to hang around with other teens who were involved in a gang.

Creating a Home Starts Within Yourself 

When his mentor found out about this, she spent more time with him to help him to find other groups and outlets for himself.

Soon after that, Ken came home and was shocked to find his mother and maternal grandmother crying.  He always thought of them as "strong women" and he couldn't ever remember a time when he ever saw either of them cry.

His mother sat Ken down and told him that his oldest brother, Tom, was shot in the spine, and he was rushed to the hospital.  His mother and grandmother were about to leave for the hospital, but they were waiting for Ken.

The family found out from the police that Tom was part of a gang and he was shot by a member of a rival gang.  This was all that the police knew from their sources.  Since witnesses refused to identify the shooter, there were no suspects so far.

After Tom was operated on, he learned that he would probably be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  Physical rehabilitation might help him somewhat, but the doctors were not hopeful.

This tragedy had a profound impact on Ken.  When he spoke with his mentor about it, he told her that  he didn't want to end up like Tom, so he would do whatever it took to get into college to try to make a better life for himself.

Ken applied himself in high school like he had never done before.  He took an SAT test prep course and passed the SAT with a high score.  With high hopes for getting into a college, Ken, his mother and maternal grandmother visited various colleges and explored scholarships.

Five years later, Ken graduated college and he was hired as a marketing representative by a company that recruited him while he was still in college.

When he started working, he helped his mother financially, but he really wanted his own place.

Looking for an apartment, he discovered how expensive rents were, especially in Manhattan, so he chose an apartment in the Bronx that was barely affordable for him.

After he moved out, he began dating a woman, June, that he met through a friend.  When he invited her over to his apartment, she was surprised that, even though he lived there for a year, he had done nothing with the apartment other than getting some basic necessities, like a bed and a TV.

When June asked Ken why he had no pictures on the wall and why he barely had any furniture, he told her that he didn't know how long he would stay, so he didn't want to invest any money in the apartment to try to make it into a home for himself.

Then, he told her about all the apartments that he and his family had over the years and the loss of their dog and so many of their possessions.  He didn't think it was worth trying to make it into a home for himself.

After June heard about his family history, she understood that Ken didn't really have a concept of what a home is and, aside from the upheaval that he experienced as a child, he didn't really know where to begin.  She also realized that, based on his history, he also had no sense that he deserved anything better.

When June got her own apartment, she couldn't afford to spend a lot on furnishings, but she made modest purchases to make the place a haven for herself.  Unlike Ken, she grew up in a home where she and her family lived most of their lives, so she knew how important it was to come home to a place where she would feel comfortable and secure--even on her modest salary.

When Ken visited her apartment for the first time, he was impressed with how creative she was in making her place cozy and comfortable for very little money.

June offered to help Ken to make small, inexpensive changes to his apartment so he would feel that he had a comfortable place to come home to, but he rejected her help.  When she asked him why, he said he wasn't sure why.

When Ken spoke with his mentor, she told Ken that he had lived through many traumatic experiences in his childhood, and she suggested that he seek help in therapy.

Initially, Ken balked at the idea of therapy.  It was one thing for him to speak with his mentor, who was his former school counselor, but he felt it was a ver different thing for him to speak with a psychotherapist, "I'm not a weak person" (see my article: Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Going to Therapy Means You're "Weak").

But, over time, the more he thought about it, the more Ken realized that he really wasn't happy in his apartment, which was supposed to be his "home."  He wasn't even sure what a "home" was supposed to be.  That's when he decided to seek help in therapy.

During the initial therapy sessions, Ken felt anxious and ambivalent about talking to a stranger (see my article: Starting Psychotherapy: It's Not Unusual to Feel Anxious and Ambivalent).  But, as he continued to go, he developed a rapport with his therapist and he felt she understood what he was talking to her about.

Working through the traumatic issues that caused Ken to feel rootless as a child was hard work, but he usually felt better afterwards.

Ken and his therapist talked about what a "home" meant to him.  At first, he couldn't think of anything, except that it was a place where you live, eat, and watch TV.

When his therapist asked Ken to imagine what he would have liked as his ideal home, at first, Ken thought about having a big expensive house with a pool and a housekeeper.

But as they continued to talk, Ken realized that what he really wanted was something that he never had--a place where he could feel comfortable and secure.

Over time, Ken realized that creating a home for himself wasn't about having an expensive house or fancy furniture.  It was more about what he could create from the inside out.  In other words, the feeling of "home" was something that he needed to create inside himself first and then he could create it externally.

Since Ken was artistic and he liked to draw, his therapist recommended that Ken draw what his apartment would look like if it were a more of a haven.

Creating a Home Starts Within Yourself

During that time, Ken also worked with his therapist to overcome the childhood trauma that created emotional obstacles for him, including that he grew up without a father (see my article: Understanding Why You're Affected By Trauma From a Long Time Ago).

Gradually, as Ken thought about what "home" meant to him and he made drawings of how he could create a haven for himself in his modest apartment, he began to make small changes that made both him feel more comfortable in his home, and a place he could share with his girlfriend, June.

Creating a home for yourself comes from your internal experience of what a home means to you.

For people who grew up in a home where they felt secure and loved, even if it was a modest home, being able to create an emotionally meaningful home for themselves is usually second nature.  They don't have to think about it a lot.

But if you grew up with chaos and upheaval, you might not know what it means to create a home for yourself.

Getting Help in Therapy
A skilled psychotherapist can help you to overcome the psychological obstacles that are getting in the way of your taking care of yourself (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

An experienced therapist can help you to learn how to create a home for yourself that feels like a haven.

The process of creating a home for yourself begins internally with you discovering what you need, the obstacles in your way of creating what you need, and the willingness to see the process through in therapy (see my article: Overcoming Obstacles to Making Changes in Your Life).

If you're stuck in your life, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who can help you to overcome emotional obstacles so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome emotional obstacles so they could lead a more rewarding life.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Grief: Who Are You After Your Parents Die?

I'm continuing a theme about grief for the loss of both parents that I began recently (see my articles: Grief: The Emotional Impact of Losing Both ParentsYou Continue to Have a Relationship With Your Parents Even After They Die, and The Emotional Pain of Clearing Out Your Parents' Home After They Die).  In this article, I'm focusing on changes in how you see yourself after your parents have died.

Grief: Who Are You After Your Parents Die?

As I mentioned in prior articles, nothing can prepare you for the loss of both of your parents.  For most people the experience of feeling like an "orphan" can be devastating--no matter what kind of relationship you had with your parents.

Relationships, including relationships with your parents, are a complicated mix, rather than being "good" or "bad."  So, when the last parent dies, adult children's feelings can also be mixed: Sorrow for the loss and a sense of relief that they're no longer suffering and there is no longer a need to worry about parents.

Who Are You After Your Parents Die?
Your primary identification as a child is as your parents' child.  This identification continues through adulthood, although usually in combination with other identifications: husband, wife, mother, father, friend, teacher, and so on.

So, at the point when you have lost both of your parents, you can feel that part of you has gone with them:  You're no longer anyone's son or daughter--at least, not in the here-and-now.

Most people don't anticipate the loss of this identification, and after their second parent dies, they struggle with loss and question who they are now that their parents are no longer around.

Much also depends upon the separation-individuation process that children go through.  This is a process that starts in childhood and progresses through adolescence when children identify more with peers than with their parents and strive to be their own person.

But some people struggle with the separation-individuation process for a variety of reasons, as I will demonstrate in the fictionalized vignette below.

Depending upon the individual and the quality of the relationship with the parents, this can be a time of doubt and soul searching.  For other people, it can be liberating.  For others, it's a combination of doubt, soul searching and liberation.

Fictional Vignette:  Who Are You After Your Parents Die?

Ida was an only child.

Throughout her life, she had an ever-present awareness of the sacrifices that her parents made to come to the United States from their native country where they were harassed and oppressed because of their religion.

As a child, Ida wanted to be a writer, but her parents were vehemently opposed to this.  They wanted her to be a teacher or an accountant, preferably as part of a union so her job would be protected.

They told her many times of their own struggles when they came to the US as immigrants--how they were looked down upon for their clothes, their traditional food, and their foreign ways.

They both went to college in the US, studied hard and chose "practical" careers.  Her father became an engineer and her mother became a teacher.

Not wanting to disappoint her parents, Ida became an elementary school teacher, like her mother.  She loved the children and the feeling that she was making an impact on their lives.  But she still longed to write.

Being a teacher gave Ida little time to write.  She often came home feeling exhausted from a full day at school.  Here and there, she wrote short stories that she told no one about, especially her parents, who would have ridiculed her for wasting her time.

When she was in her mid-20s, she got married to another teacher she met at a union meeting.  They had two children, and soon after that Ida had even less time to write, other than a few occasional snippets.

Although she was happy with her husband and family and she liked working with the children, she still longed to write.  She felt she had many stories in her head.

When both of her children were in college, Ida had more time to write the short stories that were in her head.  So, she would spend a couple of hours a week secretly writing.

Grief: Who Are You After Your Parents Die?

She still carried her parents' voices in her head that writing was a waste of time and she should spend her time on more "practical" matters.

Over the years, Ida had written several short stories that she would have liked to have published, but her parents' ideas about the impracticality of writing were so ingrained in her mind that she remained in conflict about it.

When Ida was close to retirement, her father died unexpectedly.  It was such a shock to her mother that she became emotionally incapacitated, and Ida and her husband took her in.

After her mother moved in with her, Ida was even more surreptitious about her writing.  Sometimes, she would get up early in the morning before her husband and mother got up and spend a half hour writing.

One day, her husband walked into the kitchen unexpectedly while Ida was typing on her laptop.  Ida became so startled that she closed her laptop abruptly.

When her husband asked her what she was doing, she responded with hesitation that she was writing a short story.

Rather than being disapproving, as Ida expected, her husband was thrilled and asked her why she was so secretive about it.

When Ida explained how disapproving her parents were about her desire to write, she was delighted that her husband encouraged her.  He even offered to take over more of the household responsibilities so she could have more time to write.

But even with the extra time and her mother spending more time in her own room, Ida continued to feel conflicted about writing.

Although she knew that she was an adult and her parents could no longer tell her what to do, she still felt a sense of disloyalty to her parents when she wrote because she felt she owed them so much.

When she spoke to her husband about this, he suggested that she speak with a psychotherapist who could help her to sort out her longstanding issues related to her parents and writing.

Soon after Ida began therapy, her mother died.  Although Ida knew that her mother's death had nothing to do with her attending therapy or her writing, she still felt guilty, as if she had betrayed her mother by talking about her in therapy.

Gradually, Ida began to work through her grief and these related complex issues in therapy.

Over time, her therapist helped Ida to grieve the loss of her parents.

Her therapist also helped Ida to understand that she had not achieved sufficient separation-individuation from her parents as an adult due to her sense of obligation and guilt about their sacrifices.  As a result, Ida was overly identified with their ideas about who she should be instead of trying to be the person that she wanted to be.

Developing her own sense of self was neither quick nor easy.  After Ida retired, her therapist encouraged her to join a writing group so she could be around other writers who might be struggling with similar issues and who would be supportive.

Grief: Who Are You After Your Parents Die?

The combination of attending her weekly therapy sessions and attending the weekly writers group helped Ida to come into her own (see my article: Listening to Your Inner Voice to Discover Your "Calling" in Life).

Although she struggled at times with her own internalizations of her parents' prohibitions, she was writing every day.

Her husband and other people who knew saw the difference in her.  They told her that she looked much younger and happier than she had been in a long time.

As time went on, Ida felt more confident as a writer and she submitted her stories for publication.  She also had a greater sense of well-being because she was being her true self and doing what she loved (see my article: Becoming Your True Self).

Losing both parents can be a devastating experience regardless of your age or your relationship with them.

After the loss of the second parent, adult children often question their identity, especially if they had problems individuating before their parents died.

The time after a second parent dies can be a time of confusion, soul searching and a search for a new identity.

For many people, it's a time to discover their own voice and their true selves.

Getting Help in Therapy
The mourning process can be a confusing, lonely time even if you have many people around you.

Losing both parents can create a sense of being an "orphan" with all the feelings that go with that.

Part of that mourning process is often coming to terms with your identity now that your parents are gone.

Many people feel freer to pursue endeavors that their parents might not have approved of when they were alive.  

Other people have so internalized their parents' prohibitions that, even after their parents are dead, they continue to feel too guilty to go against their parents' wishes.  

To go against their parents' wishes makes them feel that they are moving further and further away from parents that they are missing.

Seeing a skilled psychotherapist can help you to work through the grief of losing your parents.

An experienced therapist can also help you to work through guilty feelings about finding your own voice and being your own person (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

If these issues resonate with you, rather than struggling on your own, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who can help you to overcome your struggles so you can have a greater sense of well-being (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to work through grief and their own individuation process so they could lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about it, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Grief: The Emotional Pain of Clearing Out Your Parents' Home After They Die

In keeping with the theme of coping with grief for deceased parents, I'm focusing on the emotional pain of clearing out your parents' home after they die in this article (see my articles: Grief: The Emotional Impact of Losing Both Parents and Grief: You Continue to Have a Relationship With Your Parents Even After They Die).

Grief: The Emotional Pain of Clearing Out Your Parents' Home After They Die

Going back to your parents' home after they died can be a very difficult experience, especially if you grew up in that home or have an emotional attachment to that home.

Many people describe the experience of going back to their parents' home after their deaths as being somewhat surreal.

Even though you know logically that your parents are dead, on an emotional level, you might feel that either your mother or father will be entering into the living room at any moment.

You're surrounded by all the familiar things that you've always associated with your parents--their furniture, their pictures, their clothes, their keepsakes and all the memories that this home holds for you--and yet, they're not there.  On an emotional level, it just doesn't add up.

Sometimes, adult children have to clear out their parents' home before they're psychological ready to do it.  There might be pressing financial, legal or family issues that compel them to clear out the home soon after their last parent dies.

Generally, it's better to undertake this task with a supportive and understanding friend or relative rather than someone whose attitude is, "Let's just get this over with" and who lacks tact and sensitivity about what this process means for you while you're grieving.

Before you even start, it can feel overwhelming, especially if your parents accumulated and had difficulty letting go of many possessions.

It's not unusual for elderly people to hold onto possessions that have no sentimental value and have no monetary value.  Their holding on is more about a fear of letting go and, in many cases, a sense of loneliness.

For most people, going through the process of clearing out their deceased parents' home brings up many memories and can deepen your grief.  This is, after all, part of the grieving process.

During this time, it's important to be kind to yourself and not to rush through this process as if you're running a race.

In Joan Didion's book, A Year of Magical Thinking, she writes about going through her husband's possessions after he dies and hesitating about throwing out his shoes in case he comes back and needs them.

When she had this thought, she wasn't delusional.  She knew, on an objective level, that her husband was dead.   But this is the kind of thought and emotional response that many people have when they're clearing out a deceased loved one's possessions.  It's part of the grieving process.

The mourning process has different levels, and everyone has their own subjective experience of it.

You can know objectively that your loved one is dead but, on an emotional level, it can feel like s/he is still alive because the loss hasn't sunk in yet.

A Fictional Vignette About Clearing Out Your Deceased Parents' Home

Beth's parents died within a year of each other.

Her mother died as a result of undiagnosed cancer, and her father died several months later of a heart attack.

While her father was alive, he continued to live in the same house where Beth and her older brother grew up.

Her father took her mother's death hard, and Beth and her brother, John, worried about him.

Even though he knew how to cook for himself and he was still physically capable of taking care of himself, he hardly ate and he was beginning to hoard mail, newspapers and other things that were getting in his way.

Beth visited him once a week, cooked nutritious meals for him that he could heat up, cleaned the house and generally took care of things.  But when she came back the following week, she noticed that he barely touched the food and he began to accumulate mail and papers again.

Although she felt exasperated, she tried to be gentle with her father because she knew he was suffering emotionally.

When she went to her parents' bedroom, she noticed that he was keeping things on the bed that belonged to her mother--scarfs, a blouse, a pair of gloves.

When she asked her father about it, he told her that it comforted him to have these things around him and he felt less lonely with them around him (see my article: Comfort Objects From Infancy Through Adulthood).

Two months after her mother died, Beth broached the topic with her father about going through the mother's clothes and giving things away, but her father wouldn't hear of it.  He wasn't ready to let go of the mother's possessions.

He talked about how close he felt to Beth's mother when he went into her closet and smelled her perfume on her clothes, and he wasn't ready to give that up.

Beth suggested that he could decide what to keep and what to give away.  She said that maybe he wanted to keep a few items of her clothing until he was ready to let go, but he refused to budge.

Soon after that, Beth moved in with her father because she feared for his health and well-being.  She also knew that he was very lonely.

With Beth there, her father started eating more and they often watched TV together.  Her father also began showing interest in doing gardening again, which Beth thought was a good sign.

Then, one morning, when she went to her father's room to wake him up for breakfast, she was unable to wake him up.  She immediately called 911.

Within an hour, the doctors in the emergency room pronounced him dead.  They thought he probably had a heart attack in his sleep.

Both Beth and her brother were shocked and grief stricken.  Their father seemed to be doing well, especially compared to how he had been when their mother first died.

A week after the funeral John called Beth and said he wanted to go through their parents' possessions as soon as possible, "Let's get it over with."

Beth knew she wasn't ready to clear out their parents' house.  It was too soon for her, and she told John this.

John agreed to wait a few more weeks, but when Beth went to visit her parents' home a week later, she found John going through her parents' things and she felt enraged.  She couldn't believe he didn't keep his word.  She also felt like John was violating a sacred space.

John was stunned by Beth's reaction.  From his perspective, he was only getting a start on the process while Beth readied herself to join in.  He thought he was doing Beth a favor.  He didn't see it as any kind of violation.

Beth looked at the piles of things that John made of her parents' things--what to keep, what to throw out and what to donate.

John assured her that he wasn't planning on getting rid of anything before she had a chance to look at everything.

Beth knew that John loved her parents very much and, in his own way, he thought he was being helpful.  But she also knew that John tended to be uncomfortable with his own emotions, and clearing out their parents' home was a way to do it quickly with the least amount of emotion for him.

As they were standing there confronting one another, Beth had the sense that her parents would come into the room at any moment and say to John, "What on earth are you doing!?!  Those are our things. Put them back."

Beth was taken off guard as to how strong this feeling was and she wondered if she was losing her mind.  Of course, she knew her parents were dead, but her sense of their presence was very alive.

After they talked it over, John put everything back in its place, and they agreed to meet in a month to go through their parents' possessions.

When a month had gone by, Beth still didn't feel ready emotionally to go through her parents' possessions.  Her grief was still fresh and, on an emotional level, she could hardly believe that she no longer had parents.  But she wanted to keep her word to John so, at the appointed time, she met him at their parents' home.

John's idea was that they would go through all their possessions in two days, but after a few hours, Beth was exhausted and she had to go to sleep.

When they resumed the process the next day, they agreed to go through the things that had least sentimental value first:  Old mail, newspapers and other similar things.

With that behind them, they started going through their parents' clothes, which was much more difficult, especially for Beth.

As they were going through their mother's clothes, Beth remembered how her father cherished them and wouldn't let go of them.  She had this nagging feeling that her father would suddenly come into the room and be upset with them--although she knew, of course, that he was dead.

The process was much slower than John would have liked.  He would have liked to plow through their parents' possessions to make decisions about them, but the process made Beth so sad that she couldn't spend a lot of time doing it.

By the end of the week, Beth contacted a psychotherapist because she was feeling worse than the day her father died.

Grief: The Emotional Pain of Clearing Out Your Parents' Home After They Die

Beth learned from her therapist that everyone grieves differently, and she was having a normal reaction to losing both of her parents.

She also told Beth that, even if it seemed that John was avoiding dealing with his grief at this point, he might feel it much more acutely later on.

Gradually, Beth and John went through their parents' possessions.  As hard as it was for Beth, she was able to throw out things that they decided not to keep, give away or sell.

Beth took pictures of the inside and the outside of the house before they sold the furniture.

They kept all these pictures and the pictures that their parents had taken over the years, and Beth made two albums--one for John and one for her.

With the furniture gone, the house seemed empty.  Beth walked through the house and felt like the ghosts of her parents were hovering around.

Beth wondered:  Would they approve or would they be angry?

But she also knew that her parents had each gone through the same process when their parents died.

Within a month of putting the house on the market, the house sold to a young couple with children.  Beth felt immense sadness that the house was no longer part of the family, but she also hoped that the new family would make happy memories of their own.

Throughout this process of letting go, Beth kept her weekly therapy appointments.  These appointments helped her to go through the mourning process.

As her therapist told her, her brother experienced his grief most acutely soon after the house was sold.  He would often call Beth to talk about their parents and how difficult it was not to have them around any more.

A year later, when Beth drove by the house, she noticed that the new family had removed the porch and the house was painted a different color.  Although this was painful for Beth to see, she knew that she would always have the good memories of her childhood home.

Aside from being a practical matter, clearing out your parents' home after they die is an emotional process which is part of mourning.

Siblings in the same family might have very different reactions to clearing out their parents' possessions because each person grieves in his or her own way and time.

It's important to recognize that this is a process and it will bring up memories and feelings you might not be prepared for at the time.

You might feel like you're delusional if you feel like your parents will suddenly appear in their home, even though you know they're dead.  But you're not delusional.  This is common and normal.

Even though they are inanimate things, possessions are often imbued with memories and emotions, so be gentle with yourself.

Getting Help in Therapy
As I mentioned in a prior article, whether you had a good or a bad (or anything in between) type of relationship with your parents, you will still feel grief.

The process of going through your parents' possessions can be challenging for you in unexpected ways.

Family and friends often don't know how to be helpful, beyond a certain point, and might not understand the mourning process.

Getting help in therapy can help you through the mourning process.

Rather than struggling on your own, when you have a time and place in therapy to talk about and integrate your feelings about the deaths of your parents, you can through the mourning process without feeling so alone.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients through the mourning process.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Grief: You Continue to Have a Relationship With Your Parents After They Die

Continuing with the theme of losing both parents from my prior article, Grief: The Emotional Impact of Losing Both Parents, I want to expand on a subject that I began in that article, namely, how you continue to have a relationship with your parents even after they die (see my articles: Coping With the Loss of a Loved One: Common ReactionsGrief in Waiting, and Understanding Your Emotional Needs).

Grief: You Continue to Have a Relationship With Your Parents After They Die

When I refer to continuing to have a relationship with your parents after their deaths, I'm referring to what goes on in your inner world.

Whether you had a great relationship with your parents or whether you had a terrible relationship, you continue to develop your relationship with them in your mind.

Most people feel grief for their parents death whether their relationship was good or not.

If the relationship wasn't good, you grieve for what you never got and for what you'll never get once they're gone.

If the relationship was good, you grieve that they're not in your life any more and you'll never have that again.

There are certain things that you might not have appreciated about your parents and their experiences because of your lack of life experience at the time and the life stage that you were in.

You might remember your parents telling you, "You'll understand this when you're older" and that's often the case.

Often, when you become the age that your parents were, you can look back and usually have a better understanding of them and what they were going through.

Similarly, after both parents die and you go through the grieving process, even though your parents aren't on this Earth any more, you continue to develop your understanding of them and your internal relationship with them.

Fictional Clinical Vignette - Continuing to Have a Relationship With Your Parent After They Die:

Sandy's parents died within a year of each other.

Sandy's parents came to the United States to escape Nazi oppression, leaving their parents and older siblings behind.

Sandy's mother would often talk about the mother and siblings she left behind, showing Sandy their pictures and telling her stories about the family.

When Sandy was younger, she didn't understand why her mother kept telling her the same stories over and over again.  She would get exasperated and think to herself, "Oh no, another story about Aunt Helen."

Now that both of Sandy's parents were gone, Sandy would often look at her parents' pictures and the pictures of relatives who were left in Europe, many of whom died during the Holocaust.

After the loss of both of her parents, Sandy understood why her mother told these stories so often--she missed her family and she was traumatized by their loss.  Sandy now also understood that her mother also felt guilty about leaving her family behind.

In the same way that her mother used to look at those pictures with such grief, Sandy now looked at pictures of her parents with grief.

She wished that her parents were still around.  She had so many questions that she never asked them that she would now like to know.  But parents and anyone else who could have answered these questions were now dead.

Sandy showed her daughter, Nina, pictures of her parents and grandparents, but Nina seemed bored.

Sandy understood that Nina would be bored when Sandy showed her the pictures--much the same way that Sandy had been bored when her mother talked to her about the relatives in Europe.  Nina would rather be out with her friends.

When Sandy tried to talk to her husband about her parents, he listened for a while, but then he couldn't hear it any more and he would tell her to "Stop being morbid."

Her friends also told Sandy that it was already a year since her mother, the last parent to die, passed away and Sandy needed to "move on" with her life.

Feeling very lonely and misunderstood, Sandy decided to talk to a therapist about her grief.  Her doctor referred her to a therapist who specialized in grief work, and Sandy began attending sessions the next week.

Sandy was relieved that her therapist understood what she was going through and told her that her experiences were a normal part of grieving.

When it came time for Nina to move out of state for a job, Sandy remembered how upset her mother had been when she moved out of state.

At the time, Sandy couldn't wait to start her new life, and she felt impatient with her mother for "making a big deal out of it."

Now that Sandy was going through this with Nina, Sandy understood how her mother felt.  She knew now that her mother's feelings about Sandy going away were complicated by her mother's grief about the loss of her family.

Understanding this now, Sandy felt closer to her mother than ever.  She only wished that her mother could be here now so she could tell her.  She regretted that she had been so impatient with her mother at the time.

Talking to her therapist about her new insights into her mother was a relief because her therapist understood and told her that this is a common experience that people go through after they've lost both parents.

Her therapist talked to Sandy about how everyone continues to have a relationship with their parents even after they have died--regardless of their religious beliefs or whether they believe in an afterlife or not.

Her therapist recommended that Sandy use a journal between sessions to write about her feelings (see my articles: Writing to Cope With Grief and The Benefits of Journal Writing Between Therapy Sessions).

Her therapist told her that this continuing internal relationship would continue through the various stages in her life.

Over time, Sandy found this to be true.  She would often think of her parents when she went through major changes in her life, and she felt she understood them better and internalized them in a deeper way as time went on.  This helped her with the grieving process.

You continue to have a relationship with your parents in your inner world after they die.

Going through the various stages in your life, it's not unusual to think about your parents when they went through similar stages and realize that you now understand what you couldn't understand before.

Mourning the death of parents is a process that doesn't end immediately after they're gone.  It can continue in various ways for the rest of your life as you develop new insights into them based on your own experiences.

Many people, including spouses, family members and close friends, aren't comfortable talking about death, grief and mourning.  They might be afraid of the day when their parents are both gone or they might be afraid to think about their own mortality, so you can feel lonely and misunderstood by them.

Getting Help in Therapy
A skilled psychotherapist can help you through the mourning process as well as help you to understand how you continue to develop relationships with your parents even after they're gone (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Losing parents often changes how you see yourself, your parents and how you look at life.  Going through this process alone (or with people who don't understand) can be difficult.

Rather than trying to cope with this on your own, you could benefit from seeing a licensed mental health professional who has expertise in this area.

With help from a psychotherapist, you can learn to integrate these experiences so you can feel a greater sense of well-being over time.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to work through their grief and integrate their ongoing inner world experiences of their parents.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.