Experiencing Endings and Beginnings

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Throughout life we undergo many changes in our circumstances, beginnings and endings of relationships, gains and losses. This book highlights the emotional turmoil which, to a greater or lesser extent, accompanies these changes. It considers the nature of the anxieties aroused by a new situation and the ending of a previous state at various stages in life. Endings and beginnings are shown to be closely related, for every new situation entered into, more often than not, involves having to let go of some of the advantages of the previous one as well as losing what is familiar and facing fear of the unknown. The author shows how all these aspects of change evoke primitive anxieties, stemming from our earliest experiences of coming into this world. While beginning life outside holds the promise of a wider, more enriching existence it involves the loss of the known, relative safety of life inside mother's body. Moreover, the human newborn is at first utterly helpless, totally dependent on others to keep him alive. It leaves him terrified of being abandoned and left to die. The loss of what is familiar, the fear of the unknown as well as the fear of being unable to manage on our own remain in the depth of our psyche throughout life and are re-evoked at times of life-changing events and to some extent by any ending and beginning. The book stresses the importance of examining the way these anxieties are dealt with by different individuals and those who look after them and what promotes or undermines mental, emotional and spiritual growth.Freud, as well as stressing the importance of the "work of mourning" when someone we love and/or depend on dies, drew attention to the fact that mourning occurs in other situations, such as losing one's country, or an ideal. The author describes how bereavement affects young children, adolescents, young and old people. She also looks at all the ordinary endings in life such as the separation from mother when the child begins to go to nursery, leaving home to go to college, losing one's place of work at retirement, losing one's youth. She stresses how important it is to prepare and work through these and other losses for it is only if we continue to value and internalise the good aspects of the experiences we have had - rather than remain angry about what we have lost - that we are able to internalise and carry them within our heart and mind to sustain us through life, and remain open to appreciate the preciousness of living in the present.

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Chapter One - Learning from Experience of Endings and Beginnings

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CHAPTER ONE

Learning from experience of endings and beginnings

I have for many years been impressed by the intensity and depth of emotions aroused by beginnings and endings: ending one phase of life and entering a new one, the beginning and the ending of a course of study, becoming part of an organisation and leaving it, starting a new relationship, and ending an old one—life is full of beginnings and endings, constantly facing us with having to deal with change. This book is the result of reflections, based on my professional and personal experiences of the emotional turmoil to which such changes give rise and the ways in which different individuals and groups try to deal with them.

We tend to associate endings with fear and dread. But there are exceptions. For instance, the ending of a miserable, restricting marriage may bring relief; a person who is in constant agonising pain, progressively disabled, may long for her life to end; leaving a country where one is persecuted is a life-saving event. Beginnings tend to be associated with hope and excitement. But there again it is not necessarily so. For instance, having to do a further course of training in order to be employable may be dreaded; being promoted to a senior job may be looked forward to but the responsibility that goes with it may be feared.

 

Chapter Two - From Life Inside Mother to Life Outside

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CHAPTER TWO

From life inside mother to life outside

Most of us have some memories that go back to an experience we had when we were three or four years old; exceptionally, I have met individuals who can remember an event that happened when they were only eighteen months old. Yet psychoanalysis of adults and children, infant observation and longitudinal studies, as well as neuroscientific findings, show that in fact our experiences right from the beginning of life are of crucial importance. They are deeply embedded in our soma and psyche, shaping our physical, emotional, and mental development; they influence the way we relate to others and react to the contingencies life brings with it. Freud stated that nothing is ever lost, that traces of what we have experienced in the past remain in the depths of our mind, in our unconscious. Whenever a relationship or situation in the present in some respect resembles an earlier one, it tends to evoke some of the emotional and physical reactions we had in the past. We experience them in what Klein (1957) called “memories in feelings”. Every ending, every beginning, therefore, arouses, to a greater or lesser extent, the physical, emotional, mental states that we experienced at the beginning of our life.

 

Chapter Three - Separateness and New Connections

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CHAPTER THREE

Separateness and new connections

In the previous chapter, we looked at the newborn's need for mother to be readily available to make the loss of physical connectedness to her body less traumatic. We considered the catastrophic anxiety aroused when he faces the unknown external environment. This physically helpless human infant with his limited mobility to reach across the space that separates him from what/whom he depends upon has, however, quite remarkable sensory and mental capacities which enable him both to hold on to what offers security and to discover new ways of connecting. He has the gift of sight, making it possible to hold on, with his eyes, to static objects like the wall or light whenever he feels not held by mother's enveloping arms and attention. He uses his eyes to meet mother's gaze, to search her face and her changing expressions which convey her love, her approval, her pleasure, interest in him or, at times, the opposite: anger, disapproval, absentmindedness. At a few months, he will also employ his eyes to keep in contact with mother as she moves about the room. He uses his ears to listen to mother's (and father's) voice and can feel comforted by it, even when she (or he) is out of sight. Maybe the very fact that the human baby is physically unable to reach the one he needs, stimulates him to find other ways of bridging the gap created by separateness. Not only does he use his senses to enable him to do this but he also develops the mental capacity to take in/to internalise and increasingly hold onto good experiences he has had in mother's presence and even, in phantasy, to recreate them.

 

Chapter Four - Weaning

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CHAPTER FOUR

Weaning

From being breastfed to feeding from bottle, spoon and cup

Being weaned from the breast is a time of painful loss for infants (and for many mothers) except for those who have experienced great difficulties in the breast-feeding relationship. If this has been the case, changing from breast to bottle-feeding may be a relief, allowing for a more relaxed, happier relationship between mother and baby. Some infants are bottle-fed from birth but as long as the infant is held close, it can be almost as intimate a feeding relationship as breast-feeding. Weaning, as used in this chapter, refers to mother cutting down the number of breast feeds she gives to her baby and then ending breast-feeding altogether. The mother's loving understanding of her baby is so particularly important at this stage because the loss of the breast brings with it a revival of the baby's terror of being cut off from the connectedness with mother, the source of life. The infant may be afraid that not only the breast but mother's loving care may also no longer be reliably available. Psychoanalytic work with very young children has taught us that when he is not given the breast, the baby has phantasies of mother keeping the breast to feed herself and/or giving it to father or a baby/babies inside her. His anger, his envy of mother, his jealousy of others who are felt to be getting the feeds may be expressed by biting or hitting the breast, pulling at mother's hair and clothes; in an attempt to possess mother, he may attempt to get inside her by burrowing his head into her chest. When weaned, the baby may, at times, arch his back and turn away from mother either because the closeness to the breast, without being fed by it, is overwhelmingly tantalising or because of his anger at being deprived of it; his sleep pattern may also be disturbed and he may be more fretful and anxious when mother leaves the room.

 

Chapter Five - Becoming a Child in the Family

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CHAPTER FIVE

Becoming a child in the family

The first birthday of the child is a time of celebration for the family. Many parents feel a sense of relief at having reached this point, happy that their baby—and they—have survived the very anxious, vulnerable time of his infancy. They look back on the year that has passed, amazed at how much their baby has developed physically, emotionally, and mentally, stunned at the skills he has acquired within such a short a time. While aware that he will still need a great amount of attention, they feel freed by his being no longer so totally dependent: he can sit up, move around, help himself to the food put on his high-chair table, and be left for a little while longer to play by himself, as long as he is in a confined space, like his baby-chair, pram, or playpen.

As soon as he can crawl and/or walk, the toddler is able to discover, get hold of, and explore a whole new range of objects. It is a time when parents need to clear away breakable objects which are within his reach. His longer periods of being awake also make him more aware of other people's activities and relationships. All this brings about a new perspective and the need to reorientate himself in relation to this enlarged, more complex picture of the world. Up to now, he has been living much of the time within mother's orbit. Although he now enjoys little forays, he still needs from time to time to check that his mother is nearby. He seeks physical closeness with her and father to reassure himself of his parents' continuing presence, love, and support. He enjoys looking at pictures, learning to make sounds befitting the objects in the book, or even naming them; he is playing hide-and-seek and being shown how to fit things together and beginning to talk. However much attention, affection, praise, and encouragement he is given at feeding, playtime, bathtime, and bedtime, it may still not feel enough. Mother comes and goes, is often busy. Even when she is present, she does not always focus on him as much as before. He witnesses her paying more attention to father, other adults, other children, even to herself. In all these observed situations, he may feel left out. He longs for the time that he knew himself to be the centre of attention. Some of the time it still seems like this, but it does not last. The loss is profound. It is a time of being weaned from his special position as the baby and having to find his place as a member of the family group.

 

Chapter Six - Going to Nursery

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CHAPTER SIX

Going to nursery

In many Western countries some children are sent to a nursery when they are still babies. The length of maternity leave varies from country to country. It may be a few weeks or a few months (Sweden is an exception, allowing both mothers and fathers extended leave). A baby, a toddler, a child under the age of two and a half years needs a reliable person who gives him individual attention and responds to his communications with understanding. It is rare to find a nursery that has enough staff to meet this need. While mother is working, the individual attention the little one needs can often be given by a grandmother, grandfather, or aunt; alternatively, parents who can afford paid help might engage a good nanny or child-minder.

Going to nursery, provided the child is not too young, can help a child to learn to share and make friends with children of his own age and acquire new skills as well as enjoy group activities. But even at the age of three, starting to go to nursery, being separated from mother and home, even for a few hours two or three times a week, presents the child with a very major change. He may at times, accompanied by his mother, have visited mother's friends and their children. When he knew them well, he may have been left there for an hour or so but coming to nursery faces him with a multiplicity of new experiences, all happening at one and the same time: finding himself in an unknown environment with adults he does not know, amongst a group of children he has not met before. It is likely to evoke anxieties experienced at the very beginning of life: feeling lost, confused, frightened, and helpless. Being left at nursery, separated from mother for some hours, needs to be a gradual process.

 

Chapter Seven - Beginnings and Endings in School

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CHAPTER SEVEN

Beginnings and endings in school

Beginning to go to junior school

Many children entering primary school will have been attending nursery and thus have some experience of leaving home for part of the day, being in a group, and relating to staff. All the same, beginning to go to school faces all children with a very new situation. In a good nursery, children will have been given some individual attention and learning will have been acquired through a mixture of work and play. At school, all learning takes place within groups; attention needs to be paid to the teacher, standing in front, presenting knowledge in a much more formal way. The group the child finds himself in is much larger than those he has been used to hitherto. At break-time and mealtimes he finds himself one amongst a crowd of children, most of them older and bigger than himself. Indeed, everything is on a much bigger scale: the building, the play area, the number of classrooms, corridors, toilets. Although most schools offer an introductory day where the newcomers are shown around, there is so much to take in that a lot of the information given will not be absorbed and the child is likely to feel confused and lost in these new surroundings for quite a while. While the child may be excited and impressed by the pictures and the writings of pupils displayed on the walls, evidence of other children's achievements may arouse too great an expectation about what he should soon be able to do and may also cause worry at how much will be expected of him.

 

Chapter Eight - Tertiary Education and Entering the World of Work

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CHAPTER EIGHT

Tertiary education and entering the world of work

Tertiary education

As well as excitement, feelings of insecurity are experienced, to some extent, by all students when starting life at university. This is hardly surprising when we consider the great changes in lifestyle which are involved: from a structured school timetable, set homework, close supervision to mainly unstructured studies and unstructured days; from being part of a group of girls and boys of various grades of ability to finding oneself amongst a peer group of extremely bright, highly achieving youngsters. Having had a family to fall back on, the young person is left without adults looking after his welfare; having been part of ordinary life, he finds himself floating in a rarefied atmosphere. Having done well enough academically to be offered a place, he may feel that he is expected to be brilliant or at least to have to prove that he deserves to be amongst the elect. In contrast to the fixed curriculum at school, especially in the last two years in order to achieve good exam results, the intellectual freedom to play with ideas at university, while immensely stimulating and liberating, may be experienced as being uprooted from a firm basis of orientation and lead to mental/emotional giddiness and confusion. Even for the more secure, the more mature, amongst the students, the changes involved are great while for others they may be all too much. The latter may be amongst those picked up by staff working in a student health or counselling service. But by no means all who are deeply unhappy or at risk of breakdown have the courage to seek help. Many are too ashamed to do so or even to admit to themselves that they need help—after all, one is supposed to be a grown-up! So the young person tries to act being adult, pretends to be fine, sometimes at great cost to himself. Parents may feel inhibited about keeping in close contact, afraid to be thought to be intruding into their youngster's life. Yet students are financially dependent on their parents and contact with the family is needed to keep the young person grounded. Most university staff, because of the false assumption that all that young people want is freedom from adult authority—falsely conceived of as authoritarian, oppressive, and interfering—leave students to fend for themselves rather than considering the students' welfare and making themselves available to be turned to when needed. As a result, many students feel very lonely, lost, and uncared for and have to rely for support exclusively on members of their peer group. They may be lucky enough to find congenial friends but others, in order to avoid loneliness, are easily drawn into less helpful groups. Some may try to escape painful feelings by turning to drink or drugs or seek comfort by sleeping with another lost soul, of either sex, like babes in the wood. Some break down and have to return home, some commit suicide or attempt to do so.

 

Chapter Nine - Getting Married

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CHAPTER NINE

Getting married

Phantasies about being married already arise in childhood. Freud's discovery of the Oedipus complex—that is the wish of little boys to take father's place with mother, the girl wanting to take mother's place with daddy and the resulting anxieties arising from the rivalry with the parent of the same sex—is well known. These phantasies are based on the desire to own the parent of the opposite sex, body and mind, and to be the loved one. As Klein has shown, they have their roots in the infant's desire to possess mother totally.

In childhood we learn from fairy-tales of a girl who turns into the most beautiful of all women and is chosen by the prince; and of a boy becoming the cleverest, most daring man whose deeds earn him the right to be given the princess in marriage. The stories end, either by implication or explicitly, with “and they lived happily ever after.” Some children continue to live in such a phantasy world, as did my patient Marion who, when she started psychoanalytic treatment at the age of ten, made it quite clear to me that I was to be the fairy godmother who had the magic to make her into a most beautiful bride. At other times I was the prince who adored her and would never leave her. More commonly, children of that age have a more realistic idea of marriage, although they may, at times, dream of a fairy-tale kind of relationship.

 

Chapter Ten - Becoming a Parent

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CHAPTER TEN

Becoming a parent

The wish to have a baby is often already present in childhood. I remember being far less interested in dolls than in live babies. The fact that I was the youngest child in my family probably had something to do with it. Did I feel dolls to be like dead babies, lifeless, worried about my mother having no more babies after me? I begged to be allowed to push the pram and spoon-feed the baby of one of my mother's friends. Pets also aroused maternal feelings: I loved Anton, my uncle's dog whom I often took for a walk and, of course, my two canaries whom I looked after and hoped they would mate and have little ones. I was very disappointed when they did not do so.

In adulthood, as well as a love of children, additional motivations enter in to wanting to have a child. There is the awareness of being part of a lifeline which stretches from past generations and makes us wish to continue it; in doing so, we may feel that we are investing in a future beyond our lifespan. Maybe there is also the hope that by having offspring, a part of us remains alive—is immortal. There may be a desire to preserve or pass on the qualities we value in our partner, our parents, grandparents, and/or others who have inspired us. Having a baby is also often felt to be a present one is giving to one's parents. And indeed a baby is usually a source of infinite joy for them as well as enriching the lives of other members of the family: sisters and brothers, the newcomer's siblings, cousins, youngsters who are often thrilled at becoming uncles and aunts. Wishing to but not being able to produce a baby is felt as a failure and a very painful loss. The feelings of loss may be ameliorated, though not necessarily eliminated, by adopting a child or becoming a stepmother/father. “Stepfather” and especially “stepmother” carry such bad connotations that I prefer calling them “second mother” or “second father”. This makes it clear that while the birth parent is number one, never displaced or forgotten, someone else has taken on an important maternal or paternal role.

 

Chapter Eleven - Bereavement

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

Bereavement

We are confronted almost daily, via the media, with pictures of men and women, in one corner of the world or another, distraught at the death of members of their family and friends. Such brief, voyeuristic intrusion into grief to which adults as well as children and adolescents are exposed, may shock, horrify, make us aware of the unpredictability of such tragic events and the frailty of life but does nothing to bring us any closer to understanding the complex, inner turbulence that follows upon a death. We remain unprepared for the powerful emotions we experience when someone close to us dies and are at a loss to know how to relate to those who are bereaved. I remember a friend of mine, in a senior position in his social work organisation, who lost his wife suddenly, unexpectedly, telling me that his colleagues scurried away like mice when they saw him coming along the corridor. When staff had to consult him about work-related problems, his wife's death was not even mentioned by them. When I asked them why they had not said anything about his loss, some replied that they had not wanted to intrude; others felt they did not wish to upset him and some said that they did not know what to say.

 

Chapter Twelve - Retirement

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CHAPTER TWELVE

Retirement

Men and women who find their work uncongenial, too burdensome or too exhausting, often long for the day they will be able to retire—hopefully with a pension. There are others who are eager to begin a new kind of life, to move to a different place and/or to devote time to other treasured activities. And there are some who may wish to continue working but, in accordance with the rules of their employment, have to retire when they reach a certain age. What tends to be overlooked is the pain that many—even those who wish to retire—feel at the losses sustained by retirement. The emotional upheaval experienced is often unexpected and tends not to be spoken about, perhaps because it is embarrassing to admit that one feels ambivalent about retiring when everyone expects you to feel happy at gaining freedom from the burden and restrictions which work imposes. Moreover, being of an age that leads to retirement inevitably makes one aware of becoming old.

In Western society, we define ourselves and are defined by others to a large extent by the work we do. One of the first questions many people ask when they are introduced to each other is: “What do you do for a living?” To have to say: “I am no longer working, I am retired” may feel as if one is no longer an interesting person. As work takes up the greatest part of most people's waking hours, retirement brings about a very major change and poses questions. How will I spend my days? What do I want to do? What do I need to do? How will I spend the rest of my journey through life? Many people do not prepare themselves for their retirement, some have vague ideas about their future, few have well thought-out plans. Retirement can be a dangerous time for workaholics who have used work as a defence against inner turmoil; they may break down mentally or, more often, physically once they have stopped working.

 

Chapter Thirteen - Growing Old and Facing Death

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Growing old and facing death

“All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances…
…Last scene of all,
That ends this strange, eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

This is the grim picture of old age Shakespeare paints in a monologue from As You Like It, sometimes known as the “Seven Ages of Man”. It is true, of course, that becoming old raises the spectre of loss of physical and mental abilities, going on existing “without” so much of what one had before. We know that even if we escape severe chronic physical and/or mental illness, our bodily strength will diminish with increasing age; our sight, our hearing, our mobility, our short-term memory is likely to be impaired or possibly lost altogether. We may have to put up with pain and dysfunction of some part or parts of the body. Not only do we have to face our own decline and death but also often that of our partner and, frequently, the loss of our home. But in spite of all this, does old age, even very old age, have to be “sans everything”? While we are prone to becoming needy and requiring physical assistance—in many respects similar to young children (and, if we are very incapacitated, to infants)—this does not necessarily have to go hand in hand with becoming childish. Nor must some loss of memory be equated with being oblivious of happenings in the inner and outer world. Advances in preventative medicine have extended the number of years people expect to live and new technology has helped to alleviate some, though by no means all, of the pains and physical disabilities of the elderly. Yet the fears associated with old age have not diminished. On the contrary, longevity makes us more fearful of living for years in a depleted state. There is the added anxiety that we will be left isolated and lonely, for the times are past—in the Western world—when spinster aunts and uncles as well as grandparents became part of the family household.

 

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