When Mandy Wildman suggested running her study day on Mapping Mortality in CAT, she included this reflective piece as part of her proposal. We abridged it in order to advertise and promote the event – #CATmort17. We reproduce her original version here to coincide with Dying Matters Awareness Week.
As psychotherapists, practitioners and clinicians we concern ourselves with the human dilemmas, difficulties, fears, distress and other preoccupations that life brings. Perhaps we could say our work is often about trying to understand our human condition. Whether in our work or in other aspects of our lives we constantly manage the tensions between opposites. We move between confidence and doubt, belonging and isolation, sickness and health, life and death. In our Western culture, mortality is often not a subject that we find easy to approach, either with ourselves or with our clients and patients, but it is woven into every part of our life story.
Initiatives such as the international Death Cafe movement, Dying Matters Awareness Week in the UK, and more local community events such as Pushing Up Daisies invite changes to this cultural censure on exploring mortality. Is it becoming more possible to join with others to explore such difficult thoughts and feelings? Does this give us an opportunity to think about what our mortality means to us in a uniquely personal way?
The harsh realities of life can’t always be avoided and can bring us face to face with our limitations and our limited capacity to control our existence, however hard we try. Life events such as a loss of a relationship or job, migration, bereavement, or serious illness can bring overwhelming and unbearable distress. We can believe that we should be able to manage and cope with such events with a ‘stiff upper lip’ approach, and if we can’t we can somehow feel we aren’t managing well enough.
In these places our human anxiety can be felt as terrifying and paralysing. We can experience awareness of the fragile nature of our lives and the world around us, our ultimate alone-ness, as emotional shock and overwhelming dread. This might result in a blocking off state in which we risk becoming numb, denying the difficult feelings, in an understandable attempt to defend and protect ourselves. As therapists, how can we offer meaningful comfort to ourselves and those we work with when our human condition can feel so frail?
The study day explores how CAT can offer a scaffolding with which to explore the issues relating to our mortality.
- Can we develop our capacity to explore issues relating to loss, ageing, decline and mortality, and our feelings about them, in the curious, open and collaborative manner that CAT embodies?
- What might help us to move from a position of avoiding, or warding off, these aspects of our human condition, to one which allows us to think together about them?
- How do we and our patients work towards managing and accepting the ‘unknowable’ quality of the future and the real anxieties of the finite life we have, with its inescapable endings and ultimately death?
- What are the things that sustain us and help us to retain passion, joy, meaning, purpose and hope in life, despite our knowing that all we see and know will come to an end?
Psychotherapy can offer an opportunity to consider the meaning and significance of our individual lives and relationships, or to provide some respite from a depressed and hopeless view of the world. These powerful issues relating to our experience of being human, and the strong feelings bound up with them, are present in the time that we spend with patients, as well as in other arenas.
The day is designed to bring compassion, respect, and, hopefully, some humour, to a subject that can induce guilt, shame, confusion and anger. Its aim is to allow us to feel more at ease with our feelings, more confident in expressing them and more comfortable in talking with our clients and patients about their experiences, as they present in our cognitive analytic therapy work.
Mandy’s event took place in July 2017. For more details about the day, click here.