Attachment and loss are inseparable – to become attached is to suffer the possibility of loss. It is certain that each of us will experience loss. Significant loss often heralds a time of deep sadness, emotional pain, and perhaps even a sense of hopelessness or despair. It can be an inconsolable time.
Attachment is the term used to describe the relationship an infant develops with the primary caregiver. The attachment relationship is an affectionate bond that endures through time and it connects the infant with their caregiver physically and emotionally.
Witnessing and experiencing suffering is difficult. Regardless of self-awareness, self-care, witnessing suffering on a regular basis can be overwhelming. Loss and suffering often go hand-in-hand, and as psychotherapists, we frequently work with individuals who have experienced or are experiencing loss.
The significance of a loss depends on the emotional attachment to the person or thing that is no longer available to us – the greater the emotional attachment, the more intense the sense of loss. This is why the emotional link associated with loss coincides with the amount of grief that is then experienced.
Our experiences of attachment and loss therefore can have a lasting effect on our mental health and well-being. But this experience is, as expected, different for every individual and is shaped by social, personal and psychological factors. For instance, people who are highly resilient, who have strong support systems, and who have stable psychological health may go through the bereavement process much more quickly and much more adaptively than people with fewer coping resources.
Attachment and loss are experienced in the existential process of what we therapists call ‘space between’. This space can also be a physical manifestation like for example when dealing with hoarders.
When a client first comes to therapy, space is provided. It is a space of time, an appointment time, a beginning and end time, a time to heal, usually an hour or so. There is also a physical space in the consulting room: two chairs, one for the client and one for me, with space in between. That space between the two chairs allows for me and my client to be comfortable in a social and emotional sense. We like our personal space, so the distance between the two chairs is expected and somewhat feels ‘natural’. But I believe also that space is more than physical and social, it can also represent an emotional, physical and spiritual value of a different sort.
The space between two chairs is also an area where self-realisation can occur. Space can be a place where our clients can ask or even demand, maybe for the first time, that they are taken seriously. This space can also be an important buffer between two people. The client may need a secure distance from another he may see as an authority figure.
Space can also represent the emotional latitude the therapist gives the client, especially if he is feeling vulnerable. In short, the ‘space between’ can allow for psychological acceptance and growth.
The moment we commit ourselves by attaching to another person or item, it begins to emerge. You can think of it as an energy field filling up space between you and your attached item or person. For many of my clients, this sounds suspicious and they often remark: ‘There isn’t anything between me and my partner/child, etc. – only air.’
I explain to clients actually there is always ‘something’ between us and someone/something else. Sometimes I ask my clients to look and stargaze and then to think about space. Our universe is filled with stars, galaxies, planets, meteors and comets. What lies between all these cosmic bodies? Space. Lots of space. Lots of empty space. However, we now know this not to be the case. We used to think space was empty. But scientists have proven that the space between the planets isn’t empty at all. It is filled with gravitational and energy fields that actually hold the planets in their orbits. That is what I mean by the ‘space between’. It is a cosmic energy field that supports and influences our relationship with people and our environment.
Just as physics is part of the physical world, we believe there is a physics that governs the ‘space between’ us and the environment. We become attached to people and things because it serves a perceived need which, we think if attained, will complete us somehow. Attachments are sticky. Our freedom goes out the window, and we react emotionally. When we hold onto things it is based on hope. We hope to lose weight, catch up on reading, finish that abandoned project, among others. But when we don’t it’s hard not to feel guilty about it. We give up our ‘space between’ for things that start controlling our lives.
We also hold onto stuff with the rationalisation that we might need it one day. It’s easy enough to hide the things you don’t use or need in the back of a closet. But after a while, all those things pile up and you cannot ignore them.
I don’t believe we can be healed simply through rational discussions, because we can’t fathom what is powering our distress in the first place anyway. We are victims of our unconscious, we can’t grasp what we long for or are terrified by. Therefore, the ‘space between’ in therapy provides us with a space in which we can, in safety, say whatever comes into our heads. The ghosts of the past are seen in bright daylight and are laid to rest.
Stelios Kiosses is the clinical lead for Dementech Neurosciences.
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