Of Death, Step-Parents, Displaced Parents and Blends.

As I sit to write this I can feel that sense of ‘do you have a right?’ sitting in the far reaches of the right side of my head. Crazy right? I’m a counsellor; feelings just are. But it really, really, really is never that simple. (Lots of ‘reallys’ and I meant every one).

You would gather that parts of me are in this story. And parts are clients. And parts are family – in all it’s forms.

When we think of step parents and blended families our mind goes to the two ‘parents’ in a home with children. But there are many far reaching effects of blended families for years to come . This short post is about one seldom thought of.

Imagine you have a step-dad from the age of 4 until you are 19 (when he leaves and starts another family). And imagine you are older and it is some 30-40 years later and he dies. My question is – what is your allocation of ‘ the right to grieve’?

If it’s your Mum or your Dad, your allocation of the right to grieve is obvious; it is not questioned. Or at least it’s not questioned if your Mum and Dad are still together.

If it is your step parent (and your parents stayed together until that step parent died) then a little nudge for allocation might be needed – like ‘He was my Dad from when I was 11 to now’. And Voila! – its kind of explainable and your grief is recognized; some may even say – understood.

But if your Step Dad or your Dad went on to have a whole new family the displacement is surreal. Funerals are organized by his ‘now family. And you watch the forward motion of social grief, with all it’s condolences and photographs and memories, steadfastly roll forward with little or no recognition of the 10 or 15 years of his life that you were pivotal in.

This displacement comes up in lots of situations but sadly (and understandably) those at the front of the line in the ‘right to grieve’ are tied up in their own grief – they may even feel they have more ownership of that grief.

So spare a thought for the son in law who only came on the scene 10 years ago when the rest of the family have been around for 40 years and gets none of the ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’…. Or for the daughter who sits at her fathers funeral, where she knows no-one and listens to stories all about her fathers new life and nothing about herself in his old.

If you are lucky – someone in their new life lets you in….just a little. It doesn’t stop the feeling of displacement. It doesn’t stop the questions about the ‘right to grieve’. But it helps.

Look around at Funerals. It takes nothing away from you to acknowledge those left holding she shortest ‘right to grieve’ straw.

Goodbye Dad

On a morning walk during the last school holidays, I had the opportunity to see suburbia in its early buzz. And most of what I saw was good. Some pretty gardens with happy flowers, teddy bears still peeking out of a few windows, people coming out to check the mailbox and waving hello. But I also saw something but made me feel sad. Three SUVs pulling up at separate curbs – their engines humming outside nicely groomed houses. None of the driver’s turned their engines off. Only one of the drivers got out of this car. No-one was waiting on the curb or came out to greet them. And overflowing out of the passenger doors …children, all of them around school age carrying little cases or backpacks shouting… “Goodbye Dad”… several of them running back to try to give a final hug.

These were not children being dropped off for a weekend sleepover with a friend. These children were most likely being dropped off between a separated Mum and Dad. How did I know? A number of things were obvious like the cases on their back (and several other items dragged from the car) but also the tone of the goodbye to Dad was not the kind that says I will see you later in the day.

We are bringing up generations of children who’s normal is being split between homes with different rules and different atmospheres. Not for them any cozy Friday night movie nights with Mum and Dad together making the world secure.

I felt sad. Mainly I felt sad because I knew how torn most of these children would be feeling and that it was most likely that at times they were forced to choose out loud or in their own head which of their parents was the most reliable or lovable; children growing up too soon.

I believe relationships can thrive. I believe in the power of commitment hard work and at times professional intervention to facilitate a way through. And I believe that even if couples choose not to stay together there is still the ability to role model what respectful and caring relationships look like in the face of separation. And that would include – Dads getting out of their cars and Mums coming out on the curb to greet the arrival. When children step out of that car they step onto the wobbly bridge that spans no mans land. The least parents can do is swallow their own hurts/pride/anger/indifference and hold their children’s hand until they get to the other side.

Shiloh 7 – Ethereal Cocooning

It seems at the moment my favourite time of day is a walk with Shiloh at the dog park. Having said that, sometimes I still need to convince myself to go. I liken that to drinking a green smoothie or doing some meditation ; you know it’s good for you and you know you will be glad you did it – hey – you may even really enjoy it BUT you still need some convincing to start. Such is the constant battle of making self care a priority.

When it’s walk time and its just Shiloh and me, there is the beginning of something wonderful; Shiloh is becoming my sunny shadow. Whilst it’s true he is more independent (not quite the fragile puppy that he was) the irony is that he is more dependant on me in a different way. Before he was unconsciously dependant. Now he is consciously so. He looks around to see where I am and doubles back when he goes too far. And he does this adorable thing…. When he wanders off far in search of a doggy interaction  I open my arms and say

‘Shiloh come”.

He turns on his heel and races back to me.  Perhaps, it is only those who have experienced a loved dog sprinting with total abandon back towards them who can fully appreciate how wonderful it feels.

Shiloh’s love spills over.

Shiloh has opened up a whole world for me personally. Not only has he offered me the opportunity to meet other likeminded dog owners, he has encouraged me out of my four walls and into the wide open spaces of Linklater Reserve. I discover that having a dog is a natural ice breaker – and every dog owner relishes opportunity to speak about their dog! (including me)

There have been times I have wondered if getting Shiloh had been a good idea. The work involved has been immense and I have felt the responsibility of being a good dog owner more than I thought I would.

Whilst I have learned much about dogs……… my biggest learning is about myself.

When Shiloh was only 4 months old  I felt the loss of being alone. I wondered what I had done. I was afraid I had made an error of judgement and that the lone walks I so relished were over. And then – within 6 weeks of those worried thoughts, Shiloh became my little shadow of sunshine.

He didn’t need watching and attending to as much (his recall is superb! – just sayin!). And suddenly I could feel alone but not alone. I could feel ‘in my thoughts’ but ‘with’ Shiloh. Suddenly that warm little shadow was encompassing comfort; ethereal cocooning. Alone but not alone. Two but one. A merging somehow of the comfort we felt in each other.

Me and Shiloh. Shiloh and me.

Shiloh may be a way off being a Therapy dog yet – but he is therapy indeed for this counsellor.

Shiloh 6 – Clean Laundry

I knew that Shiloh had retriever in his blood. But I didn’t fully appreciate the impact of his ancestors.

At first it was cute (and to be honest it mostly still is). He is BORN to retrieve.

Socks, long ago given up on, appear in the middle of the sitting room. Plastic bottles not quite closed into the bin lay strewn in no longer ‘recyclable’ chunks across the lawn. Dressing gown robe ties are picked up muddy and soggy in the middle of the flower bed. The ceramic cats bowl lies upside down on the deck. Don’t even get me started on shoes.

I have lost count of the number of propeller pencils (my preferred way of noting in my diary) that I have retrieved (chewed, mangled and half buried in my garden). And I have almost had to go into overdraft to keep up my supply of erasers. My new prescription glasses (in the expensive frames I had been promising myself for about 2 years) were gently removed from Shiloh’s fair jaw when a crunching sound alerted us. Shiloh was fine. The glasses were not.

Now I know what you are thinking. Where are the rules? Where is the discipline? And how on earth does he GET half this stuff. Well let’s just leave your question there because I promise you…we try.

All of these antics are a mixture of annoying, horrifying and adorable (not in that order). But he’s so proud – so very very trotting, happily, proud every time he manages to retrieve something. And also, Shiloh is teaching me things. For instance : he’s teaching me to be tidier

One morning, I was approaching the top of the stairs when I saw a pair of my knickers on the top stair. Quelle horreur!

Now I know what you are thinking and it’s something to do with a late night and a bottle of wine. But NO! You would be wrong. It had more to do with the fact that my underwear drawer is the bottom drawer of my dresser and I have a habit of not closing it properly.

You would think that one incident of such nature was enough to forevermore teach me to close my dresser drawers properly – but NO – I needed another incident and this one’s a goody.

You see we are currently doing a renovation and have builders onsite. And these said builders were treated to the view of me racing across the lawn in my dressing gown, desperately trying to retrieve my best lace underwire bra from one adorable, fluffy, one of a kind. retriever labradoodle. It took a while! They could probably describe the item in detail to their wives.

Better work stories am I right?

Shiloh 5 – We’re all going on a summer holiday

With six days of sun and sand to look forward to, we are packed to the hilt. Anyone would think we had a newborn. We have a pile of towels, cotton bedcover, night time enclosure, dog bed, treats, meals, dog shampoo (and conditioner!) de-matting combs, water bottles and favourite toys. So, with a sense of new and adventure we head off.

About 20 minutes down the road and Shiloh‘s chin is dripping and he’s looking anxious. We close the back window and turn up the air con. After a little while it occurs to me he might be car sick. I turn to check on him and see him purposefully stand. In the nick of time, I manage to catch the proceeds of his breakfast in a towel (twisting a muscle in my neck at the same time but I guess that’s besides the point, at least my husband’s leather seats were spared right?!).

Poor car sick Shiloh. I climb into the back seat with him and firm up his little body against every bend in the road (further aggravating my neck) and after some time manage to prop his head up with the remaining clean towels.

By the time we reach Waitara he is feeling a little better. We unpack and settle in.

We have six days ahead. Six days of beach and sand. Shiloh encourages me to lie on the cool grass and watch the sky.. Jackson Browne plays in my head. Or should I say Jackson Browne tries to play in my head. Shiloh was pretty interruptive.

‘Keep a fire burning in your eye
Pay attention to the open sky
You never know what will be coming down……….

Keep a fire for the human race
And let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down……………….

Perhaps a better world is drawing near…….
Just as easily, it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found………….
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
(The world keeps turning around and around)
Go on and make……… a joyful sound’

Shiloh does help me make a joyful sound – it’s so true. But I have to admit that he is extremely interruptive and  going on holiday with a 6 month old pup is hard work.  We are up early each day to let him out. He gets an upset tummy on day three requiring fast track 4am walks to the park because he refuses to go on the grass nearby. It also meant that two of the 5 nights there were spent cooking chicken and rice………for the dog! (Instead of our usual dinners out. Shiloh loved (LOVED) the beach. And what he loved (LOVED) most about the beach was digging……..so walks to the beach ended with a very smelly, sandy and wet dog needing a hose down and a towel dry (and blow dry – he IS a labradoodle !) And of course our last day was getting to a vet for advice on our car sick pup. We didn’t fancy a repeat of the leather seat rescue.

Where, I wondered were the isolated walks along a beautiful beach with nothing to explore but Jackson Browne lyrics or the deep recesses of my mind? Or the hours spent watching the tide go out and hours collecting shells or writing messages in the sand? Shiloh was always there and up to something.He needed constant looking out for and I began to feel that the mental space I had longed for could not be had = with a dog in tow.

Is this the way it is? Have I lost the aloneness I value?

Arriving home (with a crick in the neck – steadying Shiloh in the back seat) I didn’t feel particularly rested.

 I am again struck by the ‘okayness’ of feeling conflicted. Our summer holiday was still sun and sea and Shiloh is just so lovable – but I wonder about the tradeoffs I have unwittingly agreed to?

Shiloh 4 – Of daisies, boots and beaches

We grow.

Confession : At times I have doubted my decision to bring Shiloh into our lives.

Here’s the thing about doubt: it’s allowed. It would be so much simpler if these kind of things were black or white. Night and day. Right or wrong. But 99.99% of the time they are on a continuum i.e. shades of grey. And it’s okay to feel things that are at odds – sorrow and relief/ wonder and fear/ regret and excitement, weight and light.

I’m not sure how (previously) I have skipped the weight of responsibility that owning a dog brings. What was that? – Youth? Confidence? Lack of vision? Whatever it was then, I feel the full weight of it now. And at times I think back a little longingly at the simplicity of just wo cats; no early morning loo runs, keeping gates or doors closed, juggling animal meal times, the duties of clearing the lawn and the rescuing of every item known to man! (We are making progress though on the rescuing – seems Shiloh will sit and allow me to remove the bottle of nail varnish/ pen/ mobile phone/ TV remote etc if I move very slowly, using a stern voice and asking him to ‘wait’. He gets rewarded after this for relinquishing his prize. He is always so proud of his excavations or elevations (i.e. floor to sofa to coffee table!!) and it is SO hard to be strict.

Shiloh knows when he has been told off even when you haven’t told him off and it’s quite hard on the heartstrings watching him quietly walk away and lie in the corner after a disapproving tone has been used.

Of course this sensitivity will hold him in good stead in the Therapy Room and I have no doubt about his rapport building qualities.

So we grow.

Shiloh goes from 3kgs to 11.7 – YES – 11.7 kgs at 5 months (we are beginning to doubt that part of his job description : medium labradoodle). He is allowed out into the big bad world (all vaccinations done) so can do wildly exciting things like go to the dog park/ visit Granny/ have Sunday morning coffee and cheese scone at a dog friendly cafe/ get cuddles at the local hardware store from little girls/ walk the neighborhood like it’s wonderland and go shell collecting at the beach (he already know me so well; he knows I love shells and on our very first beach walk he brought me a very beautiful one which he spat out into my hand with a little drool and sand:)

Shiloh offers the kind of love only a puppy can give ; unconditional, vulnerable cuddle filled love. And he’s a chocolate, fluffy, edible rascal. I love him so.

Sometimes we lie on the warm grass and smell the daisies.

We grow. We. Grow.

Shiloh 3 – What’s in a Name?

We were well prepared! I had signed up with Mark Vette Puppy Zen Training online. We had the crates. We had the cuddly beds. We had the cuddly blankets. We had the food, the bowls and the clicker. We had the cat pheromone calming spray! And we already had the name….or did we?

Whiskey seemed so adorable but we had toyed with a few others – including Bailey. I decided to choose once we met him. When I lifted him into my arms for the first time – he felt like a Bailey but we knew him from afar as Whiskey. 24 hours later we were no clearer.

Eventually my son wrote Bailey on one postit and Whiskey on another and we did a surprise vote.

But on the first loud call ‘BAILEY’ our elderly cat thought we had called her (Haydey)…and after a spot more limbo – we decided on Shiloh.

Shiloh ; Therapy dog in training ; future purveyor of places of sanctuary and peace 🙏

Shiloh 2 – The Anticipation

Whisky looked cute in the photos ; no doubt. And according to his breeder he was the friendliest and most outgoing of the litter. He was also ‘chill’ which was not surprising being that he was from her Therapy line of Labradoodles. The decision had been made, and I shifted into a mixture of anticipation and panic! Was I doing the right thing?/Was this a commitment I should be taking on?/Would he be the right temperament??/ Would my much loved two cats adjust?/ Was I prepared for the restrictions owning a dog would bring?

Lockdown threw a giant spanner in the works and I became anxious that if we did not all go down to a level 2, Whiskey would not be allowed to travel to me nor I to him. But Level 2 arrived just in time to book him on Originair from Nelson – and soon we found ourselves waiting anxiously at Palmerston North Airport. It was quite funny really . . .we peered through the glass like anxious expectant parents. And then – there he was….this tiny, fluffy, shy little ball of love squinting out at us through his cage. He was afraid and overwhelmed. He was cuddled and loved.

Whiskey – therapy dog in the making had arrived.

Shiloh 1 – The Journey begins – To Dog or not to Dog.

As I stepped up to the door of the cafe an adorable dog caught my eye. Tethered to a wrought iron chair was quite the most beautiful dog I had ever seen. As it turned out this cream, fluffy, teddy bear look-a-like was a Lowchen.

Up until then I had been fine with not owning a dog again. The distress we had experienced leaving our Rhodesian Ridgeback in Zimbabwe after we fled the war veterans claiming our farm was burnt forever in my memory. We had believed giving our two year old ‘Hasha’ to another family was the right thing to do. We could not afford to bring him with us. The memory of Hasha throwing himself against the corregated iron gates to get to us as we left nearly broke me and although I don’t know the full outcome, we were told months later that Hasha was still struggling to adjust to town life.

And then there was this bundle of calm and love sitting waiting patiently for his owner to grab her cappucino, and it made me wonder whether I could put my heart on the line once more.

18 months later, after much soul searching I decided that I would. I also decided that I would love to add a Therapy dog to my practice.

Labaradoodles look quite a bit like Lowchens! And by all accounts had the perfect nature for the job. My search lead me to a South Island breeder well versed with providing Therapy dogs to families and other clients. I agitated about the puppies health, their size and even their colour – but ultimately what I knew I needed was the right temperament. A little chocolate boy caught my eye! And there followed a myriad of messages about how he was reacting to people and sounds/how cuddly he was/how calm he was and whether he could be ‘the one’ ! Eventually I put my full trust in the breeder and the decision was made. She had called him Whiskey. And my phone soon overflowed with photos of the puppy I couldn’t touch or see – the puppy miles across the sea – the puppy who could just take our hearts and offer healing to many.

Is your Relationship worth it?

I believe relationships are worth the effort. If there are two willing hearts, who are willing to do the hard work, relationships can be wonderful.

But what does hard work in a relationship even mean?

We think of hard work as ‘putting our back into it’ or working long hours. But I think hard work in a relationship looks a lot more like this :

  • Making an effort even though you don’t feel like it (getting up and making that cup of tea or doing the dishes even though wasn’t your turn or getting up in the middle of the night to heat the heat pack and bring the panadol even though you are in pain yourself or listening to the same old work story!).
  • Feeling, angry, frustrated, misunderstood, unappreciated, unseen and lonely sometimes.
  • Biting our tongue when we know the moment is not right (even though we are!). 
  • Going without what we need at times because we know the other person cannot see what we need or is unable to give it in that moment.
  • Negotiating and renegotiating and giving up some of the things but we would really like. 
  • Giving up a few of our wants and possibly even a few of our dreams along the way.
  • Finding ways to love or accept what our partner loves.
  • Being kind, when kindness is the farthest away from our instinct.

And hard work in a relationship is also:

  • Looking after ourselves (sleep, nutrition, time to ourselves, hobbies and friends away from the relationship).
  • Setting and respecting our boundaries.
  • Knowing our limits and ourselves.
  • Working on ourselves as individuals

And now that I have shared a smidgen of how I believe hard work in a relationship looks .. . Tell me….

Are you ready to roll up your sleeves, jump in with both feet and give it all you’ve got?

If you would like my valued opinion: You reap what you sew. It’s totally worth it.

What if love’s lost behind words we can never find?

Love lost behind

‘What about now? What about today?
What if you’re making me all that I was meant to be?
What if our love never went away?
What if it’s lost behind words we could never find?
Baby, before it’s too late, what about now?’

Words unspoken and words spoken is, I believe, the number one reason relationships fail. And of course, the work that I do is to directly work on this.

Whilst it’s true that hurtful things said can never be taken away, sometimes understanding the motivation for saying them can dull or even remove that hurt. And whilst feeling as if we are getting little response from our partner can make us feel unwanted, when we understand the dynamics of our communication we can better reach each other.

In relationships we tend to mostly exist in a surface loop. By this I mean dealing with everyday stuff and repetitive patterns. We argue about why our partner is late home from work again or how they seem to have two different sets of rules (one for their family and another one for ours). What we seldom manage to get to is how worried our partner is about losing his job or how our partner feels she never feels good enough around her Mother –in-law. Not only do we struggle to get to these conversations but we also struggle to understand the far reaching impact of the feelings underneath on both sides.

‘Shadows fill an empty heart
As love is fading, from all the things that we are
Are not saying, can we see beyond the scars
And make it to the dawn?’

One of the best parts of my job is when I can facilitate a view into the love hiding behind the hurt; when there are experiential moments when a couple can feel the full force of the caring they are longing for. Usually there are tears. Often there is surprise and relief. It’s these moments, fed by an understanding of the dynamics, values, fears and historical role modelling lurking below that provide the fuel to keep working.

‘The sun is breaking in your eyes
To start a new day
This broken heart can still survive
With a touch of your grace
Shadows fade into the light
I am by your side, where love will find you….’

Find the words. I can help.


Lyrics from the song What about now by Daughtry.

We don’t need more Good Sorts Jacinda


Today was a good day. Someone had my back.

Twenty minutes into a couples session I realized that there were some details that sounded familiar.

I paused and looked at the young man in the room. He smiled and said warmly,

“I called you two months ago on a dark day”.

I re-ran the call in my mind a little; his story had overflowed into the phone; his confusion and sadness palpable. I had answered his call just five minutes before my next client appointment and felt out of time but I had done my best. I told him things would get better and that there would be a way through and then I gave him a number. I told him that if they didn’t answer or couldn’t help him today he needed to call me back and I would find someone for him. I told him I trusted him to do that.

I knew I had to hand it on; the ‘it’ he was dealing with: the confusion and fear. Because I am not a super human. I have limits. But my heart sank as I did because the truth is our mental health system is in severe trouble. And people in real need get answering machines or get told the next appointment available is in 3 weeks. Real people. Sitting in the corner of their room clutching the phone and struggling to breathe.

So I said a little prayer. I prayed that the people at the end of that number would step in; that they would do their job and do it well. I prayed that they would have my back.

And my prayer was answered.

They answered the phone. They made it a priority to see him. And within a few hours he was sitting in front of someone who steadied the ground beneath his feet, normalized his fear and helped him plan his next move.

So here he was some weeks later, in my room, with his wife; seeking the specialty I offer (relationship counselling). They had some work to do to pull things together but they were on their way to better days; days filled with more certainty, trust and connection.

I’m not sure how it has become acceptable for Doctors to refer a patient for counselling – and 2 months later it still hasn’t been ‘processed’. I don’t know how these delays have become accepted as the norm with seemingly little fight to change it.

We don’t need 100 Good Sorts going above and beyond and burning themselves out to patch up the few people they can reach. We need a few thousand professionals (and more); Trained, confident, equipped, paid and receiving decent professional supervision. We need to get face to face with the people who need us within hours not months.

Today was a good day. Someone had my back. That’s what we mental health professional need.