First the anger, then the despair

29th March 1996 at 00:00
One of the prevailing emotions felt by the people of Dunblane over the next weeks will be rage. In any death or permanent loss, the shock horror of loss eventually numbs to anger which is the first stage of the grieving process as we understand it. Anger is often followed by denial and then depression, before the hard emotional work of resolution and acceptance can begin. As psychologists, increasingly we understand that each stage of the process needs to be worked through fully if the bereaved person is to be moved on.

Help in this work might be given by an informed friend, a priest or increasingly commonly a bereavement counsellor. It involves supporting people as they work through each stage of emotional healing.

Working at the John Ivie Centre I think a lot about anger. I'm not a bereavement counsellor; I work with emotionally and behaviourally disturbed adolescents. These pupils are frequently very angry because of their own losses, more often loss by abandonment than by death. For some clients abandonment is cyclical, with repeated losses compounding the feelings of resentment. In many young pupils this anger overflows daily in violent outbursts and destruction to property. Many older pupils learn some self-control so that the anger becomes suppressed. Sometimes weeks pass between vicious degrading outbursts frequently followed by despair.

The most worrying are the pre-admission records of neglect, abuse, and social and family deprivation all the more chilling when the pupil shows little or no anger, and appears quite well adjusted in many respects. Through voluntary therapeutic counselling these pupils can be helped to locate their repressed anger. Sadly there is limited resourcing for such counselling, and despite a Whitehall directive to address "past problems" I believe we are one of only very few pupil referral units in the country where it is available. We do not make grandiose claims of success, but we do experience changes in behaviour as pupils who come to counselling connect angry feelings with events in their earlier childhood.

One boy, for example, as a young child had witnessed his father shooting his dog, then burning down the family house. Later, at secondary school he was excluded after repeated and increasing acts of violence and aggression. Obvious as it may seem, no one had made the connections for him between his present anger and his past experiences. When the link was made, and when in counselling he expressed anger towards his absent father he began to feel better.

Sometimes we do not have staff qualified to help. With a harrowing mixture of early life circumstances Jon was eventually able to express some of his feelings through painting. The broad black brush strokes of unremitting murder and destruction were sickening to review. Expert opinion said that Jon should be referred on, because the artwork suggested psychopathicsuicidal tendencies which were beyond our capacities to address. So stretched are child psychiatric services, however, that since that opinion (before Christmas) Jon has received neither our counselling nor the psychotherapy he needs.

Other pupils don't want counselling and deny their angry feelings. We go on hoping that they have perhaps not been affected by the ugly events of their past - until the day they erupt. A popular boy, and one for whom our centre has been a lifeline, spent his last afternoon, seemingly inexplicably hurling stones at windows and abuse at staff. Out of character, I suspect this was an eruption of anger at out apparent abandonment of him as the time came when the law determined he must leave us. He had never wanted counselling. Perhaps with hindsight we might have expected to see his emotions eventually, but no one could have predicted the nature of his angry behaviour. We are relieved it wasn't worse.

At this point, of course, I return to the chilling, appalling reality of the massacre at Dunblane and my attentions turn to the perpetrator. I feel my own anger at the loss of such innocent lives but I also wonder about that man's rage so tragically unleashed. I wonder about the heady cocktail of circumstances stirred over many years which made that man act as he did on that particular day. I also have another professional anger about our incapacity to support our most vulnerable clients. As my thoughts return to the parents of Dunblane and their own very different rage. I pledge to renew my efforts to get Jon the help he needs, because in future when I think of pupils like Jon it well be with a sinister sense of foreboding.

Peter Davies is head of the John Ivie Centre, a Wiltshire pupil referral unit, and a therapeutic counsellor.

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