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How Therapy Helps the Grieving Process

Posted: April 3rd, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Uncategorized | No Comments »

I am delighted to respond to a request about grief.  The specific question was based on the statement from Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” He wanted to know how that fits with modern counseling.  This is an important question because many people see no point in examining the past.  It’s over and they just want to move forward.  This is tempting but it is shortsighted.   A void exists that must be adjusted to.  Grief allows us to recognize what this missing piece meant in our lives and invites a revision of the ways we see ourselves and the world.  Our life is a story- shaped by the people and experiences we encounter along the way.  Refusing to grieve is like forgetting whole chapters.  Although you might be able to jump in to a new section, we will not understand how your current lives are connected to the past nor how they contribute to the meanings embedded in the journey.

There is no straightforward path when it comes to therapy and grief.  Each person’s experience is unique based on numerous factors.  The amount of unfinished business, the circumstances around the loss, and the level of support are just a few examples.  Still, the following are general themes of how therapy can be valuable for getting through this tough time.

First, grief is work!  It requires more than passively experiencing our reactions, many of which are intense and overpowering.  As Bridges (2008) notes, the way we deal with change develops into a habit.  If the main tool is avoidance or minimization, this will most likely be the form of coping for every subsequent struggle.  The more we stuff it away, the more it oozes into our lives, leaving us stuck and confused.  Alternatively, if we learn to move into and through pain, those strategies will only strengthen.   We are able to move towards acceptance and the chance to let go.  Here’s where therapy comes in: we are provided with skills so that the process is made as manageable as possible and leads to heling. Not only will this help with the present crisis, it will also embolden us with tools for inevitable future losses.

Second, grief requires that we feel what we feel, as long as we need to feel it, with someone to validate us.  Sadly, most people lack one or more of these ingredients.  Consider the challenges in FEELING WHAT WE FEEL.  Sometimes not all emotions are allowed because they have been seen as destructive or disloyal.  When these emotions surface, they are either pushed away or tolerated with the added pain of guilt.  This leaves grief work incomplete.  Other times, the individual is met with hostility because his/her grief does not match what another person feels.  (Ex: what if dad was tyrant to some and loving towards others?)  Then there are losses that no one recognizes like retirement, childbirth, the death of a pet, etc.  How can one progress if there is no recognition of the validity of the whole experience?

AS LONG AS WE NEED TO FEEL IT:  There are so many misunderstandings about how long the process takes.  Some people think it should be completed in a few weeks.  Others believe a year is plenty of time.  Yet, that is rarely reality.  A year means one Christmas, one anniversary, one season, etc.  For many, the work has just begun.  In therapy, there is no pressure to be at certain stage of the work nor an expectation that the feelings have to take a predetermined course.  It is what it is for a reason, and no arbitrary rule can take into account all the complex factors at work.

WITH SOMEONE TO VALIDATE:  Not all support is the same.  The Bible has a book devoted to this in the Old Testament.  Job is a man who has lost everything.  His wealth is gone, family dead, he’s estranged from the community, and endures physical pain because his body is covered in boils.  Three “friends” visit, and offer advice.  All tell him, with varying degrees of intensity, that the suffering is punishment for his sinfulness and the only way this will end is through repentance.  Needless to say, this is not helpful and we hear that Job feels angry and attacked.  While most people do not tell someone they deserve their grief, I have heard countless stories of people hurting because of well-intended responses.  Loved ones offer platitudes, try to cheer them up, suggest quick fixes, or simply give them space (without asking if that is needed).  These bring no comfort- instead they leave the griever alone no matter how many people are in the room.  A therapist knows better.  We are ready to sit in the feelings so it is possible to feel heard and understood.  We also have tools to help- whether it is learning safe ways to express feelings, figuring out how to get unstuck, or dealing with the other parts of life that can only add to the stress.

Finally, therapists do not forget that grief evokes an examination of beliefs and the potential for a spiritual awakening.  Sometimes this is painful because long held ideas that may have been sources of comfort are falling apart.  For example, most of us have a distorted sense of control, of fairness/justice, and a hope in long-term stability.    As pain pokes holes in these ideas, we are invited to develop new, deeper understandings about life.  Eckhart Tolle states, “Underneath the lay of opposites.. is an abiding presence, an unchanging deep stillness, an uncaused joy beyond good and bad.  This is the joy of Being, the peace of God.”  (1999, p. 183).  Here there are no absolutes, so we must beware of anyone who tries to impose what this is supposed to mean.  A therapist, however, works to create room to question and in time, for new connections to emerge.

Grief is not an easy journey for so many reasons.  But it is the work necessary to be able to have peace moving into tomorrow.  Some people are able to do this without support of a therapist; others appreciate the added help.  Whatever is right for each of us, I hope we all can rest in the fact that this is a time we do not have to go it alone.

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Bridges, W.  (1980)  Transitions: Make Sense of Life’s Changes.  Reading, MA: Perseus Books p. 8

Tolle, E. (1999).  The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment.  Novato, CA: Namaste Publishing and New World Library.



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Tania Henderson
M.A., L.P.C., N.C.C.