I will never forget the face of a young man sitting in my office whose father had suddenly died. “I don’t know why I am here. It’s not like you can bring him back. He’s gone and talking to a counselor will not change that.” I was a new counselor and he was calling me out. And he was right. Counseling definitely cannot bring back something or someone that we have lost. The role of a counselor working with those who have experienced loss transcends from being a witness to the suffering to being a guide, an experienced companion who gently but firmly sits in the co-pilot seat helping to navigate thoughts and emotions as the patient continues to work through life. While there is incredible power in being surrounded by love and support during the grieving process, counseling affords a neutral space to explore and to grow through the grieving experience.
In grief counseling, we explore the five stages of grief that have been laid out by the late Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Kubler-Ross originally developed this theory as the director of a hospice center based on her observations of those who were actively dying. It has since been generalized to those who are grieving any kind of loss. The five stages of grief include: denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance. In the counseling process, we examine where one is with each stage, looking for openness to experience all of the stages without staying too long in any of the first four. It is important to realize that the five stages are equally important, are not meant to be sequential, and are cyclical, often being repeated throughout one’s life and often triggered by new losses.
Counselors trained in the grief process help clients navigate grief work. I define grief work as engaging in the process of regaining control of one’s life while honoring the loss, acknowledging what or whom we lost meant to us, and building a new life without the physical presence of the loss. The client moves from talking about the loss to taking an active role in working through the loss. This involves understanding concepts of acceptance, learning skills to deal with the acute emotions that accompany grief, learning how to rebuild a life, and placing the loss in a safe spot or acknowledging a new life with the loss being a part of that new life.
What is needed for grief work? Not everyone is ready for grief work at the same time. Some come in to the counseling process even before the loss has occurred and we work through anticipatory grief. Some come in immediately following the loss. And some come in years later, after the scars from unresolved grief have become too painful to continue to bear. When one is ready, there are a few key components necessary for healing through grief work:
Willingness to work through the process
Knowledge that the journey of engaging in grief work may be painful at times, but life will be fuller
Willingness to trust the professional chosen to be a companion on the journey
Patience and self compassion
Love and support from family and friends
It has been many years since I sat across from that young man in pain. I have been privileged to sit with and work with many grieving hearts wishing someone could change the finality of their loss. I have been blessed to witness the struggle, pain, anguish, and growth of the human spirit which through the hard tasks of grief work learns to say goodbye to what was in order to allow for growth into the life that is.