As I was reading through a variety of blog articles and comments recently, one woman’s comment jumped off the page at me. The writer stated that bereavement counseling wasn’t helpful because it didn’t take away her grief, that the counselor didn’t do her “job”. That really hit me….and not because I always, every time, fail at taking away my clients’ grief, but because that is never ever the goal of bereavement counseling.
In other kinds of counseling there is usually an issue which needs addressing. The counselor and client identify the issue, explore a bit, work together to determine the most helpful course of action (usually after some trial and error), and, then, when the client has achieved their goal they go on their merry way (or work on another issue).
It’s different with bereavement counseling. Here’s the thing: it’s not my “job” to remove the grief. It’s simply not possible – as most of you already know. Grief doesn’t end; it changes.
As a bereavement counselor it IS my job:
1. to listen to your story. Without interruption. Without judgement. As many times as you need to tell it. Telling the story is, in and of itself, healing. Often, at the end of the story, my clients will say that it was the first time they told the story from beginning to end. It is so very important to speak of the loss and to be heard.
2. to NOT give advice or direction or instruction as to how to “do” your grief. It is your journey and it will absolutely be different than anyone else’s journey. There will likely be similarities to the grief of others, especially those with similar losses, but you are the only you in all the universe and no one else will have your exact internal or external resources, personality, history, story to tell or expression of grief.
3. to pay attention to any red flags you may wave. I assess for issues related to suicidality, self-care, relationships, activities, complicating factors, multiple losses, etc. The list is really too long to include them all. Most people experience “normal” grief, but sometimes something else is present and it is my job to address them with you. In some cases, a referral will be made to someone more competent to walk you through a different issue.
4. to educate you about what that “normal” grief looks like. Usually my clients just want to know that what they are experiencing emotionally, physically, cognitively, socially and spiritually is “normal” and not “crazy”. (“Normal” is in quotations because I don’t believe there is such a thing. “Average” or “common” or “natural” are more useful words, I think, but everyone walks their own path.) Usually we’ll talk about some grief theory ideas, trajectories of grief (I avoid time frames because absolutely everyone has their own time frame), common reactions and more based on your needs.
5. to explore your strengths and existing coping mechanisms and build on that. We all have strengths and we all have ways of dealing with life. We’ll look at what your strengths are and what you already do naturally to cope. Then I’ll dip into my toolbox of coping mechanisms and try to pull out the tools that are best suited to you as an individual. There may be some trial and error. Not all coping mechanisms work for all people, but we will get to those that help you.
6. to help you recognize or build a positive support system. Some folks are blessed with remarkably supportive people around them who know just the right things to say or do. Others, not so much. And in many cases, the people we expect to be our biggest supports simply are not. You may have expected your partner/sibling/child/bff, etc., to be your support, but you ended up disappointed. It’s often someone you hadn’t thought of before like a neighbor, cousin, different friend, or a coworker. Or even someone you hadn’t known previously. We’ll take a look at who is there for you in the way you need them to be and we’ll look at building on that network if necessary.
7. to walk alongside you until you feel confident in your own ability to walk the rest of the way with your unique strengths, support system, and toolbox of coping mechanisms. And that is really the goal of bereavement counseling. It is not to eliminate the grief, but to help you get to a place where you know how to cope no matter how intense the grief attack.
I hope this has been helpful. Whether you utilize me or another counselor, I think it helps to know what to expect…or at least what I hope you will receive.
copyright 2015 Lisa B. Wolfe, LMSW, Translating Grief, LLC