We grieve because we have had a loss: of a relationship, of hopes, of a life not lived…. Sometimes losses are more concrete: an engagement ring, a job or a home. So how do therapists “do” grief counselling?
I suspect there is no one answer, except that I believe that in many ways we need to “do” little. Here are 7 quick tips:
- Name it as grief
- Welcome the grief: deepen the process when needed
- Be fully present: to your own and the client’s experience
- Normalise the client’s experience: give information when needed
- Be patient: some clients need to grieve many losses
- Keep the client safe: watch for stuckness/hopelessness/despair
- Care for yourself after the session: this work costs!
When I say “Name it as grief”, that may seem to be obvious. But sometimes a client will say something about a situation and suddenly the framing of the issue shifts quite suddenly to a realisation that we are in grief territory. It does not always appear as a clear focus. Once it is named, the path ahead will open up, I find. Both the client and I can feel that this is right, this is what the issue is. And the client can give herself permission to face the scary feelings that have been lurking in the shadows.
Welcoming grief is not always comfortable. As the therapist you may unconsciously dance around the grief, quietly asking it to move right along and not settle anywhere near you. If you have personal unprocessed griefs you are avoiding, you will be more likely to avoid welcoming and then deepening the client’s experience. Clients will avoid their grief feelings if they sense your reluctance… We all make moment by moment decisions about which matters we focus on, and our choices do influence the direction of the session. So it is important to know if you are choosing to dance around grief. It might be helpful to have a pity party from time to time to focus on your own pain, or to work it through in therapy or supervision. Think of it as clearing the pipes so that the client’s experience has room to flow.
Be fully present: Have you noticed which clients or client issues are likely to send you into an irrelevant reverie, or even lead you to do so much in the session that there is little room for the client’s real needs? Grief is one area that may trigger you. Grief is connected, ultimately, to our own mortality. Our own death is the ultimate loss. This is part of the existential struggle of being human: one day we will be dust and ashes. So when we can look in the mirror and say, out loud, “One day I will not be here”, then we have started moving towards our clients’ deepest fears and griefs.
Normalise: It can be reassuring to know what is normal and expected when grieving… Then a client can tell himself that he is going through a natural (and painful) process which is part of being human. Information handouts or google links can assist the client to be reassured that he is on track, and that others have walked here before. You need to know your grief stuff to do this well.
Be patient: This particularly applies to clients with complex childhood trauma, or to those who have experienced multiple losses that tumble into each other. Perhaps it may be hard for you to face that some griefs will never end? If this were true, then what does it mean for yourself? Maybe the “vale of tears” phrase is true of this life after all? If you are impatient you may inadvertently shame the client and undermine the therapeutic work you are both trying to do.
Keep the client safe: Sometimes complex grief becomes stuck and hopelessness and despair take over. Then clients may be at risk of harming themselves. Check for signs of this, even as you balance the need to be patient.
Care for yourself: I am guilty of moving from one client’s energetic impact to the next. And then I pay for it! Nearly twenty years down the track I am hoping I can finally get the rhythm of the work right, and allow the space and energy to recover from one client’s pain before I move to the next, or to allow myself to process the day more consciously before moving back into life’s flow. I hope you learn sooner than me.
Now I need to get back to grief work…and living! Same journey.