Note: Client names have been changed for reasons of privacy.
Prior to her mother’s death 15 years ago, my friend Jackie had definite ideas about how grief is supposed to work.
“I thought grief is supposed to be awful. It’s supposed to be really hard, really painful and nothing and no one can really help that part of it – you just have to suck it up,” Jackie said. “And I thought grief is a time when you show how tough you are, show what you’re made of. And then you move on.”
After all, those were the lessons Jackie had learned following the death of her father 25 years earlier.
When her mother died, however, “supposed to be” was eclipsed by the reality of the pain of this particular loss. “Six weeks later I still hurt so much. I was really floundering,” Jackie said. “I just didn’t how badly until the boys stepped-in.”
“The boys”, were Jackie’s husband John, and three sons, ages 10, 13 and 15. One night after dinner, the boys voiced their concerns: “you’re here but not really”; “you cry a lot, a lot Mom”; “You always wear pajamas Mom”; “you never help me with my homework”; “you keep forgetting to talk”; “why don’t we go anywhere anymore?”
When John suggested professional grief support, Jackie quickly said no. But when her 10-year-old son began to cry, threw his arms around her and said “It hurts so bad because you hurt”, Jackie relented. The next day she enrolled in an eight-week grief healing program held at the funeral home that had handled the arrangements for her mother’s funeral.
“By the end of the first week of class,” Jackie said, “I kept thinking ‘why didn’t I do this sooner’?”
Not What She Thought it Would Be
The reality of what professional grief support offered was far different than Jackie had imagined.
“Before the class I thought grief support is about sitting around in a group with a bunch of strangers talking about who you lost and crying,” Jackie said. “Or it was about talking to someone one-on-one who just responds to everything you say with ‘I see’ – like you see in the movies. But it wasn’t like that at all”.
It turned out that the eight-week program was a “perfect fit” for Jackie’s grieving style. A self-described life-long learner, Jackie found that she looked forward to the in-class activities and optional homework tasks assigned by the program leader, a licensed grief counselor.
The first class focused on the learning of breathing and relaxation techniques that could be done throughout the day when strong feelings of loss arose; doing the breathing techniques helped relieve much of the heart pain Jackie had been experiencing since her mother’s death.
Another class centered on creating a memory board. For the project, Jackie retrieved a memory board that had been on display at her mother’s funeral and added some poetry, as well as her mother’s favorite sayings, and some drawings of her mother’s favorite flowers and magazine pictures of favorite family foods. After her mother’s death, Jackie had avoided photos of her mother, thinking that seeing her mother’s face would increase feelings of loss and pain. Adding to the memory board showed Jackie that the opposite was true.
Jackie said, “I did a private session with the counselor because I found this confusing. In the session I realized that I thought avoiding everything to do with Mom would make the pain go away faster, but instead it was actually making it worse. The counselor helped me see that the best way to deal with the pain was to go through it – that’s how you get to the other side. For me this was a new thought. It was the opposite of the way I’d dealt with Dad’s death.”
The most important “take-away” from the grief program was Jackie’s new-found understanding of grief as a normal and natural response to the pain of loss. And her understanding that every grief is unique.
“Before Mom died,” said Jackie, “to prepare myself I read a book about the five stages of grief that everyone is supposed to go through – I can’t remember what they all are now. Except one of the stages was denial. But when Mom died I didn’t feel denial – instead I felt the total opposite. There was this shocking reality: ‘she’s gone, she’s gone!’ It was all too real. And I thought ‘what’s wrong with me – where are the five stages?’ In the grief program I learned that every grief and every griever are unique. That alone was so helpful.”
When to Seek Professional Support
Loss is an inevitable part of life. As Jackie’s story shows, the way we experience, process and heal from loss is very individual, influenced by our life experiences, belief system and unique personality. While navigating the hills and valleys of grief can be challenging for anyone, professional support is helpful and highly recommended when grief:
- Interferes with daily functioning and engagement in normal activities
- Negatively impacts relationships with family members, friends and work colleagues
- Triggers prolonged feelings of guilt, regret or depression or a sense of being stuck at the initial point of bereavement
The Role of a Grief Support Specialist
Professional grief support providers have a variety of names: grief counselor; grief therapist; bereavement counselor; certified grief support specialist; behavioral health grief counselor. Such professionals offer support in one-on-one or group settings. There are also peer-led support groups – groups led by someone who has experienced a similar type of loss to your own, such as death by suicide, drug overdose or cancer.
The role of a grief counselor is to serve as your companion or guide on your grief healing journey. The initial goal of counseling is to help you accept the reality of your loss.
How Grief Counseling Works
For Jackie, both one-on-one private sessions with a grief counselor, and a grief program were beneficial in helping to find acceptance of her mother’s death. The classroom setting gave Jackie constructive and concrete ways to express feelings of loss. And the one-on-one sessions provided Jackie with a safe, non-judgmental person who understood “how much a Mom can mean to a daughter.”
One-on-one grief counseling can also encompass:
Helping you identify your grieving style and healing path. Some of us are instrumental grievers who tend toward cognitive or activity-oriented processing of loss. And some of us are intuitive grievers – we need to express our feelings and seek the support of others. A grief counselor can help you determine what tasks or activities (be it making a memory board or talking things out) or coping skills will be helpful in processing your loss.
Evaluating your care needs. A good grief counselor will ask questions aimed at evaluating your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health needs. Are you sleeping well? Are you making sure to eat? What are you feeling – are you feeling depressed? Have you lost or gained weight? Do you feel any unexplained pain? Do you have a support network? Do you have spiritual or other practices that help you cope?
Helping you identify and deal with loss-related trauma and complicated grief. Although death is a natural part of life, witnessing the death or dying process of a loved one can trigger a trauma response. As can the sudden or violent death of a loved one. When traumatic loss is not dealt with properly, grief can become complicated. A trauma-trained grief counselor can help you move past the trauma so that you can move forward with your grief. For example, Jackie discovered through one-on-one counseling that avoiding photos of her mother was rooted in "images stuck in my head of Mom on her death bed. The counselor helped me replace those mental pictures with pictures stored in my mind of happier times."
Helping you finish unfinished business. Unfinished business comes in many forms: guilt; shame; lingering resentments; and more. We often think that death has ended the possibility of resolving interpersonal issues, but the truth is such issues can be healed even after a loved one is gone. One of my favorite therapeutic techniques for helping to compassionately heal feelings of self-anger or self-disappointment can be found on Kristin Neff’s website self-compassion.org. The technique is called: The Criticizer, The Criticized and the Compassionate Observer. Techniques for healing forgiveness-related issues are outlined on the blog, Grief and Forgiveness: Finishing Unfinished Business.
Helping you find purpose and direction. A client once told me that his wife’s death had put him out of a job – the job of caring for her. Feeling unanchored and without purpose is common after the death of a loved one. What is my purpose now? Where do I go from here?, are normal questions that a grief counselor can help you answer. The post-loss world you are now entering is strange and new and sometimes overwhelming - a good counselor can help you to pace yourself and feel greater confidence as you move forward with your life and your grief.
Where to Find a Grief Support Specialist
There are many avenues for finding the grief support professional that is right for you: doctor, healthcare professional and friend referrals; hospital and healthcare facilities; private religious institutions; online sites such as betterhelp.com; and funeral homes.
Additional resources can be found in the Find Support section of this website.