Grief is not unhealthy…It is the normal response
to an abnormal event. Kirsti A. Dyer, MD, MS.
Grief is a universal human experience. Each griever’s experience, however, is unique. There is no prescription for how or how long a person should grieve. And without a blueprint to help guide grievers, they (and their therapists) can become confused, surprised and even overwhelmed by some of the thoughts and feelings that surface during the grieving process.
Our Work with Grieving Clients
While everyone’s response to loss is different, one thing is true for every grieving person: no one should have to hide their grief, nor should they grieve alone. Our work is not to fix or rescue our clients from their feelings. Instead, we create the environment for them to process their loss. In doing so, we support and nurture them as they move through a broad range of feelings and reactions, some of which may be surprising to them.
Part of memory reprocessing is holding space as our client’s go through the arousal/de-arousal cycles of emotions, associations, and sensations. Processing through these cycles builds confidence, capacity, and tolerance of their own grief response. And if we do not treat their grief as a problem to be fixed, they can begin to have a different relationship to their grief. (Parallel process for the win!)
How Working with Grief is Different Than Working with Other Issues
The emphasis with a grieving client is supporting them through the cycles of their emotions both during a session as well as over time. Don’t be quick to resource or move on. Be fully present, supporting them as they process:
This is hard. I’m right here with you.
Mmhmm, yes, you can do this now.
Allow this energy to move through you. You don’t have to push this feeling away.
Stay with it. That’s it.
Your body knows how to do this.
You are not alone.
It’s okay to feel your feelings now.
What Can Make This Work Difficult?
Our blind spots.
It’s critical to explore our own beliefs about grief before we work with a client’s traumatic grief. Otherwise, we risk meta-communicating, I will help you because this is too much for you to handle. Or worse, I will help you because this is too much for me to handle. If we have worked through our own beliefs about grief, we can be fully present with our clients so that what we say and do communicates, You can handle these feelings now. I believe in you. I will hold this space with you until you can hold it for yourself.
When we as therapists struggle with our clients’ pain, it’s not uncommon to interpret the emotional intensity of their grief as a problem. Deany frequently talks about distinguishing emotional pain from overwhelm. They can often look the same, but they’re different. Emotional overwhelm for a period of time takes us out of our window of tolerance where we’re unable to process. Going through the emotional tsunami of pain is like lancing a wound…it hurts, but then it starts to feel better. The outward expression of grief can be excruciating for therapist and client alike. Holding space for the client to go through those moments with us is what’s needed. Then they can begin to get on with the process of mourning, that is to begin to move on in their lives without their loved one in it.
What Can Get in the Way of Healing—An Example
The most common stumbling block when working with traumatic grief is getting caught up in the story rather than the underlying issues that inform the client’s relationship to their loss. One of my consultees presented a traumatic grief case in consultation. She shared, in detail, the heartbreaking story of her client’s loss. My consultee was unsure how to offer some relief to her client. In fact, both she and her client felt stuck in the face of such intense grief. As any full hearted therapist might, my consultee was connecting to the heartbreaking story of her client’s loss. Reacting to the complexity and overwhelm of grief can leave any one of us feeling de-skilled and helpless.
Getting unstuck. Together, we stepped back with curiosity to explore. I asked my consultee to guess what she thought her client believed about herself because of her grief. My consultee quickly responded, “helpless!” (That’s parallel processing at its finest!)
The healing journey. Looking through the AIP lens of EMDR therapy, we explored the past-present connection and discovered helplessness and powerlessness were familiar themes throughout her client’s early life. That insight helped shape a treatment plan as unique as the client’s experience of grief. From that point, my consultee and her client first worked with memories around the client’s feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. The client came to realize that suppressing her feelings was a learned adaptation that helped her survive her childhood—a time when she was truly helpless and powerless. As the client touched into those unprocessed feelings, she began to grieve, in present time for the first time, releasing what had been stuck and stored inside her body.
Arriving. By journeying through her own vulnerability and pain—in the company of my consultee, her therapist—the client experienced transformative healing. She no longer needed to defend against her feelings. She was able to respond authentically, in the moment—even in the face of “big” emotions and life challenges.
Why I Find Grief Work So Rewarding
It’s hard for me to put into words, but here goes. When you and your client co-create a new experience for the first time—especially when working with the heavy pain of grief—it is transformative. I’m thinking of one particular client, now. At the moment when that new experience emerged, there was a feeling that filled the room—of the love and life inside of my client expanding and reconnecting to the person who had died. The sense of a boundary between my client and her loved one dissolving. The strangling feeling of grief giving way to the sense of love and life holding the grief. And finally, the realization that there is room for both—the love and the grief—to rest in each other.