by Jerry Wilson, M.Ed., M.S., CT
When I took a week off from my regular job recently to attend the annual conference for the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), many of my colleagues unfamiliar with my specialization as a grief counselor thought it odd I should be excited about such an event. Indeed, I wondered, what is it that draws me to work in the field of grief? Here is what I have discovered about this important work we share.
Grief Is a Shared Experience. For many of us grief brings a feeling of isolation and aloneness. There are times when we want nothing more than solitude, escape, privacy – a quiet place to be alone with our memories and our pain. The thought of facing others—whether family, friends, or coworkers—is unbearable. Yet, we must, day after day, dragging ourselves out of bed and leaving the safety of our secluded homes to enter the marketplace of well-meaning others who try to offer support but who somehow often miss the mark.
Along the way we meet a few who seem to understand. Something in them speaks to us. Sometimes it is the gentleness of the voice or a kind touch. We intuitively know that they do not have an agenda or an expectation that we behave in a certain way. They are able to listen and we feel heard. These few people are safe, so we feel we can be with them, knowing that they “know.” And, it is okay.
Sadness is a difficult emotion to hide. Our bodies feels heavy and weary, our shoulders slump, our heads drop, we drag our feet and walk with a labored gait. Eyes show a deep sorrow to anyone who catches our gaze; we do not smile. Even among those who do not know us, the signs are obvious. For our families and friends, they may be feeling some of the same things or they are wishing for us that we would feel better. As much as we might like to, we cannot hide our grief and we cannot grieve without others being aware of our pain. Grief is a shared experience.
Grief Brings Perspective. In working with grieving people, the topic of unfinished business often arises. Even in the best of cases when we give voice to all of our goodbyes and there is time to plan for death, we come up short, and in our grief, we find those things that we wish we had done differently, or we discover words we wish we had said. Yet, in our healing we reconcile these events and learn to come to peace with the past. In addition, we vow that we will not live our lives with any more unfinished business.
This is most true when we lose someone very close. I find in talking with those touched by death, that even when the bond is not close, any serious consideration of the lost relationship brings a new awareness. For one, it is the message that life is fragile and its end can arrive unexpectedly, while for another, it is an acknowledgement that he or she should tend to health. Yet another realizes that there are now fewer years left to live than the number of years already experienced. Those who have journeyed with grief have a heightened sense of what is important and what is not. Grief brings perspective.
Grief Wakes Up Our Emotions. For many, grief presents a wash of emotion seldom experienced. The depth and breadth of feeling encountered in grief is overwhelming. Sadness, fear, shame, loneliness, anxiety, anger, longing, tiredness, depression, shock, and disbelief are a few of the emotions “cataloged” in grief, but there is much more taking place.
Feeling is a word not only used to describe an emotion (i.e. “He got his feelings hurt.”) We also use this word to identify how the body may be experiencing discomfort or pain, such as “I am feeling sick.” We may even use forms of the word to note a physiologic response to touch, such as, “She felt his hand placed firmly on her shoulder.” It is no coincidence that the word feeling (as it relates to a body sensation) and the word emotion are interchangeable because emotions begin in our bodies. This is true for depression, anxiety, sadness, fear, happiness, enthusiasm, enjoyment, and grief.
As a therapist, I want people to connect with their emotional self. In the journey from childhood to adulthood, people learn to give cognitive or clinical names to the collections of emotions that cripple life. One begins to lose touch with the actual feelings (in our bodies) and come to think that solving our emotional problems is only a cognitive exercise. Big emotional responses are sometimes frightening, but emotions are a vital part of the human experience.
The emotional pain of grief need not be feared, but rather, viewed as part of one’s natural healing. In grief, the emotional self becomes alive as grief awakens our emotions.
Grieving People Want To Feel Better. I have yet to meet a grieving person who does not want to feel better. Yet, first there is a hurdle that many must overcome—to feel better too soon does not seem to honor the love and the life of the deceased. Laughter rarely comes, not just because little seems funny but because someone important has died and we falsely believe “feeling good” is disrespectful.
Nevertheless, with time, laughter comes again. When people laugh in grief groups, for example, they often declare that experience to have been the first time they laughed since their loved one died. Grief groups create a “safe place” where others understand and share a common purpose. Grief’s challenges demand change, and the group provides a venue to discuss and even “practice” those changes. People choose to attend grief groups, in large part, because they want to feel better.
Grief Provides an Opportunity for Growth. In the midst of grief, life seems to have ended for the survivor as well as the deceased. Life seems hardly worth living. However, as healing begins and new light and life once again seem possible, many realize that the opportunity, now, is to make new meaning of life. First, we look to make meaning of the life that was lost – yet, more importantly I think, we begin to make new meaning of the life still ahead for us.
Grief provides an opportunity for growth.
Finally, what brings the greatest reward and challenge for me in working with bereaved people is that each person’s journey is unique. I never tire of hearing the stories and of having the privilege of learning about the special relationships that exist in the lives of those who have lost someone they care about deeply. Each of these lost relationships is a testament to love; though often deeply sad, grief is proof of love. Grief reminds us that we have both loved and been loved. This knowledge is a prize to be cherished, honored, and not forgotten.
Copyright ©2014 by Jerry Wilson. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Jerry Wilson is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern and is Certified in Thanatology: Death, Dying, and Bereavement, working in group and individual therapy in Long Beach, California. His career began as a middle school teacher and administrator, and then he spent 25 years working in information technology. After becoming a widower, he returned to school to earn his masters in counseling and pursue his marriage & family therapist’s license. Jerry’s “Reflections on Bereavement and Loss” can be found on his blog, www.ahealinggrief.com.