A Grief Observed: How We Process Grief and Loss

A Grief Observed: How We Process Grief and Loss

As some of you may have picked up, the title is a tribute to one of my favourite authors of all time, C.S. Lewis, who was no stranger to grief and loss. A part of his story is the loss of his wife, and A Grief Observed is a tribute to her and commentary on his own grief process; and I dare say, well worth the read. It’s not reading his books, however, that has me thinking about grief and our own emotional processes.

The past month or two has been a difficult one in our local community of South Delta as well as our new home in South Surrey. There have been a number of lives lost, families coping with tragedies, car accidents with serious consequences, and even new developments in a case where a family lost a husband and father due to a violent incident in Tsawwassen.

How does one take all of this in, and continue? I’m often asked how it is that I do my job every day, dealing with trauma (much of my clinical caseload), and tragedy in the community that we love so deeply. I’m not going to lie – there are days where it’s difficult. Some days where it’s incredibly difficult. This past week was one of the hardest. I was asked to speak at a service for a young man who took his own life. There is nothing I could possibly write here to describe the devastation felt by his family who loved him so very much. There’s nothing that I could write here that would come close to trying to explain their loss and pain, or the pain that leads him to end his life by suicide at such a young age.

This, however, is the reality of our existence. Grief and loss are ubiquitous – it doesn’t matter how young or old, how rich or poor, how educated or not, we are – things happen in life and we are left with the consequences. How is it that we are to respond to grief and loss when it enters our lives? What do we say to an individual, a couple, or a family in any of these situations? The truth is that there really is very little that can be said. What we need in these times is empathy.

Brené Brown speaks a lot about empathy, and one of the things that she has said rang truer to me in this past week than any other, and that is that very seldom can anything we say make anything better. What makes things better is a connection – the knowledge that someone is there with us, walking through this difficult part of life, and connecting with us on an emotional level.

This is the heart of counselling, and why it is that I do what I do, and why we take a trauma-sensitive, emotion-focused approach at our clinic. I know that as I’ve processed my own grief and trauma throughout my life, the help of a Registered Clinical Counsellor has been invaluable. Knowing that it’s not something someone says that makes things better, how is it that a counsellor can help us in our process? Sometimes it’s hard to put a finger on. Here are three ways that I believe counselling can help us as we walk through our own grief:

  1. We can be heard without judgement.

In the same video I referenced above we heard Brené Brown comment that it’s hard to refrain from judgement because most of us enjoy it. We carry judgements around with us throughout our days and our lives, it’s a natural human tendency. Often, rather than trying to understand, we’re listening to respond. This is where a counsellor can be helpful, and where we can all practice the empathic stance of non-judgement – it’s an intentional choice, and one of the key skills a counsellor employs. We listen to understand, and we suspend judgement.

  1. We can be understood from our own perspective.

One of the key skills taught to counsellors in their training is what is called the “not knowing stance” and it is something that I focus a lot on with the interns that I train. One of our natural tendencies as human beings is to assume that we know and understand how someone feels when they have an experience we have also had. Often, we may respond with, “Oh yeah, I totally know what how that feels!” This is dangerous, however, because just because we have a similar experience, doesn’t mean we have similar emotions and reactions, and it doesn’t mean the event has the same impact on us that it does on someone else. If we respond in this way, we run the risk of the person feeling that they aren’t heard, and definitely, aren’t understood. This “not knowing stance” assists counsellors to get to the client’s understanding of their experience and understanding it from their perspective – this is the root of empathy.

  1. We can know that we are not alone.

What you get from reading A Grief Observed, is a picture of the ongoing process of grief. Grief is not a linear, finite path; instead, it is a winding road that goes over hills, through valleys, and up mountains, and occasionally one reaches a clearing and finds peace. That is until the journey begins again. This is a difficult, emotionally draining journey – I imagine if I were to undertake a literal grief journey, I’d want someone there with me while I walk. This is true of our emotional journey, and the role of the counsellor in the process of grief. A journey mate, a companion, one who reminds us that we are not alone in the good, the bad, and even the ugly; and also, not alone when we find times of peace. One who also has the skills to help us participate in the journey, and travel safely.

There is more to be said about grief and loss, but I hope this helps some of you who have been on this journey recently, and some who have been on it for a while. Know that you are not alone, there are people around you to listen, hear, and understand. If one of our Registered Clinical Counsellors can be helpful in your process, please give us a call; we’re here to journey with you.