Thoughts on Treating Grief

By December 6, 2016Article

I  was eating my lunch alone in the hospital cafeteria where I was a psychology intern, and was surreptitiously ease-dropping the conversation of two pastoral care counselors at the table next to me.   At one point one said, with pride:  “Today I got my patient from “anger” to “bargaining”. That long-ago overheard statement has stayed with me and influenced my understanding and treatment of grief. Clients experiencing grief often come in with belief that   the Keebler-Ross stages of grief, are like an obstacle course that must be traversed, hopefully as quickly as possible, in order to reach the final goal of “acceptance”.   I view grief part of a life in which we cycle around many of the same issues such as love, loss, triumphs, and disappointment, in hopefully every widening circles of maturity and deeper understanding.  We never leave it behind. We do not “get over” deep grief.  Rather it is incorporated into the deepening of our identity. It is a dynamic process, which I believe was Kubler-Rosses original intent in her writings about the stages of grief.

When I was a young adult, both my parents died within a short time of each other.  My grief was very much informed by the stage of life I was in: that of a young adult pulling away from the family of origin to form my own identity and new family. At the time, I mourned the loss of the opportunity that my parents and I could have an adult relationship that including more adult understanding and reciprocation. I still do mourn that.  Yet my relationship to my parents’ memories is almost as dynamic as it would have been had they lived. As I grow, I understand and appreciate their strengths and struggles in a way I never could have many years ago.   My relationship to their death changes and deepens as I gain experience. In my practice I also encounter the changing nature of grief as clients mature. For example I have seen a man who father died when he was eighteen go into a deep depression over that loss when he was in his mid-thirties.  He entered the military shortly after his father’s death and was well taught to bury vulnerable emotions in order to perform in his profession. His “denial “lasted two decades.  I have seen a widow of a successful man who mourned his death and extolled his virtues for thirty years before she allowed herself to feel her anger about his treating her with a casual disrespect reserved for someone he saw more as a prop than a partner. We are never done with grief.  No one goes to a major family event: a wedding or birth or death of someone close without the stab of grief for those who are not there to share it. Our goal is to help   our clients reach acceptance of their own emotional reactions rather than of the deal itself.

One added thought about forgiveness in the grieving process. I have had many clients who feel the pressure to forgive a parent or other close family member who has treated them terribly when that person dies.   I have heard the statement from people in the helping professions that forgiveness is good for the grieving person because it relieves them of a psychological burden.  My response is “maybe”.   We see a population who have experienced many horrible actions at the hands of people who were changed with caring for them.  Their anger towards the person who has died may be protective for them in avoiding repetitive abuse. I believe that lifting their self-imposed burden of needing to forgive is part of our job.  The pressure to forgive may be viewed as an extension of the pressure not to acknowledge or speak about what was done. Forgiveness may come as a byproduct of deeper understanding, or it   may not.   Our goal is to help clarify the choices our clients make.

Arlene Brewster, PhD.