It is on the one year anniversary of a lost loved one that I write this. As a therapist, I get the supreme pleasure and the difficult task of not only moving through my own life, triumphs, loves, and losses, but bearing witness to those around me as well. Life has a funny way of bringing into my office those who are struggling with whatever I might be facing that week. I believe this is a gift, both to me as the therapist, and to those who seek my help. The gift to me is that I am challenged to grow and remain genuine and congruent: practicing what I preach. The gift to the client is the keen empathy I feel for their difficulties, and if I use my experience in an appropriate way, they don’t have to feel alone.
So, in perfect fashion, a client entered my office, finding tears, as they described the loss of their loved one last year. My heart ached in my chest as I felt tears sting my eyes. I told them I, too, had lost someone a year ago, and that my heart hurt for their loss as it did for mine. The encounter brought up a few things for me about how we therapists do our important work, and the process of grief, as a more general experience.
There are many ideas about what makes a good therapist out there, and part of the discussion is how much self disclosure, or sharing of themselves as people, they use. This is a tricky topic, as the therapeutic relationship is designed to support the client, not the therapist. Yet, it is important that we are ourselves, in all our beautiful humanity, with our clients. One of the most helpful parts about therapy is the relationship between the therapist and the client – if we are not truly ourselves, how could we build that relationship? I encourage therapists that I supervise to dance in this gray area. Share their immediate experiences, if it has the potential to benefit the client. For example, sharing that you have lost a loved one can be a powerful connector between you and another grieving human. Share the general experience (i.e. having lost someone), and then focus on the universal emotional experience of loss that you can both relate to.
What, exactly, are those universal emotional experiences? Grief is a complex beast. Sometimes she comes out in anger, other times sadness, confusion, anxiety, or fear. For some people, she waits in the shadows to pop up long after the loss occurred. Others she stands there, next to the immediate loss, ready to take us into her arms. And ultimately, however Grief appears for you, she is perfectly yours. There is no wrong kind of Grief – though sometimes we should on ourselves with thoughts of, “I should be over this” or “I should be more upset by this.”
Grief being as complex as she is, there is a universal experience that comes in to play: we experience the pain of loss when we wish something hadn’t gone away. And who could blame us? Of course we wish life could have unfolded differently, that our loved one could have stayed, or not experienced so much pain. For example, the thought, “I’ll never be able to hear their voice again,” is a wish for something we cannot have, which causes us pain. It can be a comforting or daunting idea, but all things in life are impermanent. No loved one will live forever, nor will we. It is a fact of life that we will lose people, and that we will be faced with the challenge of accepting they are no longer with us in this life. This thought comforts me, as it encourages me to appreciate the time I’ve been given with those I love and in doing things that bring me joy. It challenges me to enjoy the short life I have, and never take people for granted. We can’t change the last conversation with a loved one who has passed away, change how they died, or any other thing that has already happened. But we can control how we view the situation. We can look upon the relationship with them and fill with love, positivity, and good thoughts for them in whatever comes next.
Does accepting that someone is no longer in this life, make the pain go away? Perhaps not completely, but it opens our hearts enough to let a light breeze in and relax some of the tension we might experience in wishing that what had happened, hadn’t. Once we let the light breeze in, we can allow whatever emotional experience that moves in, to come. We often try to pull away from grief’s embrace, but end up playing whack-a-mole with her, trying to keep her at bay. Instead, we have the power to lean into pain, grief, and missing them. In leaning into it, we might find that grief, and all strong emotions, are like the ocean. The waves come in, they swell and get bigger until they feel as though they will consume us, and then they dissolve back into our hearts, giving some peace for having moved with the waves instead of against them. We might have to do this hundreds of times each day, or periodically throughout the years. It is a practice of allowing our emotions to be, without pushing them away or jumping on their bandwagon.
We can do other things to nurture us, like writing a letter to our loved one, sharing stories with other survivors, or seeking counseling.
If you are in the Longmont, Colorado area and are interested in guidance along your unique path of grief, please feel free to contact me.
I wish you the courage to lean in,