SUPPORT: Some thoughts on Grief

By Gill Seaton-Jardine, Counsellor/Psychotherapist

When people approached the stand about counselling courses at my college open day, I often asked them why they thought they would like to become a counsellor. Very often, they would say because they wanted to help people, and friends and family had always talked to them about  their problems and said that they thought they would make a good counsellor. I, too, felt like that when I looked into training to become a counsellor although I had little idea of how a counsellor actually worked. 

When I started my training, I was surprised to find that, far from considering other people and their feelings, I was required to look at myself, my feelings, my values, my beliefs in fact everything about myself – quite a shock to start with. I guess I hadn’t realised that on entering the counselling room as a practitioner, the only ‘tool’ I had was me! As with any tool, it would only work and be of use if employed properly and in order to employ it properly, the practitioner using it would need to understand how it works, what it can do and its limitations.

The skilful use of this particular tool requires an ability to create a therapeutic space and enable an individual, couple or family to explore issues, with which they are struggling, whilst feeling safe and not judged. Very often the issues are around life events, for example divorce, job difficulties, house moving and, of course, loss and grief, especially when it involves a loved one. In this article we will look at grief.

So what is grief?  Collins English Dictionary says it is ‘deep and intense sorrow especially at the death of someone’ – already it is a difficult word or concept to deal with so perhaps we find it frightening and try to avoid it as a subject. This then leaves it in the realms of the ‘unknown’ and we are not very comfortable when we are faced with the unknown. This can be seen in childhood. A child will examine anything new using hands, lips, eyes, ears etc. with a view to making sense of their world. Similarly, as adults, we use all our senses and experience to make sense of that which we don’t understand – if we cannot make sense of something, we are wary and either extend our attempts to understand or, leave it in the ‘unknown’ department. Few of us make a study of what grief is leaving the majority of us with this tricky concept at the back of our minds and a hope that it will stay there.

What does this mean then when we do come across it, either in our life or in the life of someone we know? Let’s first consider how we feel when we encounter someone who has recently lost a loved one. To say we feel uncomfortable is an understatement. We can feel lost for words, tongue-tied and try to avoid that person. We have no idea what to say and fear that anything we do say will make things worse. Our reticence comes from our own fear of grief, as previously discussed, not the other person’s feelings, mood or experience of this loss. It is too scary to say anything because of our beliefs of what grief is and what it is like to feel grief. As a counsellor, my role here is to offer space for the person to talk about any aspect of their loss and I need to be available to listen and to hear exactly what they are going through. If I start with my own expectations, I may not be available  to really ‘hear’ what they are saying let alone enable them to explore further the effect of this loss.

One of the experiences of grief that I have heard on more than one occasion, is that of  feeling a sense of isolation. Nobody else feels as we do, even if the loss could be thought of as similar i.e siblings losing a parent or parents losing a child. Each person’s relationship with another person is unique and impossible to judge by another,  therefore each person’s feelings about their loss will also be unique and impossible to judge. We fear that we may say the wrong thing if we approach the person who has suffered the loss. It is my belief that we cannot make things worse by showing that we care by making contact. If there is a feeling of isolation, we will surely be helping, even in some small way, if we can find a way to say hello remembering that it is probably our own fear of that word ‘grief’ that is holding us back rather than the feelings of the other. 

So, we have  briefly considered how we might feel when encountering someone who is grieving,

So where do we begin to try to look at how it might be to experience loss, leading to grief, in our own life. How might it feel? How do I cope with it? Will the tears ever stop? Will the pain ever stop? These are, of course, huge questions all of which very hard to contemplate and we don’t tend to contemplate them ahead of time leaving us even more vulnerable should the loss happen. 

Sadly we will almost all experience loss in our lives – it is indeed part of life and certainly part of love. This loss could be one of many things, such as divorce, job loss, loss of health, not just the death of a loved one. Divorce can create huge loss, both practical and emotional. Clearly the financial pot needs splitting perhaps making it necessary to sell the marital home. There is the loss of dreams for the future, dreams for the family and all the hopes there were at the beginning of that marriage. This can cause a sense of enormous loss bringing with it all the feelings of grief and perhaps not attracting the amount of support that a death may attract once again creating a sense of isolation.

I started this article by considering the counsellor’s role and how she/he might enable somebody to look more closely at their feelings. It is so important to recognise everybody for their uniqueness and not to assume that another person can know what they are experiencing. It is a counsellor ‘s job to give each person that time and space but it is also perfectly possible for all of us to offer that to our friends and family, especially in a time of loss. Your support could be so important at this very hard time – we all have something to offer each other.