My own experience with loss propelled me to this kind of counseling. The most significant loss in my life was my grandmother. She was a very dynamic woman: a nurse, a professor, a lecturer at Oxford, a close friend of Rosa Parks’s, a block captain. Experiencing her loss at 21 was complicated. I had my own loss to cope with, and, as a therapist, you have these natural instincts to want to help others, so I felt compelled to help my family cope with their loss. When you watch someone deteriorate when they’re going through cancer, there is this sense
of powerlessness and helplessness. And as much as you want to help, especially for someone in a helping profession, there’s very little you can do. I really learned something from that experience. Therapists do that — they try to learn from their own emotions and experiences. I had this sense of post-traumatic growth in which I thought: She’s a resilient woman. How do I continue her legacy and honor her by being resilient for myself and for others, and help them learn to cope with their trauma and their tragedy?
My clients range from a boy who experienced the loss of his father, who was murdered, and questioned whether his father was in heaven, to a 20-year-old who found her mother dead. You empathize with the pain, but you can’t stop that pain. You can’t fix it, as much as we want to. Acknowledging that is an acceptance for me and for the client.
Different cultures process grief differently. Americans, well, we tend to be doers. We have to do something all the time, as opposed to just being and feeling — especially when those feelings are uncomfortable. So we try to deny those feelings or redirect them toward something productive. We go to the funeral; we create memorials. But when all those things are done, we still have the pain. Grief has no timeline. When others might say, “Aren’t you over that yet?” a grief therapist will say, “Let’s continue this grief journey together.”
We all deserve to have someone listen to us. [Therapists] help establish a new relationship with the person you’ve lost. That person will still be there. Your body will still remember their touch, their smell, the sound of their voice on the phone. These will be triggers to the pain, but they will also be connections to the presence of someone you’ve loved.
For me, it’s a touchdown when I see someone have that epiphany or have that sense of “I can do this. I can learn to live this new life. I can have this connection. I can feel this pain and, at the same time, feel this love.” Grief counselors think more about life than death; we think about how to continue to live. The death is significant, but it’s what happened before that — that’s what we love, that’s what we miss. That’s eternal. That can never die.