Counselors and therapists become experts on emotions. The true heart of what counselors do is they learn about and navigate all kinds of emotions. Counselors know emotions, not paperwork, not guidelines, not formulas for how to document the perfect treatment plan. Counselors know about and become experts on sadness, defeat, anger, joy, triumph, gratitude, shame, guilt, and grief.
Counselors know a lot about grief.
Counselor’s and therapist’s hear stories of loss quite often. They hear stories of loved ones that have died tragically or suddenly, or who have had many months or years of suffering. They hear stories of loved ones who have died by accident or by their own doing. No matter what the circumstances that make up the story of loss, it is always a segue to the complicated feelings of grief. How do you counsel grief? How do you alleviate a feeling that carries such volume, such weight, such emotion? Can anyone make the weight of that feeling feel better with words, an embrace, comfort food or isolation? To the person who has lost someone there is nothing but the reappearance of their lost loved one that will fill the void.
Grief carries a heavy load. The weight of it lingers in the air and can not be defined in simple terms. What is it? What does it feel like? Why does it feel so much heavier than just being sad?
Grief is indeed “multi-faceted.” No one size fits all, no one look, one side, or one definition that can be applied to all people when it happens. There is no specific feeling or length of time that can be applied to all people. It is unique in its shape, its look, its size, and its volume. The volume of it is different for everyone and it is often what people have a hard time coping with. It feels much different than sadness. It feels much different than being “down.” It comes and it goes, ebbs and flows…and it can hit like a wave at the most unexpected times.
The grief from losing something seems to be a little easier to manage. Have you ever felt a wave of emotion hit you suddenly in the pit of your stomach during an unexpected moment, maybe when you came across a memory of a time when you were a different version of you, living a different type of life than you do now and that you really enjoyed? That’s grief. It’s not to imply that you haven’t accepted being in the moment of your life as it is right now. All it is saying is you remember. You remember a different time….and maybe you miss it. Maybe, just for a moment, you feel a little sad. In that moment, you are grieving.
This type of loss, the loss of “something,” is a feeling we become fairly well prepared for. The passing of time teaches us that all things change, move quickly, and that we must adapt to that change in order to be ok on each given day or moment. Lingering too long in the past would prevent us from embracing the current moment and time. We build happy lives, we make new memories, and we keep going forward.
Losing “someone” to death is the type of grief we just can never prepare for.
During a recent training I attended, I was reminded about this type of grief. It didn’t come from the instructors or their power point. It came from an act of pure human emotion. A woman in group spoke briefly about not being able to complete her degree in the time frame she expected because her son had died tragically by suicide earlier this year. While she was talking, another woman removed her glasses, looked across at the woman, and appeared touched by her story. She mentioned that she had recently experienced a loss and could identify with how difficult the feelings are to go through. The rest of the room was silent for a moment. Often, during times when people tell their story of loss, it is difficult to find the right words to say back. There are times when “I’m sorry” just doesn’t feel like enough. Both women discussed that there is no other feeling in the world that compares to the loss of someone. The two women had a connection that couldn’t be explained by anything other than the loss, the shared emotion… the shared grief.
Therapists know and understand that you can not rush grief away. Grief can not be offered nice words to try on and force it to be happy again. You have to just let.it.be. You have to just let.it.sit.there. Because, you see, it is the longing, the pain, and the sadness that it brings which is not meant to be swept aside. It is a wave that is meant for riding. Some waves have peaks and valleys. Some give you an easy ride, others are a bit more hard. No one can tell what the wave will be like for them.,
The lady who lost her son was hit by a wave. The lady she talked with in the training discovered the wave. A dear friend of mine felt the wave recently too, and sadly, it seems that the closer someone is to the person they lost, well… the rougher and more fiercely the wave can come. We speak so often in terms of loss, rather than death, and this is so symbolic of the profound emptiness a person feels when someone they love dies. They lose something and someone, and often they lose a part of themselves too. Questions go unanswered, words go unspoken, touches become a part of the past, and what is left is an emptiness, a loss.
I try to always search for lessons throughout my days. Even on the lowest of frequency days, I try to find something new that I can take away from them. An experience or a reminder or a useful message that I can share. As I sat and listened to the ladies share their stories, I realized that people who are experiencing grief have a huge need to be validated. This voluminous emotion needs understanding. It needs compassion. It needs to find a place that can handle the pressure of it without crumbling under its weight. It wants you to remember. It wants you to discuss the wave and to talk about what caused it. The last thing it wants and needs is to be minimized.
It won’t tell you that riding the wave will be one of the the hardest things you do. It won’t tell you that once you have successfully moved through the five stages of grief…through the denial, the anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance…that it will hit you all over again when you least expect it. It certainly won’t remind you that you will become stronger if you embrace the ride. No, it won’t tell you all of that.
This life is for the living they say. Mostly that is true. What they don’t often say is that it can be for the lives lost too. Make sure you cherish, remember, and rejoice in the life that was lived. Tell stories about that life and share the joys of those times, the memories you have, and continue to keep remembering. Emotions will consume you and sadness will visit. Let them come and sit with you, but do not let them make you forget. Your job will be to not get stuck on the story of the loss. Your job will be to remember that a person’s life is not defined by their moment of death. You can not erase a memory. You can not erase a life. Your job will be to keep moving forward, but to never forget.