The Messiness of Grief

There is a story from the Zen Buddhist tradition which goes something like this;

A rich man asked a Zen master to write something down that could encourage the prosperity of his family for years to come. It would be something that the family could cherish for generations. On a large piece of paper, the master wrote, “Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.”

The rich man became angry when he saw the master’s work. “I asked you to write something down that could bring happiness and prosperity to my family. Why do you give me something depressing like this?”

“If your son should die before you,” the master answered, “this would bring unbearable grief to your family. If your grandson should die before your son, this also would bring great sorrow. If your family, generation after generation, disappears in the order I have described, it will be the natural course of life. This is true happiness and prosperity.”

I was reminded of this story after reading this artlce in the Guardian – I’m a psychotherapist, but therapy didn’t ease my grief. The title is slightly misleading, since therapy did help the author, struggling with the unexpected, and untimely death of her husband, She also acknowledges that she originally embarked on therapy too soon, and that at the right time she found the space to be what she needed,

The Buddhist story is concerned with timeliness, with the sorrow that the death of a child before the parent causes compared with the grief we experience in the expected, and anticipated death of a grandparent after a long and fulfilling life.The honesty with which Juliet Rosenfeld explores how she could not engage with the inner world as she struggled to do the basics speaks to the trauma of the loss of her husband. There may be a difference of technique here, its possible that person centered counselling may have been more helpful to simply hold the space, however I believe something much more important about our attitudes to grief and loss is being described.

People die. In essence this is what the Buddhist story is telling us. We will all die, and the only thing we can hope for is that it happens in a timely way. I have explored before how we can struggle with the inevitability of death, and why the responses of those around us, including counsellors, is important. One of those responses must be – this is grief, it cannot, and should not, be erased or pathologised. All too often in the modern world, and particularly the anglo/world, we want to push away grief, pretend it can be rushed through or even prevented, and sometimes even misdiagnose it as depression. I was interviewed on this topic last year, by someone who was denied the space to simply be sad.

Unfortunately the Kubler Ross industry has not helped with this current tendency to treat grief as a problem to be solved rather than a feeling to be experienced. Research into the experiences of those with a terminal illness has been co-opted by everyone from recruitment consultants to life coaches to tell us how to experience loss. Suddenly grief is something that can be reduced to a curve on a graph, and we can succeed or fail at it according to how well we traverse the proscribed stages.

Grief isn’t neat, it doeskin fit onto graphs, and cannot be fixed by a simple 6 stage model. Grief is messy, and cyclic, it ebbs and flows like the tides, sometimes threatening to drown us, at other times as distant as the tang of salt water brought inland by the wind on a summers day.

Can then counselling help with grief? It depends what you mean by help – as in, are you asking if grief can be fixed by counselling. To that the answer is an unequivical no, and any therapist who says that they can stop you grieving probably should be avoided.

What counselling can do is create the permissive space – the space where it is OK to be sad, angry, let down, frustated, scared, lonely, to miss the loved one and to rail against them for deserting us. This can be especially important if you belong to white, western, cultures who have lost touch with so many of their rituals around grief. We no longer have expected behaviours, proscibed clothing, set periods of time to dress and act in a certain way. Instead we have a couple of weeks in which we are allowed socially accepted levels of sadness, and then we must adjust to the world without the loved one, or risk being considered to be doing grief wrong. Counselling lets us say the things no other space can, to shout, scream, cry, be silent.

Another way counselling can help is very practical. Life must go on, and in a culture which expects grief to be neatly tidied away the theraputic space can be one where we make a mess, where the grief can spill out, covering the room in its overflowing chaos. We cannot make grief tidy, but we can create a space where the messiness of grief is OK.

As a first step though we need to understand, like the rich man in the story, that death, and grief, are inevitable, We cannot prevent either, and we should not try to. This does not mean that at times grief cannot slip over into depression, or that there is nothing we can do to fix the pain. Sometimes though we need to accept that loosing a loved one is painful, and that is the first step towards adjusting to the world they no longer inhabit.

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