I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,
People will forget what you did,
But people will never forget how you made them feel.
We are often asked, “How can you do that?” How can you stand to do that work? Such a dreary subject. Grim but supposedly necessary. Don’t you get depressed with all the talk of dying? Facing death and its consequences every day must be the prime route to burnout. Are mental disorders prevalent among grief counselors? Aren’t you afraid all the talk of dying will make you a little crazy? Don’t you find it frightening, talking about death and dying all the time? Don’t you want some joy in your life? Do something else, anything that doesn’t relate to death.
What were they thinking? Grief counselors seem to have a mournful reputation.
Let’s review. Look below the surface. Our society does not like pain in general. We do not appreciate it. We do not want confrontations with it. We have a national aversion to it. We are busy developing a pill or procedure for every manner of pain, physical and psychic. If it hurts, then by definition it is bad and requires fixing. We are determined to find a surefire anti-aging formula that will also extend our lives forever. Cryogenics? Yes. It shows promise. Really intriguing, actually very exciting, but it is not yet ready for wide use. It could be a future plan. Think forward to pain-free existence. But when?
In our society, death is a painful subject for the patient and for the family. It is an unacceptable outcome of care, health care. We don’t like it. We are inclined to do everything possible to avoid it, even when the alternatives bring far worse health and increased suffering to the patient. Overall, we still prefer to avoid and deny death in our national and personal conversations. Let’s change the subject and be happy. After all, in our American tradition we are entitled to happiness — plus life and liberty. In our attitude, we presume to live forever. It is just easier that way. Finding the easiest way is our American goal. No pain, no awkward planning, no scary discussions, no sad thoughts about loss. We like to live in a wish-fulfillment bubble, a place where death does not happen. Not to ourselves, not to those we love. No talk of tears and fears and sorrow.
The only trouble is that a pain-free life is impossible. For all our pushback and passionate hopefulness, the search is in vain. Pain is inevitable in every human life. Like it or not, wish against it or not, there it is. Pain waits patiently and outlasts our resistance. It is a fundamental fact of life. Death is also a fact of life, a fact until further notice. Significant loss occurs in every life. Death occurs to every life. Death hurts. It causes grief. There is yet no pill to make it go away. Maybe there should not be such a pill. Enter: the supportive grief counselor.
Survivors need interpersonal help and healing. Usually, friends and family do the job. The path is painful and also lonely at times. Sometimes, a professional counselor is just the right remedy. He is prepared to be a companion for a time, along the way to reconstructed balance and equilibrium. Along the way to adjustment. He is equipped to hear the hurt and lighten the load. In a hurry-up, get-over-it society, the grief counselor is a safe harbor in the mourning storm. His focus is not time. It is not a predetermined schedule. It is not a deadline for completion. His focus is connection, understanding, and support. It is helping the survivor to feel comforted because someone who knows grief is actively listening. The center of his attention is less advice and more the not-so-simple act of being with the survivor, to facilitate self-rediscovery and restore dignity.
Psychologist J. William Worden writes, “When unanticipated or incongruous events such as the death of a loved one occur, a person needs to redefine the self and relearn ways to engage with the world without the deceased. The person cannot return to a pre-loss level of functioning but learns how to develop a meaningful life without the deceased loved one … Death can challenge one’s assumptions about the world (spiritual adjustments) and one’s personal identity (internal adjustments).”
The power to heal psychic wounds is rare and precious. Few people have this skill. It is needed. It is a service. It becomes a moral obligation for those who have that power. To have it is to take pleasure in exercising it. To have it and withhold it is unethical. It is contrary to conscience. It defies accepted standards of professional behavior. It is also unhealthy because there is nothing more important in life than human connection. To assist the progress of connection provides further integrity and growth to the facilitator. The grief counselor is rewarded in greater wholeness, in life lessons studied, learned, and integrated. Death is not an enemy. It is a creative disrupter. It is one of our most profound and valuable teachers. It is life-affirming. It is our gateway to meaningful and vigorous life.
Emergency physician Monica Williams-Murphy comments similarly, from a slightly different perspective: “What human would rob another of the most touching and beautiful moments of life? … Death allows us to cherish both life and time more fully.”
Dreary? Depressing? What were they thinking?
Rea L. Ginsberg is a retired social worker and hospice coordinator and can be reached on Twitter @rginsberg2.