" In the process, one learns to see oneself as strong and resilient, courageous, and empowered. Whether the individual can get up and go on and have a happy life after the loss depends on how the person views self
Is he or she a victim or a survivor? A strong person making spiritual progress or weak and debilitated? Whiting & Bradley (2007) argue that there must be an outcome for every loss. Whether the outcome is "reconciliation" or "vulnerability" or "victimization" depends on successful and positive identity reconstruction.
It used to be believed that the grieving individual had to achieve detachment from the person who had died. This was Freud's theory, that "grieving people need to break free from the deceased, let go of the past and reassert their individualism by charting a new course for life.
A healthy grief experience, according to Freud [was] one in which the deaths of loved ones [did] not leave 'traces of any gross change' in the bereaved" (Bush, 2007, p. 37). It is sad to note that Freud himself was never able to recover from the grief of losing his daughter and later his grandson. His theory of healthy detachment, which failed to help him, has also fallen into disrepute among therapists in recent years.
The focus of counseling now is directed toward "transformation of self as individuals experience continuing bonds, not detachment, with those lost by death" (Whiting & Bradley, 2007, p. 124). Healing power is located in continuing attachment and bonds of love. True, the relationship is changed by separation. "What is mourned when someone dies is both the relationship and the self as reflected in that relationship" (Silverman cited in Whiting & Bradley, 2007, p. 125). During identity reconstruction, a newly adapted relationship forms with the deceased person.
Perhaps the worst and longest-lasting grief is that of parents who have lost a child. Bush (2007) lost his son and describes his reaction to subsequent deaths of children, reported on television. "We think to ourselves, 'Those poor parents have no idea how hellish their lives are probably going to become in the next few years" (p. 36). He researched parental grief because he found that time did not heal him as promised; in fact, he felt worse two years later after the death of his son and states, "I undertook this research mostly as an attempt to figure out if I was losing my mind and if I would ever start feeling better about life" (p. 36). He learned that his responses, some of which were shortness of breath, numbness, emotional anesthesia, incoherent thoughts, expecting to see his child run in at any moment, and seriously "questioning the nature of God" were common for bereaved parents (p. 37). Research also shows that the pain continues much longer for parents (and thus should probably not be considered "complicated grief" or pathological grief).
The need to nurture and reinforce bonds with the deceased child is as real and pressing as it is in spousal bereavement, maybe more so. "For decades, counselors for the bereaved urged them to let go of the dead and get on with their lives, an approach that has been called the 'breaking bonds' method" (Bush, 2008, p. 38). Clinical evidence, Bush points out, shows this to be a misguided approach to healing grief.
The same crisis of meaning that occurs with the loss of a spouse occurs when a child dies. Despair and hopelessness overtakes the parents, intensified by the fact that the future the child represented evaporates, and the child as an extension of the self is lost. Hope seems to die when the child dies. Days and weeks come and go, but nothing really matters. Some parents turn away from God and the church completely and forever. Others turn to God for comfort and their faith is strengthened. Bush (2007) states some grieving parents experience both increased doubts and renewed faith at the same time. He sums up by saying, "The trauma of parental grief is horrific and long-lasting" (p. 39).
It follows (and makes sense) that if we believe in eternal life as promised by God, then the love experienced in a human relationship while the person was with us does not die with the physical body. The departed person still loves the partner or parent who remains behind. To be able to say, "My husband still loves me even though he is not here," affirms the truth that love never dies because "...love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God...for God is love" (I John 5:7,8). (This particular passage in Scripture could also provide comfort to the bereaved Christian whose spouse or child was an unbeliever.) to nurture and sustain an adapted relationship to the deceased person helps to bring healing from grief and mitigates the pain.
What is the role of the pastoral counselor as the bereaved person reconstructs the story of his/her life, integrates the loss of a loved one into the story in a meaningful manner, and emerges from the process a stronger person healed of grief?
What Whiting & Bradley (2007) call "a therapeutic alliance" is forged between counselor and bereaved. The counselor's role is to bear witness to the transforming effect of the narrative reconstruction in which the meaning of the person's life changes.
The counselor helps by noticing and acknowledging "nuances of meaning, characters, emotional patterns, consistency; and uncharted courses" (p. 126).
Whiting & Bradley (2007) quote Metzger's statement, "Stories heal us because we become whole through them. As in the word 'remember,' we re-member, re-store, re-claim, re-new" (p. 126). Older adults in particular are often isolated from social contact and lack opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations about their relationship with a loved one who has died; thus, the need for pastoral counseling is heightened.
The counselor is not a diagnostician or an expert, but rather a companion that listens and empathizes, a healing presence to witness "ambiguity, confusion, contradiction, and nuance of the evolving story" (p. 127). Grief is not a sickness. Rather it can be seen as is an opportunity to grow. "The counselor has the privilege to engage in the artful practice of collaborating as a partner in the re-authoring process of a life story" (p. 127). Telling the story allows the teller to sort out the experience of loss and to find the meaning of his or her own life, to reconnect with self, God, and others.
As the grief-stricken tell their stories they become aware that the events in their lives are not random but patterned. Telling the story allows them to externalize their feelings, beliefs, values, and attitudes. The counselor aids mainly by facilitation.
Counselors might open and sustain the conversation with powerful questions that elicit the story and its implied meaning. We suggest the use of open-ended prompts to assist counselors in exploring the narrative with aging adults. The narrative conversation can begin and expand with clients when they are asked, "Tell me more about the impact of this upon your life." Questions such as "What did you learn about yourself and your life?" Or "What do you need for your own healing... what is unfinished?" begin to address the idea of finding benefit and adjusting the narrative toward reconciliation (p. 127-28).
In a companioning relationship, both counselor and bereaved are benefited. Just the act of paying attention to grief and addressing it is beneficial. An article in the Christian Century tells about novelist Mary Gordon. When her father died, her mother sent her to camp. Her aunt was a nurse at the camp and her grandmother was cook. Her aunt taped a picture of Alfred E. Neuman (Mad Magazine's "What, me worry?" kid) to the end of her bed. This was intended to cheer her up as though the advice "Keep smiling" could substitute for confronting and talking about her feelings. The need is not for platitudes but "To acknowledge that the work of mourning is an honorable job, to insist that its wages be paid, that it be given its due" (Gordon cited in "Mourning Vocation," 2007, p. 6). The counselor provides direction in this work and acts as a guide.
If the bereaved person provides a story that is dis-empowering, the counselor's duty is then to provide a different perspective and thus help the person to see the benefits of the situation. Counselors need to listen with an ear for discerning how the story coincides with the client's philosophical and religious assumptions. Patience is called for as the storyteller searches for benefits and struggles to fit the pieces together in a new way that leads to healing.
Much evidence... shows how survivors often become more compassionate and merciful..." (Bush, 2007, p. 37). If there is any benefit to grief, it is that it forces the broken-hearted to relearn the world.
Psychologically, we renew our self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-identity.... Behaviorally,…