Visualize this picture: As a hypnotherapist, I have two clients. They are a similar age and are the same gender. Both experienced the loss of a partner at roughly the same period in life. Therefore, I can rationally expect that both will have a similar reaction to their loss and both will benefit from similar techniques to deal with their grief, correct? It is not likely.
One significant thing to understand about grief and loss is the experience of loss is universal, but each individual’s grief process is unique. I can attempt to standardize a client’s feelings. Still, I must preserve an awareness that each circumstance is unique to each individual. The client should not think that he or she is hearing me say, ‘You’re just like everyone else.’”
During my years that I have worked with patients at home, I observed a number of significant losses including but not limited to heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, accidents and stroke. These experiences have reinforced my view that each person’s experience of loss and grief is unique. Each person attaches to his or her loss and his or her way of grieving is specific to that person.
Understanding my belief in uniqueness and applying it in a session means there is not one “right” approach to grief-related counseling. My goal is to work effectively with each client, being capable of drawing from a variety of skills and techniques and tailoring a therapeutic approach that is custom fit to the client’s specific personality, situation and needs.
I begin with playing the part of “witness” and realize that my client is the expert. In these moments, I am quiet allowing my clients to telling their story. It is important not to jump too quickly, reflect feelings or be concerned about the next thing I am going to say to the client. That interferes with the client telling their story of loss.
A loss is the absence of something of what one believes is meaningful, while grief is a response to that sense of loss. People normally associate loss with the death of a family member or close friend, but it can also be inclusive of the loss of a house, a relationship, a job or any number of other things. It can even be the loss of a particular feeling. For example, after 9/11, even people who were not directly affected by the terrorist attacks felt a loss of the sense of security they had recognized before.
Grief can also stem from the loss of an expectation that never happened. From the outside, to an observer who is not experiencing the loss personally, the loss might not appear significant — for example, a high school student failing to make the cheerleading squad. Many times the losses that a person experiences are recognized as insignificant, meaning they are not acknowledged or appreciated as losses by others. I know that Hallmark does not create cards for an insignificant loss.
With some occurrences, only specific parts of a loss are acknowledged, while other more complicated aspects go disregarded. For instance, a person diagnosed with cancer. Once someone has been diagnosed with cancer, his or her identity is often associated with the disease. Much of their day-to-day lives are consumed with the focus on cancer — scheduling, getting to and from doctor appointments, reassuring well-wishers, letting people know about their illness, processing their own emotions as well as their family’s. Clearly, people recognize grief and loss associated with getting cancer, but they may not see it in terms of the loss of self.
In some instances of minimized loss, clients themselves are not aware of deserving their feelings of grief. They say things such as, “I should not be so upset about this,” One of the most caring things I can do is to recognize the magnitude of the loss that the client has experienced and assist in connecting the way they are feeling with their loss.
Even in situations in which a loss is usually recognized by society, it is common for clients to come into my office feeling uncertain about why they are struggling. This occurs often. People are aware that there has been a major change, but they are not seeing it in terms of grief. I may hear, “I realize I lost my job, but I have a new job, so why am I still fixated on the job I lost a year ago?’”
Society often puts an emphasis on getting over things and moving on, but in the numerous situations of loss, the “getting over it” does not occur quickly, if ever. Many times, clients think either they should be “over” something already or they do not even identify that their pain originates from the issue of grief and loss. For each client that I see, I can find a hint of loss in his or her communication if I listen carefully.
I want to accentuate again that there is no one-size-fits-all model or therapeutic approach to helping clients. I assist each client by implementing therapeutic strategies appropriate to the uniqueness of the specific client. It is important to remember that effective counseling is not about the counselor’s specialty. It is about selecting and adapting various therapeutic approaches to the specific needs, preferences, personal history, grieving style and circumstances of the client. Using only one approach with every client is unproductive and, worse, very disrespectful.
The main goal is to assist them to experience and express their grief in the style that is most natural to them. This could include encouraging clients to discount some of the outside influences or the internal “should.” For example, a person who has just experienced the loss of a loved one might get some flowers with a letter from their respected church that the death was “meant to be” and it is now time to let the person go. Possibly that may make the client feel they should actually be happier that this has occurred or that they should not be experiencing sadness. When clients have mentioned what family members, their religious community or some other outside influence thinks, I raise my clients’ awareness of this and inquire what they are experiencing.
Assisting clients with their own grieving style begins with listening to them and supporting what they say, think or feel. If a client states, ‘I am really sad, but I have not cried and I feel guilty for not crying.” I concentrate more on the details of what led up to the person’s death. I assist to nurture rather than place pressure on them to cry or attempt to tell them that they are in denial.