[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, October 2012]

This question was leveled at me recently during an evaluation I was conducting.  My evaluatee was a middle-aged woman who was suffering from the death of her 24-year old son.   Understandably, she was angry with people for giving her what she considered to be platitudes: “You’ll get over it,” or “It’s all part of God’s plan,” or “It was his time.”  Harold Kushner, author of the grief book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” pointed out that these kinds of social responses are well-intentioned, but almost always unhelpful.  They are usually spoken by those who are seeking to justify their beliefs or reconcile their OWN ambiguous feelings on why bad things happen.  But such reactions leave the sufferers feeling cheated or patronized.

My evaluatee’s friends and family had already recommended grief counseling, but she was skeptical of professional support.  She described it as a self-indulgent exercise for the weak-minded.  Nevertheless, she asked me if if I thought she should seek it out anyway.  I only had an instant to give a pithy answer.  My initial response was that she was due for a change; clearly her own way of “holding it in” wasn’t working.  She had already given up her job because she was too irritable to deal with the public, her husband had become estranged from her and she was enduring pounding migraines.  Suffering has others ways of revealing itself to those who won’t talk about it.

This unfortunate lady then aimed her real wrecker’s ball question at me:  “What’s the point?  How is talking about it going to do anything to take away the pain of outliving a son?”   To answer her, I had to shake up her understanding of grief counseling.  Let me now summarize my answer for you all.  Once you lose someone close to you, there IS no escape from the pain.  It will be with you always.  To say otherwise is to insult your loss.  Losing a loved one hurts because they ARE a loved one.  You can’t erase the pain without ignoring the love and attachment too.  Would you want to do that?  So the goal of counseling is to learn what to DO with the pain.  How can it be directed, made to serve a worthy cause?  First, keep in mind that wishes and experiences never die.

When I speak of “wishes,” I’m referring to what your loved one wanted from YOU in this life.  In most cases, they wanted you to be happy and productive, not suffering from grief.  Contrary to popular belief, it is never too late to bring wishes to fulfillment.  Grief counseling can help you honor a wish by finding how you can better yourself.  Be what your loved one wanted you to be.  Another way is to finish a project your loved one started.  Take up their cause and see something come of it.

When I refer to “experiences,” it is to acknowledge that your loved one’s entire life is a living piece of history.  Nothing they accomplished can ever be unmade.   Grief counseling here would aim to recognize their eternity in some way.  For example, by keeping a piece of them in your home or on your person.  Some people have a painting commissioned, or a prized possession preserved or even a tattoo with the person’s name inked to their skin.  Whatever acknowledges the loved one’s existence and story and continued place in life.

I don’t know if my evaluatee was swayed.  But I was reminded of the importance of such an enterprise, and that the rebirth of determination in the face of loss can be a beautiful thing.

Click here for November 2012