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Karuna Cards – Creative Ideas to Transform Grief and Difficult Life Transitions by Claudia Coenen

My first impression of this box of cards was positive, as I appreciated the way the title references “difficult life transitions” to broaden out the subject of grief (as we know that life stages and events can involve existential and other losses).

The simplicity of having the format of a pack of cards to shuffle and pick out belies the author’s important message outlined in the introductory leaflet: “changes in our lives need incubation time”. This is a product that can be glanced through or it could become a well-worn support and friend.

In a card that I think should be first in the box, we read “Sometimes people offer platitudes that they think will be comforting but are actually not” before asking the reader to list the most annoying ones. The therapeutic credentials are confirmed here, as we are reassured that this is not a succession of trite truisms.

The author’s inspiration came partly from the loss of her own husband, and in the context of Jung’s ‘wounded healer’ archetype, I feel that other readers will be touched by this self-disclosure. She often recommends journalling to clients in her bereavement work, and these cards do indeed work well as a prompt for writing exercises that many practitioners will recognise as beneficial for a range of clients. Coenen recommends paper journaling, and mentions using a keyboard if that is easier for some reason. I echo this preference for the hard copy in therapeutic exercises. The author’s creative side is also apparent in the imaginative exercises included in the cards.

The introductory leaflet explains helpfully that they can be used by individuals struggling with loss and also by a range of relevant professionals. As I read the description of the Sanskrit word “Karuna” (incidentally meaning “compassion for all”), I was reminded of the Karuna Institute in Devon where Eastern mindfulness practices blend with Western psychotherapy approaches.

My wish to find some meditation/mindfulness practices was not disappointed, as there are cards that ask where in the body a reader might hold on to strong emotions and how to use breathing to soothe this. Instructions are given on how to make a mindful brew – I can picture so many readers with a cup in one hand and these poignant cards in the other! The embodied experience is a thread that runs throughout this set, including an evocative reference to “re-membering”, with memories helping to put us back together again…

The cards themselves are beautifully produced with intricate art work on the back. Perhaps the advantage of there not being a book with a narrative or a table of separate essays is that there can be something for everyone and many surprises. “There is an adage that you have to tell your story 72 times in order to heal” – this was unfamiliar to me and it will definitely become part of my practice from now on.

There are many sound therapeutic principles called into play here, including the “no send” letter. The inner child is not neglected, as we are invited to imagine ourselves as super heroes.

As for the grief work itself, adepts of the Kubler-Ross stages of grieving will recognise mentions of anger and hints of depression. In a similar vein, the card asking what is not missed about the person who is gone is a given in therapy where the grey or unspoken areas are to be explored.

The therapy buzzword “gratitude” is brought in to encourage acceptance and investment in the future. Even the questions about “inviting love in” can be seen as exquisite glimpses into how to gently encourage someone to find love again after the loss of a partner.

There were a few notes that did not chime with me, like the note “For Professionals” recommending – inter alia – the use of essential oils in session (albeit with a note about ensuring clients are not sensitive to smell). Only the other day I discussed with a therapist colleague how we were mystified when practitioners imposed incense or other scents on their working space and clients. However, that is a minor reservation in a tidal wave of positive responses to this thoughtful and useful work.

Like any good therapist, these cards are full of permission-giving and empathic liberation. Back with the theme of surprises, I did not expect to feel so disappointed when I realised I had read all the cards like a pile of increasingly familiar photos. Luckily, the tactile and tangible nature of these cards means that they will stay with me (and any reader). They will bring considerable comfort in loss, and may well spawn creative endeavours in their professional and lay users.

Authors Bio


Reviewed by Cheryl Livesey, UKCP-accredited integrative psychotherapist in private practice and owner of Renaissance Therapy Centre in Harborne, Birmingham, UK. Get in touch with Cheryl via her website or Twitter.

(As a translator of French and Spanish and someone who lived abroad for many years, Cheryl also has an interest in cross-cultural counselling and literary and creative aspects of therapy)

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