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There is No One Way to Grieve: Insights from Claudia Coenen, Grief Counselor and Author

image by Matthew Henry

What do you know about grief? Do you know how to help a bereaved person when they seek you out? It seems that most of us do not know the answer to this question in our personal lives, so when we encounter a grieving person in our therapy practices, we often don’t know what to do or say.

Let me introduce you to my new book, The Creative Toolkit for Working with Grief and Bereavement: A Practitioner’s Guide. Bereavement is something I know both professionally as a counselor and thanatologist and personally, as a widow. Everyone of us will experience grief many times and practitioners in the fields of mental health, education, medicine will inevitably encounter grieving individuals and families. Some of these people seek help not only from counselors but also from their nurses, doctors, teachers – even from their fitness instructors or massage therapists.

In conversation with colleagues, I have been surprised to discover that training programs usually do not include much information on current grief research models. If you are lucky, perhaps you have been exposed to the Five Stage Model of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, put forth 50 years ago. This model is a relevant one but has been misunderstood – the “stages” were actually developed through working with dying patients and later applied to bereavement. While many people do experience anger, denial, etc, the idea that these stages constitute a linear way to grieve is not at all what Kubler-Ross was suggesting. Yet the idea that this is the proper way to grieve has solidified in medical and therapy fields as well as in popular culture. In fact, there are no stages of grief nor is there any one correct way to grieve.

Here is an example of what can happen when a practitioner is not informed about this crucial part of life and its effect on emotional and mental health. A young woman came to my office after the death of her mother from cancer. A nurse herself, she was looking for assistance to alleviate the suffering she was experiencing. Her emotions felt unstable, she was having difficulty sleeping and concentrating at work. She was flooded with visions of her mother’s last moments, replaying the scene over and over in her mind. Her doctor thought she should take anti-depressants, but she knew that her distress was not depression. She went to a psychotherapist who, after listening to her story, said, “Well, I really don’t know anything about grief.” The young woman felt dismissed by this encounter and I was puzzled that the therapist had not attempted to learn more on her own.

In the past fifty years, academics, therapists and researchers have developed a huge body of evidence into bereavement, including its relationship to attachment theory, meaning making and its grounding in relationships. Despite the increase and acceptance of effective palliative, hospice and bereavement care, most professionals remain uninformed. Books, studies, academic papers, lectures and conferences on bereavement are available but generally speaking, most people just don’t want to talk about it. Yet we must; we will suffer the death of people in our lives and we may be called upon to help their survivors.

This is why I wrote The Creative Toolkit for Working with Grief and Bereavement: A Practitioner’s Guide. Directed at practitioners of all kinds, including those non-professionals who may be facilitating peer support groups, the first half of the Toolkit contains a brief history of bereavement theory including its link to attachment. Paying attention to one’s own grief history and how to generate compassionate presence is also in this first part. Then I offer an overview of seven of my favorite grief models, including meaning-making, the dual process model, mindfulness, companioning and the importance of creativity and somatic awareness in bereavement. I also include my own take on the lenses of grief, such as the active lens, emotional lens and transformational lens.

The second part of The Creative Toolkit contains 30 activity sheets which include cognitive, expressive and somatic activities as well as worksheets that ask the client to consider personal identity, their relationship with the person they are grieving as well as their own future selves. Each sheet has a guide for the practitioner to enable them to invite the client to engage with the worksheet. These activity sheets reflect the view that expressive modalities open pathways to understanding and healing which talk therapy alone does not. Using non-verbal techniques encourages deeper awareness into the experience of grief itself. Metaphor, color, collage and being in nature during grief connect the different realms of being, joining together the physical, emotional, spiritual which makes us whole. If living is a holistic experience, grief is one as well. By approaching grief creatively, we have an opportunity to repair what is broken, celebrate what has been lost and look towards learning how to live again.

Not all grief is caused by death. We know that people grieve when someone close to them dies. People feel bereft in other difficult life situations – we might grieve the loss of a job, moving to another part of town or to another country. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are experiencing grief as they are laid off from work, feel isolated from family and friends. We grieve the loss of normalcy and connections. For those who have relatives and friends who have died from COVID-19, grief is magnified by the lack of contact, the inability to participate in the rituals that help us mourn and celebrate the people we have lost.

I hope The Creative Toolkit for Working with Grief and Bereavement: A Practitioner’s Guide proves both educational and useful to anyone who will encounter grieving people in their work. It provides clear information on thanatology principles and practical tools to use.

'Offering a straightforward guide to bereavement models and therapeutic approaches, with photocopiable exercises and worksheets, The Creative Toolkit for Working with Grief and Bereavement is a valuable resource for information on grief and how to help grieving clients, and an invitation to explore creative possibilities for healing'. - Jessica Kingsley Publishers

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