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Grief is part of the essential fabric of humanity


Recently, you recommended finding a good grief counselor to one of your readers. How do we find someone like you and not someone like I saw? Two weeks after my husband’s death, I was sent by my primary care doctor to see the grief counselor at my HMO. When I tried to choke out words to tell her how scared and sad I was feeling, she jumped up, went over to her tote bag and pulled out a CD, saying, “This is what you need. It will help you with all your sadness and fears. Just turn it on by your bed as you are going to sleep.” Did she really think I was going to listen to a CD in my sleep without knowing what’s on it? She said, “At first you’ll hear celestial music, followed by a lovely celestial voice.” She would introduce herself as my Fairy Godmother and tell me she was there to take away all my fears and replace them with peace and happiness. I swear on a stack of C notes that is exactly what she said.

The next 15 minutes were taken up with advice about slamming pillows and screaming in the shower. (I think she reads Redbook.) How can she be so ignorant about grief? I made it to my car before I laughed so hard I cried. Then cried even harder because (my husband) wasn’t there to support me, and I still didn’t have any help. Now I knew I had to counsel and guide myself through this alone.

I read anything I could on grief. I think after 66 years, my B.S. meter is pretty accurate, and a lot of what I read made it buzz like a Geiger counter in a uranium mine. But some of those words I read were real. They spoke to me and are now mine to keep. I use your book. It has been a great help.

It would be wonderful to have a What-to-Expect book about grief. I think I am starting to rebuild some of the missing parts of me, too. No idea at all how to do it, but I am in charge anyway.

— P.H., Las Vegas

I’m not going to mince words here: When the subject turns to bereavement, grief and loss, this culture is developmentally disabled. It is simply astounding. A vacuous, collective ego defense, guarding the whole tribe from the work of being human. At once pathetic and dumbstruck disturbing.

I see it individually. I see it corporately (for example, in modern institutional religion.) I see it clinically, as per the examples that you have provided, P.H. To this day, it is still rare for me to meet a graduating counseling student who took (let alone was required to take) a specific course of training in clinical bereavement theory and intervention. Stories like yours abound: well-meaning professional therapists who nonetheless patronize us with pseudo-mystic, pop-guru curriculums.

Grief isn’t helped like that. It’s not an intellectual process. When I work with practicum students and interns, this is my relentless message: The only way to heal grief is to grieve. Period. The end. Quality grief therapy creates that space, that context of safety, support, advocacy and encouragement wherein a human being can suffer meaningfully. Let their heart break. Do the dying that is theirs to do. Your job is NOT to help people “feel better.” Your job is to help them feel awful. So that they can heal. And someday remember how to feel good again.

A book? There is such a book. Thus far, in my journey on this planet, nothing has changed my opinion that the best book I’ve ever read on grief is “Life After Loss” by Bob Deits. Bob gets it. He knows. And his book is remarkable.

Yes, P.H. In our modern world, men and women and their families often find themselves making it up as they go along. They find no real resources in their sadness.

It’s so strange to me. Life has always contained loss. Suffering. Love has always walked hand in hand with tragedy. Why, then, does this experience fall on us moderns as novelty? Surprise. An interruption of our lives. As opposed to a regular, predictable, expected inbreaking of life as life is. Why are we, as a tribe, so ill-equipped for this mundane experience called grief?

I don’t know how or when we lost our grip on this essential fabric of the human experience. But we did. And your story is more common than not.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or skalas@reviewjournal.com.