Does everyone who suffers a significant loss need professional counselling?
I have a growing concern that the current emphasis on counselling and therapy has clouded the fact that loss is a normal, albeit difficult part of life, and that the grief it generates is not a disease to be cured, but a change to be accommodated?
Admittedly there are some situations where people need skilful professional counselling. Trauma, for example, leads to elevated stress hormones which “freeze” or paralyse the part of the brain that stores difficult memories. This renders the traumatized person incapable of simply “talking about it” because they are unable to access that blocked information in that part of the brain. People feel it, but are unable to identify or express what they are feeling “in the gut”. Specialized therapies are required to help people access that blocked information and “defuse” the traumatic.
So, we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water.
We certainly should acknowledge that grief and loss is a natural part of the human experience. It is not always a “mental health issue”. But at the same time we have to recognize that losing someone or something you care about is one of the most difficult events of life. We should normalize but not minimize.
Grief is a normal reaction to an unwelcome event, and people going through it need and deserve support. But grief is not a sickness or a disease, but a natural human reaction. So why do people insist on treating it like a mental health disorder?
The focus of my work is to say that while acknowledging that while some people need counselling for “complicated or traumatic” reactions to their loss, the majority of people need support, which can be provided by caring people. Grief must not become the exclusive territory of professionals. It occurs in the community, and can be supported and relieved by the community.
We need to shift the belief of trauma and loss as an “injury” or a “sickness” to a new paradigm where the ordeal is regarded as “impact”. That paradigm shift moves the conversation away from “what is wrong with you” to “what has happened to you”, away from the substance of the reaction to the significance of the event.
In other words, this new perspective reveals that it is what is able to develop from within the person that is the significant element in their recovery. Growth after any loss is not a direct result of loss itself. Rather it is related to how the individual struggles as a result of the trauma and loss they have experienced.
This enables us to return to a less “pathological” model of grief support, to where we state that “Change is never without struggle; but in the struggle we find strength.”
The two major determinates of success in post-traumatic growth are the “individual characteristics of the person” and “significant relationships with others”, while therapy and counselling techniques accounted for a mere 15% of determinates of success.
Judith Herman in her pioneer book: “Trauma and Recovery” stated: “Recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation. In their renewed connections with other people, the survivor re‐creates the psychological faculties that were damaged or deformed by the traumatic experience.”
The key elements in “significant relationships” where ones where people they felt “nurtured, liberated or validated”; experienced “genuine acceptance from others”; and where there was a relationship of trust based on an “assured reliance on the character, ability and strength of the helper.”
Both grief support and post traumatic growth is about instilling and maintaining a sense of hope that not only can a person who has experienced a loss survive, but they can also find a goal to strive for, discover reasons to go on and experience positive life changes as a result.
There are more than enough mental health issues and “disorders” out there to keep counselors busy. But if we try to put everyone under the same banner it actually becomes much harder to do the work that actually needs to get done.
If you agree with this kind of philosophy, stay tuned to GriefJourney.com. We plan in the next few months to provide resources … free of charge … that will both enable grieving people to find the support they need, and empower caring individuals to provide helpful support to guide them in that process.