Death is on the brain lately. Sounds cheerful, right? Makes you really want to keep reading, doesn’t it? It should. It happens to all of us. I was really lucky. My first experience with death, the one where I really got it, happened when I was 23. I had that many good years before putting together the reality that sometimes people we love leave us and never come back. It seems to have accelerated somewhat since then.
Of course some of that is simply being in the job we are all in. When you meet with hurting people on a regular basis, you are going to encounter death. And what is sometimes harder, when you are the counselor, people expect you to have answers about it!
Is there an answer for death?
In the abstract: yes. Circle of life. Survival of the fittest. Room for the next generation. All things must come to an end. Moving on to eternal reward.
But is there an answer that satisfies?
Understanding death in the abstract has its’ own rewards. I find my faith a great comfort when thinking about the loss of a loved one. It is comforting to know I will see them again and that they are in a better place.
But our clients (and we ourselves) need an answer as to what to do about it now. So far, I’ve only found one thing that does that. That thing is honoring the person that’s gone on.
Rituals are important in any culture. They mark solemn occasions, both for the persons participating and for others who witness them. Rituals honoring the deceased have varied from those I can understand (wearing black) and those I would not recommend (throwing widows on their husband’s funeral pyre). But the universal theme seems to be that there’s something in us that calls out for action when we lose someone we love.
Death makes us feel helpless (because we are). We want to be able to do something about it. Truly, we want to fight it.
We all know there’s no point in directly fighting death. Before, yes, after, no. But we can fight the effects. Death is a surgical strike. It takes a scalpel and cuts a person out of a family, a relationship, a future. We can fight the effect of that loss by taking the time to say through our actions: hey, this person mattered. They taught me something. They gave me something. They enriched my life.
I encourage my clients to develop a personal goal that honors the person they have lost. To some, it has been to start a charity in that person’s name. For others, it has been the impetus to breakthrough a blockage in their life and live it more fully. For other clients it might be to wear something of this person’s on a regular basis: a piece of jewelry, or even a tattoo.
I have seen something heal when a grieving person is directed to “do” something about their loss. It is giving them back the power that was taken away when the person they loved died. No, they don’t have control over death. But they do have control over memory, over legacy.
Narrative therapy finds value in allowing those who have lost someone to tell their story. I believe that helping your client find an action that corresponds with their story is another way of doing this. (“Mom was so generous with her money. I want to sponsor a child in need.”) Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, has a powerful example of a person grieving the death of his wife, suddenly freed from some of this burden by realizing that by him mourning his wife’s death, he was freeing her from grief if the situation had been reversed and he had gone first. Logotherapy encourages practitioners to help their clients find meaning in their suffering. Assigning a task, an action that the client can complete, often helps this goal.
I am not putting myself on the same level as the people who developed narrative and logotherapy. But giving your client a focus is something I have found to be helpful, and something I wanted to share. Sometimes the most frustrating thing about someone dying is that you can’t “do” anything about it. I have to admit, “doing something” doesn’t fix it. But sometimes it helps.
I would love also to hear if anyone else has seen or experienced a strategy for coping with death that has worked for them. As I have said, it seems to be in my orbit right now, and I am interpreting that as a reason to explore and share new ways to handle it.
At least, that’s what I’m going to do about it.
Stephanie Ann Adams is a counselor who believes in the ability of the mind to understand and change behaviors, and in each person’s power to create the life they want. Her blog can be found at www.sassynsane.blogspot.com.