My mother passed away on a warm evening late last May. She left this earth in the manner of her choice; at home, surrounded by her loving family. My beautiful mom – my father’s wife of sixty-two years and my daughter’s grandma - was gone.
I had poured over book upon book explaining and deconstructing the ways in which the death of a parent can affect even an adult child, trying to prepare myself for the loss. The exercise helped only marginally. I had always heard people say, “You never know what it is like until it happens to you,” in regard to many life events, including losing a parent. I didn’t know how true this was until this past May. By the end of August I found myself as a member of a bereavement group sponsored by Westchester Hospice and Palliative Care – the organization whose support allowed my mom’s last days to be comfortable and dignified.
It is a unique experience to be a member of a therapy group and also a counselor in training. While in the bereavement group I found myself wanting to experience it all simply as a client, but the student in me couldn’t help but also observe through a counseling lens. Our facilitator, a present and compassionate man, ran the group in a person-centered fashion which was a learning experience for me as I had never experienced this type of counseling before.
There was no pressure to discuss feelings or to follow any structure. Members were often silent – for long periods of time – until one of us spoke. This experience along with learning about person-centered therapy in graduate school made me wonder if I possess the patience, genuineness, and most of all the ability to let go of control, that this approach requires.
As a first year grad student I saw a video of Garry Landreth, the famous play therapist, working with a boy in a client-centered play therapy session. Landreth allowed his young client, with few safety exceptions, use whatever toys he wanted in whatever way he chose. As a first year student, I was uncomfortable with this. Was he going to let this boy do just anything? Surely he was going to impose some type of restriction on him! Landreth did neither. The session concluded with the boy having had the play therapy experience and the therapist being present for him and keenly observing. Except for the initiation and conclusion of the session it was completely void of therapist direction.
These experiences have left me intrigued by the person-centered approach. Could I let go completely and meet my client where she is at the beginning of each session? I certainly felt the power of the approach in my bereavement group experience and I look forward to practicing it in my training.
One thing is for sure, the basic tenets of this approach are essential to all counseling theories: These are the core ingredients in a helping relationship - empathy, genuineness and congruence are the stuff that counseling is made of.
Susan Jennifer Polese is a counselor in training at Western Connecticut State University and a freelance writer.