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Reflections on loss

My siblings and I following our fathers burial.

Loss is an intrinsic part of being a human being. It is often a painful experience for us irrespective of the form that it takes. Loss can be connected to relationships, jobs, pets and really just about anything in our lives. The biggest, most fearful loss we will each inevitably face is the death of those we love. It doesn't matter if it is sudden or drawn out... no matter how we might 'prepare' we are never 'ready' for it. Similarly, as a society and as individuals we are unsure and uncomfortable as we attempt to deal with grief/losses experienced by others.

For me, loss is almost 'an old friend' due to my very long familiarity with it and particularly in that most profound loss - the death of loved ones. As we age it seems that loss and grief become far too regular our lives, especially as we have navigated this pandemic. Some of the work I do in community has been around supporting families and communities through the death of loved ones. I have sat with those making their transition back to the Spirit World and it has been in turns, powerful, beautiful, sorrowful and difficult. Each time has impacted me differently, each time I have learned something new, and each time I have shifted my own relationship with grief/loss.

While completing my degree to become a Registered psychotherapist, I noted that many of my colleagues were most concerned with encountering grief/loss with their clients. The concern was primarily rooted in our societal discomfort with grief/loss and of inadvertently causing harm/increasing distress. It demonstrated great insight into the potential for countertransference which simply then contributed again to the fear of 'doing harm'. It led me to reflect upon how we might, as therapists, shift this fear to benefit the work that we do since we know it to be inevitable that our clients will bring grief/loss 'into the room'.

The grief/loss that our clients may bring to us provides us with a perfect opportunity to bring our humanity fully into the room along with those thorny issues of countertransference. We will all intrinsically react to another's grief with some discomfort that is linked to our own experience of grief/loss whether we are therapists or not. That is not the issue many might think it is - rather, it is a brilliant opportunity for self-awareness, growth and solidifying the therapeutic alliance.

Step cautiously though ... as it is a brilliant opportunity only if we have done our own reflection on grief/loss generally as well as a thorough examination of our own experiences. We can accomplish this by having more conversations, as therapists and in 'mixed company' about grief/loss. We may also accomplish this through work with our own therapists and supervisors.

It is a brilliant opportunity if we have learned to be centred in the midst of their distress and simply hold the space - as we are trained to do in a myriad of situations. We bring our humanity into the room when, rather than reacting to our own discomfort (or countertransference) by soothing the client to 'reduce distress' (whose distress are we responding to really?), we provide space for the client to fully express their grief in whatever way makes sense to them. Relating to the client through our own experience is inevitable, so let us make use of this rather than push it away in fear.

We can only do that in this situation if we understand that grief/loss is a messy business that doesn't occur in neatly delineated steps (Buh-bye Kubler-Ross). We also need to understand that grief responses are tied to culture, religion and the whole of the individual's experiences to that point and beyond. We need to understand as therapists, that depending upon the specific loss that leads to a grief response, there are also wider systemic, colonial and other issues that contribute to that response. We need to understand, that as therapists, we may be the sole place where our clients feel they can truly express their grief.

I have learned to become a sort of comfortable with the grief/loss of others. I feel the pain and sorrow, but I no longer feel uncomfortable in its midst. I sometimes feel exhausted by the extent of the grief/loss of the last few years. I often feel frustrated that despite this common human experience, our society and our profession continue to struggle with how to respond to grief/loss. I have found comfort in the 'gifts' of grief which have taught me about the profundity of love/connection, trust in spirit and a better understanding of how we connect as human beings.

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