As I draw nearer to retirement from state service, the memories about the colleagues whose association I have valued and the patients who have crossed my path during the past 27 years have increased in frequency. I have also begun to reflect on the damage that well-meaning human service professionals can do to clients who are in the early stages of trauma simply through the interventions that they use.
Since my daughter Jeannine’s death on 3/1/03 at the age of 18, I have become more sensitive to the interventions used with grieving clients that may unintentionally undermine as oppose to validate their pain. Before I became a parent who experienced the death of a child, I know that I conducted many of these same interventions. I recall in particular, using a stages of grief handout to try to help patients identify where they were or should be in their grief journey.
Needless to say, the circular nature of my own grief journey after Jeannine’s death invalidated stage theory as a way to explain my experience or help others conceptualize their own. So I don’t use it anymore to work with grieving clients. My approaches now are more intuitive and dictated by the needs of the client.
One of the discoveries that I have made in working with chemically dependent clients, especially in the last 9+ years of my career, is that they have experienced numerous losses that are both death and non-death related. From my perception, it would be damaging in the early stages of the client/counselor relationship to suggest to a grieving client (chemically dependent or not) that their previous experience with loss will by itself, make it easier to deal with their present loss.
Every loss has its own unique set of challenges that are created by the cause of death, the stigma associated with cause of death (i.e. suicide), and the status of the relationship that the client had with their loved one, prior to their death. Plus the client’s pain may also be intensified because of the connections that he/she discovers between the person whose loss he/she is currently grieving and the individuals who predeceased that person. Finally to state that previous experience with loss will make their current struggle with loss easier, assumes that the client has had a prior history of successfully negotiating grief. What if that wasn’t the case?
From my perspective, it would be better to be present for the client as they are describing the pain and challenges of their present loss and asking them to identify the strengths they developed from their previous experiences, that will serve them well in the present.
Framing the intervention in this manner validates the client’s present pain while allowing them to identify strengths from their past experiences. So if you are a human service professional working with grieving clients, do not assume strength, ask them to discover what those strengths are. Once a client owns their power, they will be empowered.
Updated: April 9, 2015