Grief and Narrative Therapy

In conceptualising and dealing with grief in the Western world, we have bought into concepts that are neither helpful, nor terribly well backed by experience. The book, The Other Side of Sadness, notes that our views of grief are distorted by input like Freud’s discussion of “grief work” (not researched, but something Sigmund considered reasonable in relation to a topic he only briefly considered) and the K├╝bler-Ross model, also known as the five stages of grief (posited by someone who had worked with terminally ill patients, NOT those who were left behind to grieve). These concepts have become cornerstones of working with those grieving.

What is wrong with having poorly considered concepts as the basis of working with people at their most vulnerable? Many people defer to those they consider “professionals” and when in distress, the views of the therapist can have considerable impact on the client’s ability to survive and thrive (I won’t digress into a discussion of the therapeutic power relationship here). In The Other Side of Sadness, Bonanno argues for renewed consideration of the resiliency of those in grief and in their abilities to come out the other side – often showing little compliance with the stages of grief. I have been reading this book and then I began to read about grief work in Narrative Therapy, as I prepare for my course at the Dulwich Centre in Adelaide this month.

In Chapter 8, “Saying Hello Again When We Have Lost Someone We Love” from the book Retelling the stories of our lives: Everyday narrative therapy to draw inspiration and transform experience (accessed 02 November 2019 at https://dulwichcentre.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Saying-hullo-chapter-from-the-book-Retelling-the-Stories-of-our-Lives-by-David-Denborough-2.pdf), David Denborough discusses an approach to grief that does not center on “moving on” or working through stages of grief:

Narrative Therapy and grief counselling
Narrative Therapy and grief counselling

Rather than the Western norm of adjusting to life without the loved one, there are other options for dealing with the pain of separation and loss. In some cultures, our ancestors remain with us in some way. Many Western therapists would argue that moving on is “healthy” and that a person can get “stuck” in grief if the loved one is not assigned a place in the past. The Narrative approach to grief therapy promoted by Denborough (quoting Narrative Therapy founder Michael White) looks for ways to remember the relationship in a positive way, allowing yourself to imagine the love the other person had for you. Pushing your loved one and memories of them into the “past” can mean for some a dismissal of who they were.

There is not only one way to grieve and dominant Western approaches fuelled by armchair discussions of Freud and tidy stages do not fit either the progress or needs of many who have struggled with the loss of a loved one. If you are struggling with the loss of someone close to you, sometimes it helps to remember the joys you shared, their feelings for you and other positive experiences. Not only can these make your loss more bearable, but on a physiological level, these positive emotions can stimulate areas of your brain that are part of your compassionate mind (see The Compassionate Mind, by Paul Gilbert, for discussions of stimulating the compassion centres of the brain).

Here’s to finding more compassionate and loving ways to progress through grief!

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