Gestalt Psychology

Grief Recovery

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This article concerns grief, the misconceptions surrounding it, and suggestions on how to work towards recovery. A helpful book I have read on the subject is The Grief Recovery Handbook, by John W. James and Russel Friedman. Many of their theoretical underpinnings fit well within a Gestalt psychology framework.  In my practice I have found Gestalt to be the best way to help clients overcome grief and will speak to its specific appropriateness later in the article.

James and Friedman define grief as “The conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior” (3).  This definition describes grief well because it can be applied to countless experiences in our lives that we do not normally relate to grief. However, they all share the same underlying components. Working with this definition frees the therapist and client to take into account all historical experiences in the client’s life where defining a change as grief would have allowed him to recognize it as a painful loss and work towards completion of the grieving process.

The griever has to deal with a change in the pattern to which he has grown comfortable. Such a change invariably elicits anxiety. Think about an elderly person who has lived in the same house for the last forty years.  She is forced to move into a retirement community and has to leave behind everything to which she has grown accustomed. It would be most accurate to say that her anxiety stems from a change in her relationship to her circumstances; the loss of physical possessions is secondary and this loss elicits grief precisely because it signifies a change in a familiar pattern or behavior. For example, grief is not a common feeling when we hear about the death of someone unknown to us on the news. Objectively, the loss of that life is identical to the loss of the life of someone close to us. The difference is in our relationship to that loss.

Think back from your childhood to now, and make a mental list of some of the transitional experiences you have had in your life that would fit the definition of grief. They might involve moving to a new town, the end of a romantic relationship, or getting fired from a job. Now try to decide if you even considered those experiences to be worthy of grieving over, and what your process was to overcome and move forward.  One of the variables I consider when working in a Gestalt framework is areas in a client’s life where he has become stuck due to not having worked through important emotional experiences in his life. In the case of symbolic  losses, examples abound where clients have not even allowed circumstances to enter conscious awareness. However, these losses can still have a profound effect on general functioning and on the way a person perceives and interacts with others. Just as important, if you have not adequately learned how to deal with the numerous symbolic losses that constitute grief experiences , how can you possibly hope to be equipped to do so if an emotionally devastating loss occurs, like the death of a child?

Let’s go back for a moment and look at another part of the definition of grief, that says  there are conflicting feelings about the change. In psychology we call conflicting feelings ambivalence. Having conflicting feelings, especially surrounding the death of a family member, is a difficult truth for a griever to accept.

Grief can be about the loss of all of the positive attributes you associate with that loss or the inability to have directly confronted negative attributes associated with the loss. It is different for every person. The more a griever is open to the totality of the experience, the more he will be able to authentically move through the process of grieving and his ultimate recovery. I want to stress that moving on is not the same as forgetting. Especially if your loss surrounds a loved one, do not worry that completing the grief process will mean forgetting your loved one. That is impossible since therapy is not concerned with erasing memories but instead bringing more variables into awareness. Moving forward will mean being able to remember your loved one accurately.

I would like to address some of the misconceptions about grief that are prevalent in our culture, and how these misconceptions relate to the important role therapy plays in helping grievers to recover. One is the idea that time will heal all wounds.  As James and Friedman write “We all know too many people whose hearts remain broken partly because they are waiting for time to heal them.  Sadly, they come to believe it’s true. People wait around for years with the idea that after a long enough period of time they will be better again” (32).

In the case of time healing all wounds, the truth is that time is a necessary factor but only insofar as the work of recovery is done within that time frame.  For example, you are reading this article right now.  Let’s imagine it takes you twenty minutes to read it. Would it be accurate to tell your friends that if they allow twenty minutes to elapse they will have read the article? It is the work of reading within that twenty minute time period that counts.

Another misconception about grief is that offering intellectual comments will help the griever cope. The Grief Recovery Handbook offers examples such as “Be thankful you have another son”, “She led a full life”, “You’ll find somebody else”, and “Be grateful you had him for so long” (44). These comments are not meant to be harsh, and you can probably think of a time where you said something along these lines trying to be helpful. They fall flat because they try to appeal to the intellect in a situation that is emotionally charged.  Our culture places more value on the intellect and we often treat our emotions as if they are second class citizens. One of the reasons a Gestalt approach is so helpful to grievers is that it focuses on how to bring emotions into awareness and experience them fully for what they are, providing a philosophical framework for how to use emotions to eventually gain greater intellectual awareness. Well-meaning friends skip the emotional part and go directly to the intellectual [art.

If you are grieving, a central existential concept can guide your journey in recovery, which is that nobody can truly understand what you are going through. While such an idea sounds lonely, it is also liberating. It hinges on the existential concept of loneliness. The fact is that your physiological makeup and inability to truly share experiences with anyone else after your umbilical chord is cut means that your thoughts, memories, and emotions are yours and yours alone.  We can use the same language to convey ideas, but our thoughts and ideas will always be influenced by our own unique experiences, so the associations we make will be different.  When someone tells you they know what you are going through, you can honestly respond that they do not.  Your grief is yours alone, and it is completely unique.  The upside of your existential condition is that responsibility for recovery also falls upon your shoulders, and you can use your unique experiences and abilities to help you towards that end.  You do not have to listen to advice or well-meaning comments from others and can follow your own emotional compass.

There are myriad concepts and experiments in the therapeutic encounter that can help you towards the end of finding and experiencing your authentic emotions. They all have in common the belief that your loss is emotional so the best way to help you is to focus on emotions.

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