by Jenni Tompkins MSc

A universal life experience

As a psychotherapist, I think it’s fairly common for us to have areas of specialism, or to work in sectors that we find particularly interesting. Sometimes that will be based on the therapist’s own life experience, but not always.

It occurred to me early on that there is one thing that is going to happen to everyone at some point in their lives. Not everyone will experience abuse or neglect. Some people won’t go through relationship breakdowns, be discriminated against or experience mental health issues.

But everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from, will experience a bereavement.

I’ve long thought it the only universal life experience – none of us will get out alive, after all. So, I wanted to know more about it, not just from a personal perspective, but how to work with other people when they have experienced the death of a loved one.

I didn’t feel sad all the time

My grandparents died a couple of weeks apart whilst I was training to be a psychotherapist. It was a difficult time, and one of those times where a greater sense of self-awareness was by no means a comfortable thing. I was experiencing my own grief, but also keeping a close eye on my family members in theirs. I wanted to know that they were ok, and that they were coping. One of the things I noticed was that I didn’t feel sad all the time.

Sometimes I felt relieved. Sometimes I forgot for a while, and then felt guilty for forgetting and forced myself to feel sad again. At other times I didn’t feel anything at all, and that was confusing because I should feel something, right? Wrong, as it turns out. The absence of feeling is as much a feeling as anything else. But I felt guilty about that too.

Grief is not just one thing

Another thing I noticed was how all-encompassing the experience can be. Every area of life is affected – work, personal relationships, familial relationships, my own thoughts and feelings (or lack of them). Grief is not just one thing; it can be wide ranging and unexpected.

I observed similar experiences when I started working at one of my placement organisations, a hospice in the midlands. I worked with people who had experienced a bereavement, but also those impacted by life limiting illness, either their own or that of a loved one.

I think the first lesson I learned in this work is to approach every client with an open mind and be willing to follow them through whatever came up. If I had expectations, or some idea where we were going, I was always wrong. It was more helpful to follow the client, as Alice followed the white rabbit, and just be with whatever arose. A simple lesson, perhaps, but an important one. I also found it helpful to understand some of what others had written about grief.

Theory of grief

The theory of grief that most people know about is the Kubler-Ross ‘stages’ theory, in which a grieving person will go from one stage to the next, then come out the other side, presumably back to normal.

Having worked with many people who have experienced a bereavement, I have never observed their experiences to match this theory.

Grief is frequently messy and complicated, and rarely follows a pattern as strictly as this. But because this one is well-known, it can lead people to feel as though they are ‘doing it wrong’ if they don’t fit this mould, make them feel even worse because there must be something wrong with them.

More recent ideas such as the ‘dual-process model’ seem to have a more realistic view of the actual experience of grief, simply because there is no set pattern to follow, no steps to go through, and definitely no time limit. This way of looking at bereavement can help some clients to accept that they are not broken or abnormal, that their emotional swings are part of the process of grief work.

Other theories such as the idea of ‘continuing bonds’, look at how a bereaved person can incorporate those bonds they shared with their loved one into their lives moving forward, they don’t have to leave them behind, and they certainly don’t have to forget them.

There are other theories, and I’ve found it useful to share these with clients on occasion, in the hope that we can work through the feelings that come up, accepting all of it as part of the process.

Working with complex trauma

Some bereavements are more complex than others. For instance, what if the person who died was abusive? What about when there are unanswered and now unanswerable questions to work through, such as after someone has taken their own life? How about the trauma of a murder? For me, the most challenging bereavements are when working with a parent who has lost their child.

In all complex bereavements though, there is little comfort I can offer beyond a non-judgemental, empathic ear. It is also helpful that I am not personally involved – a client does not need to worry about upsetting me, they can say whatever they need to with no fear of consequences.

I will hear it all and be whatever they need me to be in the moment, whether that is sounding board, voice of reason, challenger, or simply a fellow human who knows what it is to feel pain. Because as challenging as all this is to work with, that’s what it comes down to – a person in pain. No matter the circumstances, we can always work with that.

Jenni Tompkins MSc

Jenni is a person-centred and experiential psychotherapist, with extensive experience working alongside the bereaved