Jennifer Blough, LPC, CFT, CPLGRS, is the owner of Deepwater Counseling in Ypsilanti, Michigan. In addition to other counseling services, she specializes in helping people deal with grief and loss, compassion fatigue, and pet loss. We recently reached out to her to discuss how people deal with the trauma of loss.
As a specialist in grief, you speak with many individuals who are struggling after loss. Can you talk a little about the different forms of grief that you often see patients display? Is one anymore debilitating than another (or do they all have their own intricacies)?
The only “wrong” way to grieve is to not grieve at all. I have had patients that stuff their emotions down for years and then one day, the dam breaks. Grief does not just go away if you ignore it. The only way out is through.
But there are certain types of grief that can be more debilitating than others. For example, disenfranchised grief is a type of bereavement that is not widely accepted – or is even stigmatized – in our society and therefore can cause the mourner distress because he or she feels like they can’t openly express their grief, the relationship they had with the deceased is not seen as important, or that their grief is somehow not valid in society’s eyes. Examples can include the death of a pet, death by suicide, miscarriage or stillbirth, or death of a same-sex partner.
Some people can experience complicated grief, which is characterized by prolonged mourning that causes significant impairment, such as the inability to accept the loss, extreme depression and feelings of hopelessness, debilitating symptoms such as not being able to get out of bed, substance abuse, or even thoughts of suicide. Complicated grief can be caused by a number of factors, including disenfranchised or unresolved grief, a history of personal trauma, mental illness, your personality/temperament, and/or your current life circumstances.
What do people get wrong about grief?
In Western culture, especially, we tend to put an arbitrary number, one year for example, on how long people are “allowed” to grieve. The truth is that grief is unique to us all. Often times, the depth of grief reflects the depth of the bond you had with your loved one.
What advice do you offer to patients that can’t seem to “shake” their sorrow despite an extended stretch of time since their loved one’s passing?
It’s important to remember that grief is a form of trauma, and that as the brain tries to process this trauma, you will feel a variety of painful, and often, confusing emotions. Death makes us question our priorities and our own purpose in life, it makes us face our own mortality, and it turns our worlds upside down. We have to allow time for the brain to make sense of that. But if you find that your grief is debilitating, it is often helpful to seek the help of a grief counselor who can help you work through the painful process of grieving and provide referrals to other specialists who can provide complementary support, such as a physician for medication, a massage therapist to help facilitate the release of trauma from the body, or a local support group.
Do you suggest that clients join a support group while simultaneously employing your services? How beneficial do you find such groups to be?
Some people can benefit from a grief support group, but this is a very personal decision. While many people find comfort and validity being with others going through a similar experience, some people may feel very uncomfortable and vulnerable in a group setting. The most important thing is to find what works best for you.
There’s a lot of conflicting opinions about the “five stages of grief” – denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. Where do you stand?
While there are different schools of thought on the classic “five stages of grief” model, I have found it to be fairly accurate. With that said, grief does not exist in a nice, neat little package. It’s not a linear process; it’s more of a roller coaster of emotions and it’s common for people to bounce back and forth from stage to stage. So it’s not like you complete the anger stage and move on. You can ping-pong from anger to sorrow to denial to feeling fine – all in one day!
Is there a stage or experiential emotion that is absent from the list?
Many grief counselors would argue that guilt is often a pervasive emotion that can accompany grief. It’s often times this guilt that prolongs the grief process and hinders people from moving through the stages in a healthy way and ultimately reaching acceptance.
Is there any way to prepare for these stages of grief, or is it best to just address them as they materialize?
I think having a basic knowledge of what to expect can be helpful in the sense that people realize that what they are experiencing is normal, natural, and healthy. It certainly doesn’t take away the pain, but it can normalize the process.
If someone cannot regularly meet with a psychologist for some reason (budget, location, etc.), what resources would you suggest?
There are many support groups available at a low, or even no cost, and can be found via an Internet search or by contacting your local hospital. For people who are limited by location or do not feel comfortable within a group setting, online support groups are becoming more popular.
For those who would prefer to speak to a mental health professional one-on-one but finances are a barrier, openpathcollective.org is a psychotherapy collective that offers counseling at significant sliding scale rates to those who are uninsured or cannot afford to pay out-of-pocket full fees. More and more counselors these days are also offering distance, or web-based, counseling. Be sure to look for someone in your state, as licensing boards prohibit counseling across state lines.
Outside of counseling or support groups, are there activities or certain methodologies that you suggest to help process grief? Have you found a methodology/activity that works better than others, or is it really a case-by-case basis?
Because grief is such a unique process, it’s important to honor your own grief in a way that feels comfortable for you. Some people need to be around others and talk it through; others may seek solitude and grieve in private. It is important to take care of yourself because grieving really robs the mind, body, and soul of energy. That means drinking a lot of water, especially if you’ve been crying a lot; eating healthy meals; establishing boundaries so that you’re not taking on too much; and so on.
If you don’t mind sharing, have you experienced grief within your own life? How did you address your feelings?
I experienced a very severe type of disenfranchised/complicated grief about six years ago which led to severe depression. That experience eventually led me to become a therapist specializing in grief and loss. I experienced another lost on Labor Day of this year and because I am now more educated about grief, I knew how to navigate the process in a much more healthy way. It is still painful, but I talk about it openly with people who are supportive. I make sure to take care of myself on multiple levels – physical, emotional, social, spiritual, etc. And I really try to allow myself the space to feel all the emotions associated with the loss, whether it’s tears of sorrow or laughter from happy memories.
Many thanks to Jennifer Blough for sharing her insights on addressing grief and loss. If you are in Michigan and would like to contact her, please visit her website to find her contact information or to leave a message.