Monday, January 10, 2022

In Grief: Finding Support On A Message Board

A reader writes: I am a university student enrolled in a Theories of Personality course. I am contacting you because you focus on counseling that pertains to grief and loss, and have a message board (of which I could not get beyond 2 posts without reaching for the tissues) as part of your work. I also see that you have been involved with Hospice. I have been on the receiving end of that organization's services a few times and consider the people involved to be damn near angelic. I have no idea whether they realize just how strongly they affect the families that they are involved with. Right now my dad and my aunt are being assisted by hospice and without that service, and the humanity of the aides, nurses, and counselors, none of us could cope. Hospice becomes like extended family, really. I am presently doing research for a term paper on therapy having to do with coping with depression, grief and loss. As part of my research, I am tasked with pursuing information from practitioners in the counseling field. Could you be so kind as to answer some questions for me?

First, many people consider the Internet (and computers in general) to be impersonal and yet you have a grief counseling message board, on which people pour out such extreme pain and personal detail for all the world to read. Do you think that involvement in this type of therapy appeals only to a certain personality type?

My response: First, I don’t consider participation in my Grief Healing Discussion Groups to be a type of therapy, although I certainly think it is therapeutic for those who use it. You will note that most of the interaction that occurs there is between and among fellow grievers. Occasionally I will respond to someone myself, but only if I consider their need to require professional intervention and I want to urge that person to seek professional help. I also will post a response when I see an opportunity to teach others something about grief that’s not been addressed elsewhere on the Board or on other pages on my Grief Healing website and blog

As to the type of personality attracted to a message board on the Internet, that is a question that is certainly worthy of further study; I can only give you my own personal observations and opinions. That said, I think what attracts people to this mode of communicating their innermost feelings in such a public forum is the safety and anonymity that a message board provides. It’s not unlike writing in a journal, in the sense that you need not care about spelling, grammar, etc. since no one knows who you are anyway (unless you choose to reveal your identity for whatever reason. Note that some folks leave their e-mail addresses and invite others to contact them.) 

I also think the fact that these writers usually are in an acute state of grief is a major factor in their willingness to pour out their pain so vividly. They are in crisis, they are vulnerable, they are very much in need of someone, anyone, to “listen” to them. Their feelings of grief demand expression and, since they’re already the sort of folks who “surf the Net”, this medium is readily available to them. Like a journal, the Board is always there, 24 hours a day, free of charge and ready to “listen” without judgment and without reproach. I also think reading other visitors’ messages encourages free and open expression of such feelings. It is in effect a virtual support group where visitors discover that many, many others are reacting to the loss of their own loved ones (human or animal!) in a very similar fashion.  Thus they feel less “crazy”, less alone in their pain and more willing to believe that, if someone else has felt this bad and survived, perhaps there is hope that somehow they will get through it, too. 

Second, based upon your experience and training, what are the most effective ways for people to cope with the stress of loss, and the weight of grief? Are there any universal techniques, or does it depend upon the "type of person" that the patient is?

First of all, grief is not a pathological condition; it is a normal reaction to losing a loved one. Although grief affects everyone differently (depending on personality, gender, stage of development, past experience with loss, relationship to the deceased, repertoire of coping skills, available support system, etc.) certain feelings and reactions are fairly universal and predictable. Because we know what normal grief looks like, we’re better able to spot those folks whose reactions fall outside the norm. I see grief counseling as very much an educational process. 

People who know what normal grief looks like will know better what to expect and how to evaluate their own reactions as they travel their own grief journey. They need to know that there is no time frame for grief, and that it can affect them in every dimension of their being: physical, emotional, cognitive, social and spiritual.  They need to know the “tasks of mourning” — what they must do to negotiate their way through their grief successfully (i.e. accept the reality of the loss; feel and work through the pain of grief while caring for the self; adjust to the environment in which the deceased is missing; convert the relationship with the deceased from one of physical presence to one of accurate memory; invest in a new life without the deceased and move on without forgetting the old; rebuild challenged faith or philosophy of life, and find meaning in the loss). Although we bereavement counselors can act as “coaches” along the way, how each person completes these tasks and in what time-frame is unique to the individual. And in many ways, this can be a life-long process. The bond that we have with a lost loved one can go on forever, just as long as we choose to keep their memory alive in our hearts and in our minds. 

Does your therapy differ based upon the subjects’ personality? And do certain "types of people" respond better than others to different types of therapy?

Not really. Certainly all the factors I mentioned above must be taken into account (age, gender, relationship to the deceased, etc.) but the basic principles remain the same.

I find it fascinating that some of the most poignant messages posted on my site are from men who have lost a cherished companion animal and have no place else to take their feelings. I think it goes back to the reasons I cited in response to your first question, above. Also, fewer men attend my in-person pet loss support groups than women, just as men are less likely to attend regular bereavement support groups. Most of the men I see for individual bereavement counseling are those who have lost a child or a spouse; rarely do men seek counseling following the death of a parent. Many of my women clients seek counseling following the death of their mothers. (Notice how many messages on my Board are posted from women whose mothers have died.) 

There are many different theories regarding personality and its influence on behavior and treatment. Which do you ascribe to in the course of your work?

I was trained in family systems theory, but since I’ve specialized in bereavement counseling I’m drawn to the wonderful work and writings of folks like Therese Rando, William Worden, Alan Wolfelt, Ken Doka, Phyllis Silverman, Tom Golden, Jim Fogarty and Earl Grollman. 

Afterword: Thank you very much for your response. During the latter part of the semester, my father’s heart problems became acute. The muscle was just too weak, and began to give up. Two weeks later he passed away. This paper was therapeutic beyond explanation. I am one of those thinker types... I also had long talks with the hospice aides, and the nurses and religious counselors that were sent to my family, and although most did not want to be mentioned, their inputs were valuable.

There are so many different paths to the same goals! To let go of the loss, or to embrace it. To delve into emotion or to actively repattern behavior. Very many ways to the same ends. For me, I choose to embrace the relationship I had with my father. He is there every time I adopt some stray and find them a home... or feel empathy toward another. He is there because these are the gifts he gave me. I miss his physical presence..his company and counsel, but am ever grateful for having had it all these years. As for the pain, well ...a bit at a time, and not in public. I have a boyfriend who will not allow me into depression, coworkers who are supportive, good friends who listen, and people who rely on me in my family...and for them I am thankful. I learned, through researching this paper, that there are an enormous amount of really great people out there, helping each other in so many ways. Like snowflakes, no 2 are alike. I have come to the conclusion that whatever works is the right way. Whatever the method that a person uses to find happiness, peace, and joy in this life, that is the right method, and if another does not agree, then they have to find "their" right way too...

Thank You for answering my questions, and thank you for your site. I am honored by both.

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