The proper atmosphere for grief therapy should be a combination of warmth (gentleness) and structure (firmness). The mixture of these two, provides a safe place to express and analyze the difficult feelings surrounding loss. A feeling of safety is needed to help moderate the anxiety associated with sharing intense emotions. But learning also requires that a certain amount of anxiety be present. Too much and we cannot take in what is going on. Too little and motivation to learn may be absent.
The ground work for the atmosphere for grief therapy should include:
- Grief is a normal process and although some of the symptoms mimic those of mental illness, the two processes are not the same.
- It is difficult to grieve for many reasons including that friends and relatives discourage the expression of feelings, and current social values oppose the expression of feelings. Mourning used to be a clear and visible process in all religions. Generally, as people have moved away from religion, grieving has become less publicly expressed. Society is more mobile and more fragmented. Often, transient families such as those with corporate executives who move every few years and/or military families have become detached from their extended families and lack an intimate supportive network which would tolerate their responses to stress.
- Maladaptive responses to the stress of a loss are common. Studies clearly show that grieving people are more prone to serious illness, family breakup, acting out through law breaking or other problematic behavior, reduced performance at school or work, and survivors are even more likely to die themselves. For example, it is not uncommon for elderly surviving spouses to die shortly after their mate. There is an increased incidence of suicide in survivors of suicides.
- What we have to offer as an antidote to the above. People who are able to express their wide-ranging and intense feelings as early as possible, and who are able to grow through a mourning process and not cut it short are most likely to come out healthier and with as little dysfunction as possible. Thus, the earlier and more intensely feelings are expressed, shared, and examined, the more constructive may be the outcome. This is our basic assumption.
- Hopefully, as the therapy proceeds within a nurturing and supportive environment, exploration and processing of feelings will increase. Sometimes it is necessary to help people get unblocked. One way to do this is to use an evocative movie. For example, in our grief recovery therapy group at the Center for Grief Recovery, we have used a film entitled, “Where is Dead?” This 19 minute Encyclopedia Brittanica film never fails to stir up deep feelings, which then can be utilized in subsequent discussions. The film, made in collaboration with Maria Piers, is psychologically correct in the phases of mourning and the way in which children should be supported after a loss. It teaches by showing us a good example. However, it is too good and we need to point out that no one in real life can live up to this standard. The example should be a goal to reach for rather than one that is possible to obtain. Since this film is expressly about a young child who loses a brother, you may want to find a different film or vehicle for unblocking feelings. However, we have used “Where is Dead” as a discussion starter with many types of clients and almost everyone who sees it, ends up in tears. The freeing up of deep-seated emotions after the film is a unique opportunity to begin working through some of the blocked feelings that can exist.