Grief counseling has a specific character in that it is essentially focused on assisting the griever in recognizing, reacting to, and integrating loss(es). However, while it is distinct in its nature and course, grief counseling often intersects with traditional psychotherapy. The client’s loss is inextricably woven into the fabric of her life. Therefore, the meaning of the loss(es) has direct relevance to ongoing relationships, causes, struggles, and problems–all of which is undeniably the stuff of any quality psychotherapy. The following list of metaphors has been useful to many clients in grief counseling who have sustained a profound loss experience. At times, metaphors are the most potent form of empathy as they convey through tone and image the depth and breadth of grief and mourning. Metaphors have the unique character of capturing both extremely personal as well as universal aspects of human experience. In this way, they contain and reassure the mourner in ways plain everyday language cannot and help bridge the work of grief counseling and traditional psychotherapy.

The Big Impossible

Attempts to communicate the incomprehensible dimensions of death and loss; the elusive nature of any sense or meaning; the limits imposed by corporeal existence; the hard existential reality of permanent separation that is caused by death that cannot be physically bridged.

The Canyon

Attempts to convey the experience of emptiness and vast void within; a container that reveals history in its finer details, and as such belies total emptiness. Extend the metaphor to suggest the lasting power of memory or the “water” of shared experiences that shaped the canyon and has left marks along its walls. The mourner is the canyon.

Torn Cloth

Attempts to communicate the rending quality of separation; the ripping of one’s soul as it has been in connection to and intertwined with the soul of another.

Looking Up

Attempts to convey that in grief one’s vision is “locked on the feet” as they haltingly try to step forward. Eventually, however, in small and hardly perceptible increments, other aspects of the experience become clearer; the eyes begin to perceive differently; perhaps see more than merely the feet, and begin to include other details like the wider environment, and might even begin to expand to the “horizon.”

Reflexive Fortification

Attempts to convey how the pain and dread associated with the trauma of separation evokes powerful self-preservational motives and forces. These automatic protective mechanisms are biopsychological. Shock, numbness, protest, and a host of defensive maneuvers are powerful and convincing.

By David Fireman, LCSW